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The backstory of why Alex Bowman was in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car Saturday night

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – During his December test at Darlington Raceway that cleared his return to NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gathered his No. 88 team in the hauler and broke some news.

He wouldn’t be running The Clash, turning over the wheel of his Chevrolet to Alex Bowman as a reward for filling in for him last season.

Unless his team said otherwise.

“I said, ‘They could put (Bowman) in the 5 (the car of Kasey Kahne, who wasn’t eligible Saturday), and if the guys really want me to run (the No. 88), I’ll run it,” Earnhardt said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. “But otherwise I’d just assume let Alex run it. They said, ‘Yeah, I think Alex earned his shot, and he should be able to work with guys that he knows.’ Nothing against the 5 guys, but he hadn’t worked with them any.”

Bowman and Earnhardt both were eligible to run in The Clash – the former by virtue of winning the pole position at Phoenix International Raceway, the latter as a former winner of the event.

But Earnhardt, a NASCAR historian, didn’t feel worthy of him being in the race because he has “such strong feelings about The Clash being strictly for pole winners, and I didn’t feel good about how I was eligible.

“I don’t feel deserving of the opportunity to be in the race, because I think it should be strictly pole winners. So when Alex got it, I’m like, he’s trumped me in how to get into the race to begin with.”

Earnhardt planted the seed for putting Bowman in The Clash minutes after that Phoenix pole.

Earnhardt, who missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season while recovering from concussion symptoms, was at Phoenix standing with Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt and No. 88 crew chief Greg Ives.

“Your initial emotion is, ‘Man, he deserves it,’ ” Earnhardt said. “We’ve been on this mission to get Alex going and get his career where he wants it to be, and we had some real momentum last year with him getting an opportunity to drive that car. So when he got that pole, I looked at Doug and Greg and was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to put Alex in the car for The Clash,’ and I was kinda judging their reaction. It got a little closer, and they had made the decision that Alex would do it.

“I like the fact he’s in our car with our guys. Anything to give him an opportunity to showcase what he can do and learn is good.”

Bowman drove in 10 races for Earnhardt last season, posting a best finish of sixth at Phoenix (where he led a race-high 194 of 324 laps).

He also learned during the Darlington test that he would be making his Clash debut.

“We joked about it a lot, but it never even crossed my mind that I would be driving the No. 88,” he said. “Greg Ives was talking about Greg Ives Racing bringing a car, or something crazy like that. I just kind of let it go quiet. I didn’t want step on any toes, or ask anybody and have it seem like I was begging for something. I wasn’t really asking.

“Mr. Duchardt said I was going to drive the 88 in the Clash. I said ‘OK, cool.’ So, I am very thankful for the opportunity. Dale’s been so great to me. I wouldn’t be here without him. He is the one that pointed me out when he wasn’t feeling good. I feel like I owe a lot to him, and I am very thankful for him to put me in the car for this race.”

Earnhardt was in the Fox Sports booth Saturday night, and he was in the NBC Sports booth when Bowman raced at Talladega Superspeedway last October.

“(Daytona) and Talladega, more than anywhere else, that adds a lot of pressure,” Bowman said. “He is such a good superspeedway racer. I feel like I do a good job, but I don’t have the experience he has by any means.

“So just trying to do my best and really lean on him for advice when I can.T.J. (Majors) is so good at spotting these races, and these race cars that Hendrick Motorsports brings to these races are so good, I feel like we can be up front all night. But it definitely adds some pressure to have probably the best speedway racer of our time in the booth calling the race.”

Watching Friday’s Clash practice at his house in North Carolina, Earnhardt said he was slightly antsy to “be out there learning something” but added he wouldn’t want to race with another crew chief besides Ives.

“There’s plenty of opportunities to run this week, and I’ll get enough laps,” he said. “I’m not going to be short of laps, but I’m not that upset to not be running the race.

“If there’s a race going on, it feels weird when I don’t run the Xfinity race here. It feels weird, you can’t help but not have some kind of a little part of you wanting to be out there and seeing the guys out there running and maybe your cars are out there running and (thinking), ‘Man, I would have done something different right there.’ It’s hard not to feel that way a little bit.”

Winners and losers from Las Vegas

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WINNERS

Paul Wolfe — Great call to have Joey Logano not pit before the final restart. Of course it helped that six other cars stayed out. Still, the top two cars came down pit road and Logano, running third, stayed out and won.

Matt DiBenedettoFinishes second in his second race with the Wood Brothers.

Jimmie JohnsonScored his first top-five finish since last summer’s Daytona race.

Bubba Wallace Decision not to pit allowed him to finish sixth, giving him his best Cup finish on a 1.5-mile track.

LOSERS

Todd Gordon and Greg Ives— For every high, there is a low. Gordon apologized on the radio to Ryan Blaney for calling him to pit road while leading before the final restart. Blaney finished 11th. Ives called Bowman to pit road while running second before the final restart. Bowman finished 13th. Ives tweeted that he was “VERY frustrated with my call at the end not to game on old tires, especially in Vegas.”

19 pit crew — Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew got him into the lead under caution after Stage 2 but he had to return to pit under that caution to tighten loose lug nuts. Said Truex after the race: “We just need to quit having mistakes on pit road.”

William ByronLined up second on the final restart but contact with Matt DiBenedetto led to a tire rub and Byron falling back before he was involved in the crash that ended race. He finished 22nd.

Ross Chastain says his finish ‘unacceptable’ in place of Newman

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He scored a 10th-place finish in the first stage and ran as high as fifth Sunday in a car he never raced before.

Ross Chastain still had a harsh evaluation of his 27th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the No. 6 Ford, which he drove in place of an injured Ryan Newman.

Chastain finished two laps down after causing the final caution on a Lap 262 spin, which he judged “unacceptable,” along with his restart performance (“guys kind of ate me alive”) as a substitute for Roush Fenway Racing.

“It’s hard to get out of the car after you have a top-10 car, and you go and run into people and pick the wrong lanes on restarts and then spin it out at the end,” Chastain said. “That’s pretty silly. Just a lot of mistakes on my end and then at the end just overdriving and for one position to be the first car a lap down. That’s unacceptable.”

Chastain had an average running position of 16.87 over the 400-mile race, which went south after he pitted under green from 15th on Lap 217 of 267. The yellow flag flew five laps later, and Chastain took a wavearound to restart 21st.

(Photo by Will Lester/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On the restart, he made contact with Kurt Busch and pitted under green to fix a tire rub, which left him a lap down when he spun with five laps remaining.

“There were a lot of small mistakes on my end, but I learned a ton,” he said. “The car deserved a lot better finish.  Obviously, we showed that early and I just didn’t have great restarts. I just have to be better.

“RFR and everybody puts so much into these cars, and ultimately I’m the one holding the wheel.  We had such a good first stage and had so much confidence and from there I just started making mistakes.”

Chastain, who finished 10th in Sunday night’s rain-delayed Xfinity race, will be driving the No. 6 for Roush while Newman recovers from his Daytona 500 crash. In a statement from the team Sunday morning, Newman indicated he plans to drive again this season, but no timetable has been provided for his return.

Chase Briscoe wins rain-delayed Xfinity race in Las Vegas

Chase Briscoe
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Chase Briscoe won Sunday’s rain-delayed Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, beating fellow Ford driver Austin Cindric by almost three seconds to claim his third career Xfinity win.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver led 89 laps in the race, which began late Saturday afternoon but was red flagged on Lap 51 due to rain.

Briscoe and Cindric were the only Ford drivers in the field.

Ryan Sieg placed third to earn his sixth career top-five finish and his first on a 1.5-mile track.

The top five was completed by Daytona winner Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton.

“That was really a team win,” Briscoe told Fox Sports. “We were really good, then as soon as the sun went down when we were in dirty air, we just weren’t really good. In clean air, obviously there at the end we were really good. … This is something I feel we can do all year long.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

More: Click here for race results.

More: Click here for the point standings.

WHAT’S NEXT: Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club Speedway at 4 p.m. ET Feb. 29 on FS1.

Chevy drivers positive about new Camaro body after Las Vegas

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Positive reviews are in from a few Chevrolet Cup drivers after their first race on an intermediate track with the updated Camaro ZL1 1LE body, which was introduced this year in an effort to improve the manufacturer’s performance after two lackluster seasons.

Those reviews are backed by the final results for Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After the chaos created by a last-lap crash, six Chevrolets finished in the top 10. They were led by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson placing in the top five.

That followed Chase Elliott leading 70 laps and winning both stages before his one-car incident in the middle of the final stage.

In last year’s spring race on the 1.5-mile track, only two Chevys – Kurt Busch (fifth) and Elliott (ninth) – finished in the top 10. Three Chevy drivers combined to lead 23 of the race’s 267 laps.

“We’re trying to just understand this new Camaro body and the setup that needs to go with it,” said Johnson. “We’re close, but there’s still a little bit more work for us to do on our car to get the balance between the clean air and the traffic closer. But for the first try on a downforce track, the guys did a really nice job.”

Johnson earned his first top five since last July’s race at Daytona. He placed 19th in this race last year.

“It’s really rewarding to see,” Johnson said. “Last year when we left here, we had quite the opposite feeling and were pretty worried about what the year was going to hold for us. So, it’s really nice to have that change of perspective now. There’s a lot of Chevys up front, one of our Hendrick cars led for a while. So, we’re going the right way.”

Johnson’s teammate, Alex Bowman, was running in second when the final caution came out inside 10 laps to go. After his team chose to pit, Bowman placed 13th.

“This new Camaro, for its first time on a downforce track, I’m just really pleased with it so far,” Bowman said. “I think it’s going to be really good for us. Obviously, I’m bummed out to finish 13th after staring at a second place or a win. But it’s part of it; it’s how racing goes. We win as a team and lose as a team. It just didn’t go our way there at the end.”

Last year, Chevrolet only earned seven wins, with two coming on 1.5-mile tracks. Bowman claimed one of those at Chicagoland Speedway.

Added Bowman: “Compared to how we started the last two seasons, I think we’ve got something for them this year.”

One Chevrolet driver said it was “still early” for assessing the new bodies.

“I think the Hendrick cars were really good,” said Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, who placed ninth. “I felt about the same as last year. So, we just have to continue to get better.”