Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – A new Camaro to drive, a house party to bring in the dawn and hundreds of congratulatory messages to answer on social media – including one from PGA legend Jack Nicklaus. It’s been a good week for first time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race winner Alex Bowman.
Smiles, a full heart and a checked box.
Bowman’s team owner, NASCAR Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick gave the Chicago race winner a helicopter ride to pick up his new Chevrolet Camaro in North Carolina earlier this week – a highlight for Bowman, who joked that the price of the helicopter hitchhike may well have been included in the cost of the new car from NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon’s dealership. But it was all worth it in one of the most special weeks of Bowman’s young career – a time of celebration and also of reassurance that Bowman can definitely win in NASCAR’s big leagues.
“It’s probably been a little different than I thought it would be,” Bowman, 26, conceded of his celebratory week. “It was just a really short week and a lot of obligations that come along with it. But it’s been a lot of fun. It was fun to get home Sunday night and share it with my friends. The whole race team stopped by on their way home from the airport, so that was really cool.
“I feel like it’s a big relief and now I just want to go win a bunch more. You always have that question in the back of your head: “What if I never win a Cup race?” You start thinking about all the drivers that have driven for Hendrick Motorsports that haven’t won a Cup race in their career. I don’t know if anyone has ever done that, but it feels really good to have that off my back. Now we can focus on just winning more.”
Winning more begins immediately with Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and Bowman has reason to feel good about his chances. He finished 11th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and was runner-up at the other superspeedway in Talladega, Ala. in April.
That Talladega finish started a three-race streak of runner-up finishes, at last bettered Sunday night with a hard-earned victory over Kyle Larson in Chicago. Bowman recognizes the uptick in his driving and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team performance. Far from swiping his spirit, the multiple near-misses only confirmed his genuine belief that he could be a winner at NASCAR’s highest level.
“You look at Talladega for us, we’ve been really strong everywhere,” Bowman said. “I knocked the wall down and still finished seventh. Pocono, we lost fourth gear and still finished 15th. Sonoma, we lost power-steering and still finished in the top-15. So those were really our worst weeks.
“Other than that, we’ve been really solid everywhere. It’s been a lot of fun to just be able to be a little more consistent than we’ve been and have really fast race cars each and every week.”
The result is not just Bowman’s confidence in this team and vice versa. It’s a bona fide mental shift for his competitors and for new fans – many who initially backed Bowman primarily because he took over the No. 88 formerly driven by the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Bowman proved that in the right equipment, he can better the best. He showed that he can make the most of an opportunity. Sunday night Larson took the lead from Bowman with seven laps remaining. And instead of Bowman feeling any oh-too-familiar satisfaction in the consolation runner-up prize, instead he went back after Larson, passing him for the victory with five laps remining.
The waning laps and how they played out was symbolic of Bowman’s passion. And they confirmed to all that he wants to win – that he isn’t just grateful for this chance to race, but ready to capitalize on it.
“I just don’t want to run second anymore,” Bowman said, his face sincere and his words direct.
“So I was going to crash the thing or win. It was as simple as that.”
Weekend Preview: Daytona International Speedway
The intensity and gamesmanship is increasing weekly with nine races remaining to set the 16-driver Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field and Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has typically provided a dramatic summer twist in this title hunt.
Twice in the last five years – including last year with Erik Jones and 2014 with Aric Almirola – winning the summer Daytona race represented a driver’s automatic entry in the Playoffs – both times the drivers jumped over several otherwise higher ranked drivers for the Playoff berth.
A solid and safe position in the standings is obviously valued, but this season especially, “safe” is difficult to come by.
Nine positions among the championship Top-16 changed just this week as a result of last Sunday’s dramatic race at Chicagoland Speedway.
Chicago race winner Alex Bowman guaranteed his Playoff spot with a victory. But the bigger shakeup happened farther down in the standings – with all 11 positions from 12th to 22nd changing in one form or another – all potentially affecting the crucial Playoff cutoff mark.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer took the biggest tumble – falling four positions from 12th to 16th in the standings after a frustrating 37th-place finish at Chicago in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
On the upside, Jimmie Johnson’s fourth place at Chicago vaulted him three positions upward in the series driver standings. Now instead of sitting one position off the cutoff in 17th – as he was before the Chicago race – he’s now 14th and looking ahead – only 15 points behind 13th place Kyle Larson.
As with Johnson, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver Larson is still looking for his first win of the 2019 season, but his runner-up finish at Chicago was good enough to move him up two positions in the standings.
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, who led nine laps and ran up front for much of last week’s race, also benefitted from the effort. His eighth place at Chicago places him 12th in the championship, 27 points shy of 11th place Aric Almirola – the highest standing in the series championship the second-year driver Byron has ever achieved.
On the downside, Daniel Suarez lost two championship positions – falling from 13th to 15th following a 24th place showing at Chicago. He trails 14th place Johnson by two points but holds only a three-point cushion on 16th place Clint Bowyer.
Similarly, Ryan Newman lost two places in the standings, falling from 16th to 18th. He now trails Bowyer in the last Playoff transfer position by 20 points.
XFINITY SERIES AT DAYTONA
The championship situation in the NASCAR Xfinity Series continues to be an intense game of one-upmanship between three of the brightest young racing stars.
Friday night’s Circle K Firecracker 250 Powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) may be a good opportunity for a new driver to celebrate in Victory Lane and earn a shot at this year’s title.
Entering the race, three drivers – Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell – have combined to win 11 of the season’s 15 races, including Custer’s win at Chicagoland Speedway just last week. A member of this trio has hoisted trophies in the last nine consecutive races.
But Daytona International Speedway always presents a unique challenge/opportunity. Only one time in the last decade has an Xfinity Series regular won this summer Daytona race – William Byron in his 2017 Xfinity championship season. Last year, Cup star Kyle Larson held off Xfinity title contender Elliott Sadler by a mere .005-second in the closest July race finish in history.
Ironically, Reddick’s win in February of 2018 – also over Sadler – marked the closest finish in NASCAR national series history – a photo finish .0004-second. The driver of the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet is the only one of this year’s Triumphant Trio to have won an Xfinity race previously at Daytona. He has a pair of top-10 finishes in five starts here.
Bell, who drives the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has two top-10 finishes in three Daytona starts and his team is undoubtedly eager to rebound from a disqualification last week at Chicago that dropped him from second to third in the title standings.
Custer, the driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has yet to earn a top-10 in five starts at Daytona. His best showing is 14th and he’s done that twice – in February, 2018 and 2019.
Five other drivers scored their best result of the season at Daytona earlier this year, including Justin Allgaier – a five-time race winner in 2018 – that is still looking for his first victory of the year. He finished runner-up this February.