Chevrolet celebrates first win of year, strong outing by Camaro

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More Chevrolets finished in the top 10 the previous week at Las Vegas, but Chevrolet’s performance Sunday at Auto Club Speedway was better.

Alex Bowman gave Chevrolet its first win of the season and was among three Chevy drivers in the top four. Chevrolet drivers also combined to lead 127 of the 200 laps (63.5% of the race). That Chevrolet’s strong effort came in the third race of the season was encouraging for its teams. Last season, Chevrolet didn’t score its first win of the season until the 10th race. 

After Bowman in the Chevy camp was Kurt Busch (third), Chase Elliott (fourth) and Jimmie Johnson (seventh).

Bowman’s run Sunday was no fluke. He was the fastest in both practices this weekend.

“This is a place we’ve struggled at for the last two years, so for (crew chief Greg Ives) to be able to unload that close, really the last two weeks in a row, makes my job much easier,” Bowman said. “We can really fine tune the car throughout practice instead of having to make huge changes. It’s really been our probably best couple practices the last two years that I’ve been driving for (Hendrick Motorsports), and I just attribute that to the hard work in the shop and great work over the offseason.”

So are the results from the new Camaro?

“I feel like Phoenix is going to be a good judge of that,” Bowman said. “I feel like our mile‑and‑a‑half program was very strong last year, so at the end of the year, I feel like if we would have come here, we would have been strong anyway. 

“I think the new body has helped us a lot, the new Camaro. Any change we make, we make for a reason, and Chevy did a good job with that car.”

Had there not been a caution shortly before the finish last week at Las Vegas, Bowman might have had his second win in a row. He was second late in the race and pitted under caution, finishing 13th.

That late caution jumbled last week’s results and helped some Chevy drivers earn top 10s when they hadn’t been running there. That wasn’t an issue Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

Busch rallied from missing his pit stall when pit road was opened after the end of stage 1 — “It was just a flat out mistake on the driver part,” he said — to score his best finish of the season. 

Busch complimented his team on the radio as he came to the checkered flag.

“Excellent car guys,” he said. “Sorry about taking that shot away from us. Car felt good all weekend.”

As for the new car, Busch said: “I feel like the Chevys had a really good balance when it came to speed and long run speed. It looked like the Toyotas were just bogged down early in a run when they were wide-open. That’s why they qualified poorly.”

Elliott was encouraged by his fourth-place run, his best result this season.

I feel like we were better than we’ve been, which is good,” Elliott said. “Not good enough to win, obviously, but better than we’ve been. So, we’ll take it and move on.”

The handling on Johnson’s car went away in the final 35 laps. He had an average running position of 3.6 for the race but finished seventh. Only Bowman (1.8 average running position) and Ryan Blaney (2.9) had a better average running position than Johnson. Such a run provides another clue that the No. 48 will be stronger this season than it has the past two years.

“This team is going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “I know in my heart what I am capable of and what this team is capable of. It’s just taken a little bit to get the right people in the right places, and rebuild and get this Ally Chevy exactly where it needs to be.

“We just couldn’t adjust this car on the pits stops quite enough to get the tight out of it. It was really competitive and racy at the start of a run and then we would fade at the end. At the end, I thought I was going to blow a tire, I think I had cords on the fronts and I thought I wasn’t going to finish the race. So to salvage a top-10 out of it and two thirds in the stages, so we are headed in the right direction.”