Right place, right time: How Alex Bowman won at Las Vegas

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After he came from the rear, spun during the race and hit the wall another time in his backup car, Kyle Busch was on the verge of winning Sunday’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Then a late caution sent the race into overtime. What happened next ended Busch’s hopes of winning a Cup race for an 18th consecutive season, which would tie Richard Petty for the longest streak in NASCAR history.

Frustrated, Busch unleashed a torrent of expletives after seeing Alex Bowman nab another race with late theatrics. 

“The same (expletive) guy that backs into every (expletive) win that he ever (expletive) gets, backs into another (expletive) win. (Expletive)! (Expletive)!”

But did Bowman, who rallied from a pit road penalty on Lap 136 of the 274-lap race, really back into this win?

Yes, pit strategy played into Bowman’s hands, but every team could have made the same decision.

As the caution came out to send the race into overtime, crew chief Greg Ives thought back to this race two years ago. Bowman was second when the caution came out in the final laps. He was among those who pitted, but a few cars did not pit. Bowman got shuffled back after the restart and finished 13th.

“I’ve been prepared since 2020 for this one,” Ives said, alluding to what he called a “wrong call.”

This time, Bowman was fourth when the caution came out for the final time, trailing Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Ross Chastain. 

Much of the field had run at least 47 laps on their set of tires (Bowman had run 48 laps), so everyone would pit for tires. While the natural decision was to take four tires, Ives knew that teammate Kyle Larson, who entered pit road sixth, likely would only take two tires. 

Having won last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels could gamble on a two-tire stop. So, Ives figured he could only afford to take two tires to try to get a front row starting spot. 

Brad Keselowski took only two tires during a caution on Lap 83 and started on the front row. Everyone behind him took four tires, but Keselowski got to the lead and held it for three laps. The overtime restart would be only two laps.

But it wasn’t just Bowman and Larson who took two tires. Teammate William Byron took two tires. Ives said this was not a coordinated effort by the Hendrick crew chiefs to take two tires; it just worked out that way.

Busch, then, was the first car off pit road with four tires. 

Next came what lane the leaders would take for the restart. Larson took the top lane on the front row, much to Bowman’s pleasure.

“I just felt like when he took the top, I was way more confident,” Bowman said after his seventh career Cup win. “The bottom was where I wanted to be. It was where my car worked the best. I thought that gave me my best shot.”

Just as important was who took what spot in the second row. Byron chose the top spot, leading Busch to take the inside lane to be on the bottom.

Chastain, who was fifth to choose, debated with his team what lane to select. As they pondered what to do, Chastain said on his team’s radio: “Maybe the answer is wherever the shortest line of two tires is.”

That was the inside line, so Chastain, who had led a race-high 83 laps, chose the inside of row 3.

Busch ran side-by-side with Byron behind Bowman and Larson for more than a lap, keeping him stuck on the bottom and unable to take advantage of his four tires. By the time he got Byron, Larson and Bowman were dueling for the lead on the backstretch on the last lap. Chastain got by Busch at the finish line for third.

While Busch lamented how Bowman has won, Bowman was in position to take advantage of situations. Consider what Bowman did last year:

Busch again witnessed Bowman’s late-race magic Sunday. What he also saw were teammates racing hard but clean.

Last week, Larson didn’t see teammate Chase Elliott late and moved up the track, sending Elliott into the wall. Elliott expressed his displeasure on the radio. Car owner Rick Hendrick met virtually with his drivers and crew chiefs to explain how teammates should race one another.

Jeff Gordon, vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, said the message was a familiar one.

“When I came to Hendrick Motorsports, it was race hard but don’t wreck your teammates,” Gordon said. “It’s what you do. You want to go race your teammates for wins and settle them among yourselves. 

“I thought they raced one another clean but very aggressive. I talked to Kyle Larson there at the end, he was trying really hard to stay on the outside of Alex and maybe even pushed it a little too hard and got the car tight. Alex, I was talking to him in Victory Lane, (and he said) ‘I drove in there as hard as I could. I didn’t know if it was going to stick and it did.’

“The conversation that Rick had was really more pertained to what happened at the end of that race last week and similar type scenarios and blocking and also working through when things like that happen, how you work through it internally.”

This week, there were no frustrations among Hendrick drivers. It was just Busch watching Bowman win again.