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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Alex Bowman

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Alex Bowman doesn’t remember who gave him the most important advice of his racing career.

It came at some point before he drove Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 Chevrolet for the first time on July 17, 2016 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“It definitely stuck with me,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “It was just to have fun.”

That’s a tall order. Especially when you’re making your first Cup start six months after learning you lost your previous ride via Twitter. Also, you’re driving the car normally reserved for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“I spent so many years racing being miserable if we had a bad day and not enjoying it,” Bowman said. “You lose your ride and that’s taken away from you and you’re like, ‘wow, I should have enjoyed the time I had more.’ Going into that I just wanted to have fun. I enjoyed all those races I got to run last year the most I possibly could and I think that was the best advice, just to enjoy it. ‘Cause you never know when it can be taken away or it could all change.”

Alex Bowman celebrates his first Cup Series pole last November at Phoenix Raceway while substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Bowman, 24, will succeed Earnhardt full-time in the No. 88 next season. The native of Tuscon, Arizona, earned the role in part from his performance substituting for Earnhardt in 10 races last season as Earnhardt recovered from a concussion.

In three months, Bowman will arrive at Daytona International Speedway as one of Hendrick Motorsports’ four Cup drivers.

But contrary to what some may believe, he won’t be a rookie.

The 60th running of the Daytona 500 will be Bowman’s 82nd start in the Cup Series.

But that doesn’t keep him from playing along.

“It is hilarious,” Bowman said. “I love giving people crap on Twitter for that. It’s been pretty funny. I get it. You don’t get noticed when you run cars like that (with BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing). I think it’s funny. Hopefully, everybody on Twitter knows I’m not really trying to be mean. I love running with it. ‘Yeah, I’ll run for Rookie of the Year.’ I think it’s really funny.”

Bowman will make the last of his three NASCAR starts this year Saturday at his home track, Phoenix Raceway. He’ll be driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series’ Ticket Galaxy 200 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

While spending most of his year as a simulator and testing driver for Hendrick and Chevrolet, Bowman’s only Xfinity start came in the Oct. 7 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Ganassi. In his 134th NASCAR start, Bowman claimed his first victory.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: Has it been difficult for you to switch into race week mode once the time comes this year?

Bowman: Not really. Honestly, the weirdest part of Charlotte was going to the race track. Driving there on race day, having a bunch of fans there and stuff. That was the weirdest part for me, just something I haven’t experienced it. But I’ve been in the car so much this year between testing and doing simulator stuff, I feel as far as driving the race car hasn’t been weird. Everything that goes along with race day, at least at Charlotte, was kind of different.

NBC Sports: What’s been the most surreal part of the last two years for you?

Bowman: I think probably that first time I strapped into the 88 car was pretty surreal. Not knowing if it was going to be my only shot or how we were going to run. Then getting the call from Mr. (Rick) Hendrick that we’re going to go full-time in the 88 car next year was also a big moment. There definitely have been a couple. I think right now the whole feeling’s kind of surreal. Probably going to feel that way until we unload in Daytona and get on the race track.

NBC Sports: How much was that Charlotte win a vindication for your entire career?

Bowman: I think a lot. A lot of people have said thing, ‘well, he hasn’t won a NASCAR race,’ ‘he doesn’t deserve the 88 car’ and stuff like that. To go out there and not have raced in six months or seventh months, whatever it was and go win right off the bat was kind of like, ‘hey, I can do this, I can drive a race car.’ It just lets me be a lot more confident going into next year knowing even though I’ve sat out. I don’t feel like I’ve lost much, and I feel like we can pick up right where we left off at the end of last year.

Alex Bowman in victory lane after earning his first NASCAR win in October at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: Last week when you were on NASCAR America, you said when your first opportunity to race in Cup came up, you didn’t want to do it. Why was that?

Bowman: I think it’s really selfish reasons. I wanted to do it in a situation I knew I could thrive and win races. … I think looking back at it I probably could have had the attitude of, ‘look, I can learn so much here.’ Instead I was like, ‘man, I just want to win and run better.’ Selfishly, I just didn’t want to go into a situation where 25th was a great day. Looking back at it, without those opportunities I wouldn’t have been nearly as ready to fill in for Dale when I did get that opportunity. So I’m very thankful for those opportunities because they helped me mature as a race car driver and learn the Cup cars and learn how those longer races play out with really no expectations. So I think it was a huge bonus for me to be able to do that. It was just a little painful at the time.

NBC Sports: What was your welcome to NASCAR moment?

Bowman: My first Xfinity race getting lapped by Kyle Busch at Chicago. He straight up moved me out-of-the-way. … I was like, ‘oh, OK.’ ‘Cause I had come from winning everything and winning ARCA races. Shoot, I don’t think I had ever been lapped before. Then here comes Kyle Busch blowing my doors off, moving me out-of-the-way on a fast mile-and-a-half track. I was like,’wow, OK, these guys get after it.’

NBC Sports: What’s your earliest vivid memory of racing?

Bowman: That’s a tough one. Probably the first quarter midget race that I won. Cause when I started racing quarter midgets I was pretty terrible. I practiced a lot and my dad really pushed me as far as practicing and trying to get better and then all of a sudden it kind of clicked. Then I went out and I won and didn’t stop winning for a long time. That first win was really cool and then to continue to win was fun. Just quarter midget racing in general was really cool and really special to get to share a lot of friends and family. A lot of kids I grew up with are really successful race car drivers now and come from the same background, so it’s cool to be able to look back on those memories.

NBC Sports: Who is you best friend in the garage?

Bowman: I would have to say Dale Jr. on that one. I’m not friends with a lot of race car drivers. I don’t hang out or go get dinner with other drivers. I kind of do my own thing and keep to myself. Dale is probably, he’s got to be my best friend in the garage. He’s done so much for my career, he’s helped me so much. I’m pretty good friends with all the HMS drivers. Jimmie (Johnson’s) been great. Me and William (Byron) have become really good friends. Dale has been there for me for a long time and done a lot for my career and a lot for me on a personal level as well.

NBC Sports: If you could race head-to head with any driver past or present, who would it be and at what track and in what kind of car?

Bowman: That’s a really good question. I’d want to run Irwindale (Speedway) in a pavement midget. But I don’t know against who. Actually, I do know against who. Irwindale in a pavement midget against Dave Steele … Dave Steele was a sprint car midget guy, really, really talented on pavement. He died in a pavement sprint car earlier this year … He was probably the best there ever was on pavement in those cars. I did not get to race those cars nearly as much as I wanted to. They’re by far my favorite cars to drive and Irwindale is my favorite place to run them. It was just so much fun to race there, so I think racing him there would be a heck of a lot of fun.

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Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

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Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

Dakoda Armstrong

Brendan Gaughan

Garrett Smithley

J.J. Yeley

Harrison Rhodes

James Davison

Jeremy Clements

David Starr

Austin Cindric

Christopher Bell

Jeff Green

Casey Mears

Sam Hornish Jr.

Joey Gase

Cup starting lineup for Sunday’s race at Atlanta

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Kyle Busch will lead the field to the green for Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and have Ryan Newman beside him on the front row.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing each placed all four of its cars in the top 12 of the starting lineup.

JGR will have Busch first, Daniel Suarez fourth, Erik Jones 10th and Denny Hamlin 12th. Stewart-Haas Racing will have Kevin Harvick third, Kurt Busch seventh, Clint Bowyer ninth and Aric Almirola 11th.

Reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. will start 35th in the 36-car field after his car failed to pass inspection before qualifying.

Click here for starting lineup

 

Martin Truex Jr.’s car chief ejected after Atlanta inspection failures

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HAMPTON, Georgia – Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota was the first team to struggle with NASCAR’s new optical scan inspection, and the punishment was a key crew member.

Truex’s Camry failed to clear prequalifying inspection three times Friday, resulting in the ejection of car chief Blake Harris from Atlanta Motor Speedway. Truex will start 35th in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said the car had multiple problems with body scans “for rear-wheel openings and rear-toe failures.”

Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone said the team couldn’t get a handle on the new Optical Scanning Station. Many teams, including Furniture Row Racing, have replicas in their shops of the system, which relies on high-definition cameras and projectors.

“It’s a new process,” Garone said. “We’re working hard, collectively, the whole garage is to figure the boundaries out and how to get through, and NASCAR is working with their equipment the same way.

“It’s just tough. It’s tough. One time you go through, the next time you don’t. You go through again and some things pass that didn’t pass the time before. It’s just frustrating, but we’ll get it all worked out. It’s just a matter of time.

Crew chief Cole Pearn had a viscerally negative reaction at the station when told by NASCAR officials the car hadn’t passed on its third scan, seven minutes before qualifying was scheduled to begin.

Garone said the vibe within the team was “pretty volatile at the moment, because you’re trying to figure out what you actually did, especially when you feel like maybe the equipment itself is off a little bit. It’s also on our side as well. It’s just a weird set of circumstances. The tolerances are very tight. It’s difficult to get through and push where you need to and be conservative where you need to and figure it all out. It does change every time you go through.”

Miller took umbrage at the suggestion the new station wasn’t reliable (which was a frequent criticism of the previous Laser Inspection Station that the optical scan replaced).

“Of course they’re going to say that, but we had 20 people make it through on the first attempt and multiple people saying how consistent the rear-wheel alignment was vs. our equipment last year,” Miller said. “The only comments I had today on the rear-wheel alignment part was positive comments, not negative comments. We ended up with one (car failing to clear inspection). All I can say is I feel like we did our job.”

Miller said after the third failure, it’s NASCAR’s discretion to suspend a team member and the car chief was chosen because “we’ve tapped the car chief as an important individual.” Miller said if Truex had failed a fourth time, the team would have faced a 10-point deduction under a new penalty structure this season that is focused on race weekend punishments.

Miller implied the team had chosen to skip trying to clear inspection a fourth time to avoid risking further penalty, but Garone said the decision was made because “well, we’re out of time.

“That wasn’t a decision other than a timing decision,” he said. “You know what happens when you rush? The driver goes out, and he’s all amped up, and it’s just not worth doing.”

Truex, who will start 35th Sunday, also will serve a 30-minute practice hold Saturday.

Pole-sitter Kyle Busch, whose Joe Gibbs Racing team supplies Toyota chassis and has an alliance with Truex’s team, was surprised the No. 78 was the only inspection casualty Friday.

“I certainly would have guessed there would have been more; that they wouldn’t have been the only ones,’ Busch said. “I honestly have no clue on what happened to them. I don’t have that information from any of our guys. So I’ll have to figure out what they missed out on being able to get through the OSS.”

Denny Hamlin on Daytona 500 spat with Bubba Wallace: ‘It’s done’

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HAMPTON, Georgia — Denny Hamlin seems to be putting his brief feud with Bubba Wallace in the rearview mirror before Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

After qualifying 12th for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (and electing to skip the final round because his No. 11 team felt it wasn’t worth the tradeoff on tire wear), Hamlin told a small group of reporters that “I’d say it’s over with. Moving on. Trust me, it’s done.”

Was the Joe Gibbs Racing driver concerned about the fallout from Daytona?

“Doesn’t concern me,” Hamlin said. “I’ll just keep moving forward and try to do the best I can and let whoever tell their side and let it be.”

Earlier Friday at Atlanta, Wallace said he had been kicked out of a golf group that Hamlin is in because of their feud, which started on the last lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500. He also called Hamlin a “dumb ass” for estimating last week on a podcast that 70 percent of NASCAR drivers are using Adderall.

Did Hamlin plan to talk to Wallace?

“It’s done. It’s done. It’s done.”

Hamlin did briefly address Kevin Harvick’s comments that several veteran drivers are angry at him for the Adderall comment.

“I’ve talked to Kevin,” Hamlin said. “We’re good. Yeah. Trust me, it’s all done, guys.”

 

Kyle Busch zooms to first career Atlanta Cup pole

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Kyle Busch denied Ryan Newman a record-breaking eighth career pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway, nipping Newman to take the top starting spot for Sunday’s race.

Busch earned the pole with a lap of 184.652 mph. Newman ran a lap of 184.419 mph in the final round — a difference of 38-thousandths of a second.

Newman will start second and be followed by Kevin Harvick (184.388 mph), Daniel Suarez (184.229) and Brad Keselowski (183.856). Newman remains tied with Buddy Baker for most career poles at Atlanta with seven. Newman, though, will make his 12th career front row start at Atlanta.

This is Busch’s first career Cup pole at Atlanta and 28th in his career.

Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott all failed to qualify in the top 24 to advance to the second round.

“We’re way off,” Elliott told Fox Sports 1. “Not even close.”

Dillon will start 25th, Blaney 26th and Elliott 27th.

Martin Truex Jr. did not make a qualifying attempt after his car failed three times to pass inspection. Truex won seven of the 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks last season. He was eighth at Atlanta a year ago. Truex will start 35th in the 36-car field.

Click here for qualifying results

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