RICHMOND, Virginia – His 2021 season will be remembered much more for his stunning victory in April at the same track, but Alex Bowman delivered another signature moment Saturday at Richmond Raceway.
In the aftermath of a disappointing 12th-place finish that left him on the precipice of playoff elimination (tied with Kurt Busch for the final transfer spot after two of three first-round races), the Hendrick Motorsports driver reminded us of why this has been a breakout season beyond just a career-high three wins.
Mixing his trademark introverted irreverence with a direct and honest assessment of his lagging championship hopes, Bowman lingered far longer than any of the 16 Cup Series playoff drivers while providing the postrace accountability and insight in the media bullpen on the pit lane.
“I think this is the most you guys have ever wanted to talk to me in my entire life,” Bowman joked with reporters. “Typically, it’s one question, and you’re like, ‘Aww, this kid sucks. Can we get the next one?’
“Yeah, I got the most popular kid in school, ‘Baby Jesus,’ and Kyle Larson, the most talented race car driver of our generation as teammates, so I’d rather talk to them, too.”
While Hendrick teammates Chase Elliott and Larson might have better career results and storylines, it’s been fun watching Bowman’s development into a confident, albeit overlooked, contender in NASCAR’s premier series.
When he was named by Hendrick to succeed Dale Earnhardt Jr. four years ago, success was no sure thing for Bowman, a Chevy simulator driver with no national series victories and a little more than 100 Cup and Xfinity starts (mostly with back-marker teams).
But after winning in each of the past two seasons, Bowman, 28, earned his first multiyear contract extension three months ago. Even if he exits the playoffs after the first round for the first time in four appearances, the stand-up way he has handled the letdown of the first two races shows he was a worthy long-term choice by team owner Rick Hendrick.
After an “up-and-down weird night” at Richmond where his No. 48 Chevrolet vacillated between being “really bad” and being one of the fastest cars, Bowman still was owning his error from the playoff opener a week earlier.
Shortly after the green flag of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Bowman slapped the Darlington Raceway wall and collected teammate William Byron (who now is in the danger zone of being 18 points behind the cutline and in potential must-win territory for Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway).
“(Richmond) could have been way worse for us, but Darlington is just on me. I tried to let (Reddick) go and I drove it straight into the fence instead of on Lap 7,” Bowman said. “When you put yourself in a hole like that, it’s tough to overcome. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a night capable of overcoming that tonight and we’re going to have to go do that (at Bristol). Yeah, it’s a bummer. It puts us in a really tough spot. But when you have these three-round deals, that’s what happens.”
“To be honest, I think the only person I can be frustrated with is myself for hitting the wall early last week. That’s what it all comes down to, and I feel pretty responsible with (Byron) on that front as well. I’ll take the blame on that one. All the haters on Twitter can come at me for that because that’s my fault. I just drove into the wall really early and made a mistake. I think if we have a day like we should have had at Darlington, we’d be fine right now.
“Am I frustrated? Yes. But what am I going to go do? Cry about it for the next seven days until I go to work at Bristol? I’m going to go home and drink some beers, study for a week and try to haul ass at Bristol.”
The hard decisions
— Alex Bowman (@Alex_Bowman) September 12, 2021
Preparation has been a key this season to his wins at Richmond, Dover and Pocono, as Bowman and team each time capitalized on the opportunity presented by another driver’s misfortune.
Bowman has talked at length this year about the extra homework that he has put in to study his rolling speeds on pit stops, and Bristol will require a new cram session. Bowman was unsure Saturday night how traction compound would be applied to the 0.533-mile concrete oval.
“Sometimes they put it in the group chat,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t put it in the group chat. Sometimes I’m not in the right group chat. Technology, right?”
How many group chats are there?
“Too many,” Bowman said. “I want to leave all of them. I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but I just want to do me and live in my own little world and not be in any of the group chats.”
We’re good with that — but the NASCAR playoff world will be a little less fun in Round 2 if Bowman stumbles again at Bristol.
While the Richmond dominance was expected by Joe Gibbs Racing (which was a Kyle Busch speeding penalty from its first 1-2-3-4 finish), Team Penske’s relative lack of performance was a surprise.
“Disappointing day,” said Keselowski, who had called his shot by winning at Richmond a year earlier. “Didn’t have any speed. Just ran a whole race and didn’t really make any mistakes, but that’s all we had. I was hoping this was going to be a big day for us, but we never really showed any strength.”
After pushing its chips in on 750 horsepower tracks last year (and landing two spots in the championship round), Penske drivers have yet to flash the same speed at the two 750 tracks that opened the 2021 playoffs (the first round will end on a third 750 track with Bristol Motor Speedway).
“We’re grinding them out, but had nothing for the Gibbs cars tonight,” Joey Logano said after placing fifth at Richmond. “They’ve come out of the gate swinging pretty hard right now. Ten weeks is a long time. A lot of things change in that amount of time. You just got to be around and keep yourself in the hunt. So that’s what we’re doing now.
“There’s no doubt that we’re a little behind right now, but we just have to stay focused on ourselves. Every track is a little different.”
“I’d say maybe a little discouraged because this is our best racetrack, so I was probably expecting a little bit more here,” he said. “(In) the spring race, I was in the mix with those guys and able to pass (Hamlin) on the long haul. Tonight, there was no chance of that. I couldn’t see him on the long haul. They made gains over the last few months. We just have to catch up in whatever it is. Racing is always a little bit of everything. I wouldn’t say it’s engine at a track like this. It’s probably a little bit of aero and maybe some chassis stuff.”
With three of the final seven races at 750 tracks (including the final two at Martinsville and Phoenix), Logano said he still “absolutely” felt that “750 is our wheelhouse.”
Saturday night marked the sixth consecutive Cup race at Richmond to feature between three and five caution flags – a 2,400-lap stretch that has featured two yellows for multi-car incidents. It’s evident that the bottom lane has become dominant to the point where the outside isn’t an option the way it once was at the 0.75-mile track.
As Chase Elliott told NBC Sports last week: “There are multiple grooves, but I feel like the guy that wins is typically around the bottom. So are there really multiple grooves? No, not really. I feel like the race is won at the bottom. When you get to that desperation mode of having to make something happen, then you have to start searching, but I feel like the race is won by who can be tidy and clean to the bottom.”
That also was during the era when the surface was being treated with a sealer that helped promote side-by-side racing as it wore off during the course of the weekend.
The company that sealed Richmond from 1988-2002 still is located just a few miles from the track. Given so much experimenting with traction compounds in recent years, it certainly couldn’t hurt to try reintroducing the sealer.
At a bare minimum, NASCAR should be looking hard at moving one of Richmond’s races back to Sunday afternoon (an annual daytime Cup race in 2015-17 produced better on-track quality on par with last Saturday’s Xfinity race).