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Alex Bowman on contract future at Hendrick: ‘Every year is pivotal’

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CHARLOTTE – He made the playoffs during his first full year at Hendrick Motorsports. He scored his first Cup victory in his second full season with the team.

And for Year Three with a NASCAR powerhouse?

“Got to go win a championship,” Alex Bowman said with a laugh Thursday morning during Hendrick Motorsports’ Media Day.

There isn’t quite that much pressure on the No. 88 Chevrolet driver, but 2020 could be pivotal in a series where drivers often work on three-year contract cycles. Bowman will be among at least eight winning drivers (including Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer and Erik Jones, to name just a few) who will be the subject of speculation during a contract year.

“I think every year is a pivotal year,” Bowman said when asked whether his deal emphasizes the need for more improvement and results. “And every year I want to go run well. It doesn’t matter what a piece of paper says. At no time are you really safe in this business. I’ve had pieces of paper tell me I was safe before and get fired, so I don’t think you’re safe at any time.

“I think at every moment, you need to make the most of every opportunity so I think every year is a pivotal year.”

DRIVER LINEUP 2020: Daniel Suarez’s signing is latest update to Cup

Bowman, who replaced the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 after the 2017 season, said he and team owner Rick Hendrick talked briefly last year about his next contract.

“To be honest with you, I’m not really worried about it,” he said. “This is where I want to be, driving a race car for HMS is what I want to do. I want to stay here as long as I can, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen. Right now, what I can do to make that happen is go perform on the racetrack.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean a championship, but Bowman would like to go deeper after reaching the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons.

He also would like to improve his results on short tracks and overall consistency. While doubling his top fives (seven in 2019, up from three in 2018), Bowman had 12 top 10s last year, which was only one more than ’18.

Though he had a stretch of three consecutive runner-up finishes (Talladega, Dover and Kansas) in the spring, he had only three top fives in the final 19 races of 2019 after his breakthrough victory June 30 at Chicagoland Speedway.

“We’d have a 25th-place run one week and then go run second the next week and go run bad again,” he said. “A lot of that just comes from trying to improve our race cars. We definitely need to start races better. For whatever reason, we start races poorly and improve throughout the day. We typically end up with a pretty decent finish, but those first two stages we lose out on a lot of stage points, and we really can’t afford that. So I know we’re working really hard to figure out why we tend to start so poorly and how we can improve on that.”

Hendrick will have a redesigned Camaro body this season, and NASCAR will return to lower downforce on the short tracks (where Bowman didn’t finish higher than 14th in six starts last year).

“Hopefully that’ll help,” Bowman said of the changes. “We definitely have to capitalize on our strengths on (1.5-mile tracks). I feel like our weaknesses are ever changing. For a while in 2018, they were the mile and halves. Now those are our strengths, and our weaknesses are the places we used to be strong at, so we just need to be more consistent.

“I think if we make the Round of 8, that would be a good accomplishment, but we need to win more than just one race.”

Bowman, who turns 27 in April, will enter 2020 with the security of a recently announced primary sponsor package to fill the void left by Nationwide.

“I saw people on Twitter say if they don’t get a sponsor they’re not going to run (the No. 88) and blah blah blah,” he said. “As soon as we knew Nationwide wasn’t coming back, Mr. Hendrick sat me down and said, ‘Hey, even if we don’t find a sponsor, you’re fine. It’ll all be fine.’

“Obviously having a sponsor is very important, and I’m really excited that we were able to announce that yesterday, but at the same time it wasn’t ever like a worry or a stress point. It was kind of annoying that everybody kept talking about, but I’m really just focused on going and doing my job and controlling what I can control and do the best I can.”

Xfinity playoff grid after Indianapolis

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Chase Briscoe‘s continued dominance of the Xfinity Series over the weekend on the Indianapolis road course ensured no additional drivers locked themselves into the 12-driver playoff field.

Through 13 races, Briscoe and four other drivers have qualified for the playoffs via race wins. Briscoe, who has five race wins, leads the field with 28 playoff points.

The last two drivers currently in the top 12 are Riley Herbst (+19 points above cutline) and Brandon Brown (+6 points).

The first four drivers outside the top 12 are Myatt Snider (-6), Alex Labbe (-32), Jeremy Clements (-49) and Josh Williams (-57).

Cup Series playoff grid after Brickyard 400

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With Kevin Harvick‘s victory Sunday in the Brickyard 400, no additional drivers locked themselves into the Cup Series playoff field.

But there was some movement at the bottom of the playoff grid as drivers jockey to make the 16-car field.

After he missed the race due to his COVID-19 diagnosis, Jimmie Johnson fell from 12th to 15th on the grid. He’s now 36 points above the cutline.

Matt DiBenedetto earned stage points in each stage before finishing 19th. He moved from 14th to 12th in the standings.

After earning stage points in both stages Sunday, Austin Dillon has cracked the top 16, moving up one spot. He has a six-point advantage over Erik Jones, who crashed out of Sunday’s race and had a 14-point advantage over Dillon entering the weekend.

With his ninth-place finish Sunday, Bubba Wallace is now within reach of the top 16. He sits at 19th, 42 points back from 16th.

Here’s the full playoff grid.

Oval or road course? Cup drivers address future of Brickyard 400

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For 27 years, the Cup Series has competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with its annual Brickyard 400. All 27 of those races have been run exclusively on the track’s traditional 2.5-mile oval.

But following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the track’s 2.4-mile, 14-turn road course, an obvious question has been raised:

Should the Brickyard 400 remain on the oval, where passing is made difficult due to a combination of the rules package and the design of the track, or should moving it to the road course be considered?

“I would never vote for that,” Kevin Harvick declared last week before he won his third Brickyard 400 on Sunday. “I love everything about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For me it is all about the oval … racing on the traditional track because for me I am kind of old school and I think that the Cup cars belong and really started the Brickyard 400.

“That was kind of what it was always meant to be, that iconic one-off, just the Cup cars event. I think with the Xfinity cars and the trucks and (ARCA Menards) cars and all the things that used to race at IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park), it was a great event. Hopefully the road course can kind of take that role that IRP used to have and be able to bring the Indy cars and NASCAR together to add to that event at the Speedway. For me personally, I would never vote for the Cup cars to not run on the oval.”

Harvick is joined in that camp by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Aric Almirola, who finished third in Sunday’s race for his first top five and top-10 finish at Indy.

“I hope that we never stop running the oval,” Almirola said. “I just think it’s one of these places that regardless if it puts on the greatest race or not, it’s historic. It’s just a special place. It’s hard to explain when you don’t grow up a racer and you don’t aspire to come to race at Indy.

“But for me, I grew up watching stock car racing and dirt sprint car racing. I grew up watching Thursday Night Thunder, seeing so many guys go from USAC racing and sprint car racing to racing at Indy. It’s something I’ve always kept up with, always dreamed about getting the opportunity to race here. I get that opportunity now.”

Matt Kenseth, who finished second Sunday in his 20th Brickyard 400, said the Cup Series “should be” on the oval. But the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is open to the idea of Cup using the road course in some manner.

 “I think it’s one of those racetracks that we need to race at as long as we can,” Kenseth said of the oval. “It’s arguably the most famous speedway in the world, or one of them.

“To be able to race on the ovals with the Cup cars, which is the highest form of stock car racing here, we should be on the big track as well. I don’t think it would be bad to maybe test the road course and look into it, maybe do a second race on a road course, kind of like the IndyCars did this week.

“I really do think the Brickyard 400 has a lot of prestige. It’s not a southern race, but similar to the Southern 500, races like that. I think there’s a few of those races you sure would hate to see disappear.”

Crew chief describes ‘frightening’ scene on pit road at Indy

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Crew chief Todd Gordon said it was “frightening” to see rear tire changer Zach Price hit on pit road and then try to scoot away from cars during Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Price, who changes tires for Ryan Blaney’s team, was injured when he was struck by Brennan Poole’s car during a melee near the entrance of pit road early in the race.

Gordon, speaking Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, said indications are that Price’s injury was a “fracture someplace in the knee area.”

Price was treated and released from an Indianapolis hospital on Sunday night and traveled home with the team. Gordon said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that Price was scheduled to see a doctor Monday.

“Just hope to get him back and get him back going again and healthy,” Gordon said.

Gordon described what he saw as cars made contact.

“A really frightening moment for me,” he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I was really terrorized when I saw (Price) drag himself back across the pit box arms only for a while there. As the situation kind of progressed and the medical staff was working with him, I could see in his face he was better off than I thought he was to start with.

“Fortunate that the guys got up and got at least in the air. The jackman (Graham Stoddard) got on top of the car. Just one of those terrible situations. I felt like those accidents happened mid-pit road. That’s why I picked way back there to be behind it.”

Said Justin Allgaier, who was involved in the accident on pit road that led to six cars eventually being eliminated:  “The No. 15 (Poole) actually got in the back of me. I didn’t know if I got the gentleman on (Blaney’s pit crew) or not. Once the wreck started happening in front of us and we all got bottled-up there, one car after another were getting run into.”

Indianapolis’ pit road is the most narrow of all the tracks the Cup Series races. The two travel lanes are 24 feet wide. The pit stall for each team is 15 feet wide.