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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.

Previous Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

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

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Scan All, Xfinity, Truck championship recaps

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to recap the end of the NASCAR season.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut. Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte and Kyle Petty join them from NBC Charlotte.

What to expect from today’s show:

  • Martin Truex Jr. capped off a dream season, earning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship with a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. We’ll take a listen back on all the action between the drivers, crew chiefs and spotters with “Scan All: Miami.”
  • This past weekend two other NASCAR titles were decided. Christopher Bell won the Camping World Truck Series title, while William Byron captured the 2017 Xfinity Series title. We’ll discuss the rapid surge of Byron as he prepares for his transition to the Cup Series next year.
  • Furniture Row Racing had a season filled with triumphs and heartache but it ended in celebration, as they won the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Martin Truex Jr. dominated all season long while he and his team overcame obstacles on and off the track. Nate Ryan tells their story.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bump & Run: 2017 NASCAR accolades

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Who is your driver of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. While Martin Truex Jr. had the best season, I’m just amazed at what Byron has done with such little experience. Yes, he’s been in top equipment but he’s still had to wheel the car. What Byron already has done makes me wonder just what is to come.

Jerry Bonkowski: Martin Truex Jr. No other driver came close. One of best feel-good stories in NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the Cup championship in 1992.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.. Eight wins, his first Cup title and too many career-best stats to list in the most memorable driver campaign over a full season in recent years.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. His 2017 ranks with Jimmie Johnson‘s 2007 as the best season of the 21st century in the Cup Series. From start to finish, it’s the best since Jeff Gordon‘s 1998 masterpiece.

 

Who is your rookie of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. See previous answer.

Jerry Bonkowski: William Byron. Has made it look easy thus far in his career. Now comes the real test with his promotion next season to Cup racing and Hendrick Motorsports.

Daniel McFadin: William Byron. Won the Xfinity title with four wins, the most among series regulars and once again proved how quickly he can adept to a new level of racing.

Nate Ryan: William Byron. Shows signs of being the most adaptive and talented driver of his generation. When Kyle Busch is praising your “race craft” at the tender age of 19, you are special.

 

Who is your crew chief of the year?

Dustin Long: Cole Pearn. Was strong throughout the season and finished it with a split-second pit call that put Martin Truex Jr. in position to win the championship and close out a fantastic season.

Jerry Bonkowski: Cole Pearn. Overcame adversity several times, kept his cool most of the time, planned strategy methodically and if he or team made a mistake, admitted it and moved on. I truly believe he and Martin Truex Jr. have another one or two more championships in them. 

Daniel McFadin: Cole Pearn. In the first year of the stage format, he figured it out quicker than anyone and schooled the field all season long with Martin Truex Jr.

Nate Ryan: Cole Pearn. For his mastery of stages alone, he earned this crown. But for many other reasons — from his low-key and unthreatening affability that allows him to work seamlessly with Joe Gibbs Racing with a disarming ease … to his disdain for hierarchy that grants his co-workers empowering autonomy that other crew chiefs refuse to cede … to his simple choice of T-shirt over firesuit (“I don’t plan on getting on fire.”) as anti-establishment crew chief attire — he is changing the paradigm of being a team leader in NASCAR.

 

After seeing this playoff format for the first time, is there anything with it or related to it you’d consider changing for next year? Why?

Dustin Long: I’m fine with how it went. Let’s be careful of changing things for change’s sake.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I like the stages format, I feel that each race should be broken down into three stages of equal length. In other words, if it’s a 267-lap race, it should be divided equally to where each stage is 89 laps. Also, I’d like to see lap counting stop after each of the first two stages and resume on the ensuing restart, unlike what we see now where the second and final stages oftentimes log six or seven laps under caution before a restart for the next stage. 

Daniel McFadin: I like this format immensely after just one season. The only change I would like to see is making sure caution laps after stage conclusions don’t count. Starting a stage with four to five laps already ticked off takes away from the fan experience and gives less race for drivers and teams to work with.

Nate Ryan: A minor quibble: The “format” for selecting a champion didn’t change, just the manner in which points were accrued to determine one. That said, the addition of playoff points and stages worked well, producing the most worthy field of championship contenders yet and a deserving champion whose bona fides were tested as much or more than any other since NASCAR switched to a playoff-style structure in 2004.

Virginia’s Motor Mile Speedway to end short track racing, drops NASCAR sanction

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Motor Mile Speedway has decided to not renew its NASCAR sanction for 2018, ending its reign as a circle track.

The .416-mile paved oval track in Fairlawn, Virginia, will undergo a significant transformation starting next year which does not include short track racing. A NASCAR Home Track, it has hosted the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for a number of years and hosted a number of then-Busch Series races nearly 30 years ago.

While it may return to host some select racing events in the future, track officials in a news release announced it will soon host “a variety of entertainment and sporting events.”

“We have tried to make the speedway successful, but with a downturn in interest, it’s increasingly difficult to make it work,” Speedway co-owner David Hagan said in a media release. “We are looking at a variety of events to bring new life and excitement to the property.

“The schedule could include everything from concerts, mud runs, festivals, camping, and even new racing events at some point.  You name it and it’s probably come up at our table.”

Located about an hour southwest of Roanoke, Virginia, the speedway sits on a 170-acre parcel of land. While the speedway will cease holding races, it’s adjacent drag strip will continue to operate for sportsman racing.

Click here for the full media release from the speedway.

NASCAR issues three lug nut penalties in final penalty report of season

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NASCAR has issued three penalties to crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts following the championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on the No. 20 Toyota driven by Matt Kenseth, has been fined $20,000 and suspended one Cup points race for two unsecured lug nuts.

Ratcliff will be moving to the Xfinity Series to serve as Christopher Bell’s crew chief next season. The suspension is series specific. So he will be available to crew chief Bell in the season-opening race at Daytona.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Camping World Truck Series, Phil Gould, crew chief on Ryan Truex‘s No. 16 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.