Friday 5: The many sides of Alex Bowman

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Alex Bowman’s life is full of contradictions on and off the track.

Start with his dogs: Roscoe, a beagle mix, and Finn, a Labrador retriever.

“Finn is an awesome dog,” Bowman told NBC Sports in the offseason. “You can take him anywhere. Super chill. Take him to the racetrack, (he) doesn’t mind.

“Roscoe. Total opposite. … Hates all other dogs beside Finn. Causes a scene wherever you take him. He’s like that person at the bar that is always causing a scene. That’s my dog Roscoe. He stays at home most of the time because of that, but I love them both.”

Just as his dogs provide contrasts, so does his racing career. 

Amid his victory celebration last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Bowman’s career faced scrutiny because of Kyle Busch’s rant. 

Busch, who was on the way to winning until a late caution took away his advantage and pit strategy gave it to Bowman, unleashed a string of expletives on his team’s radio about Bowman’s seemingly good fortune in many of his victories. 

Bowman told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he and Busch talked this week and Busch — who has finished runner-up to Bowman three times — expressed that his comments were made in the heat of the moment.

Still, Bowman’s victory marked yet another time he won a race in the final laps. 

Five of Bowman’s seven career Cup victories have come when he took the lead with 10 laps or less remaining. While that shows he can put himself in position to win, others may view it as a sign of luck or good fortune and overlook his talent. Don’t do that.

Since the start of last season, Bowman has won five Cup races. Only Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson has more victories (11) during that time. A lack of consistency, though, has plagued Bowman and his team since he began running full-time at Hendrick in 2018, making the narrative on Bowman more challenging to decipher. 

Bowman has finished 20th or worse in 43 of his 147 starts (29.3%) at Hendrick. This year follows the pattern. He placed 24th in the Daytona 500 and 25th at Auto Club Speedway before winning at Las Vegas. 

Bowman knows being more consistent is key for this season, but even that might not be enough to avoid being overshadowed on his own team. 

“I have quite possibly the most talented race car driver of our generation as a teammate,” Bowman told NBC Sports last year, referring to Larson. “I have the most popular race car driver of our generation as a teammate (Elliott). And I have ‘Boy Wonder’ in William Byron as a teammate. 

“I’m just a guy that likes to wrench on race cars, spend time at home with my dogs. I’m a very regular person. I don’t mind if the media thinks I’m fourth in line to those three because they’re all pretty special, and it’s just cool to be their teammate.”

NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500
William Byron (left), Alex Bowman (center) and Kyle Larson (right). Since last season, Larson and Bowman have combined to win 16 of 39 Cup races. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

But Bowman’s path to Hendrick differed greatly from his teammates.

Elliott and Byron have been with Hendrick Motorsports their entire career. Larson has raced for Chip Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports since going full-time in Cup in 2014. 

Bowman’s first race was with BK Racing. His first start came in the 2014 Daytona 500 under challenging circumstances.

“Our superspeedway cars were so slow and we weren’t locked in,” Bowman told NBC Sports about his first Daytona 500. “Talk about pressure in the playoffs. Try pressure being a broke race car driver tying to make it, trying to make your first start at the Daytona 500 when there’s (49) cars there, a bunch of guys going home.”

The first two Cup teams Bowman raced for — BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing — no longer exist. After finding out on social media he had lost his ride at Tommy Baldwin Racing shortly before the start of the 2016 season, Bowman was hired to be the driver in the simulator for Hendrick Motorsports. After Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion that season, Bowman was tabbed for 10 races. 

The next season, Bowman ran only two Xfinity races, spending his time in the simulator for Hendrick. He took over the No. 88 in 2018 after Earnhardt retired from full-time Cup racing. Bowman moved to the No. 48 last season, taking over after Jimmie Johnson left to go to IndyCar. 

Now, half his teammates have won championships. Larson and Elliott have combined to win the last two Cup titles. Could Bowman make it three in a row for Hendrick Motorsports this season?

For those who view him as more lucky than good, the question could seem ludicrous. But viewing Bowman as lucky misses the point. Just look at last week’s win at Las Vegas. 

He ranked third in average running position for the race at 6.55, trailing only Ross Chastain (3.82) and Byron (6.48). Bowman did that despite a pit-road penalty for equipment interference on Lap 136 of the 274-lap race. 

Bowman climbed to fourth before the final caution. While those ahead of him took four tires, crew chief Greg Ives called for a two-tire stop that got Bowman off pit road behind only Larson. That put the two winningest drivers in the series since last year on the front row for a two-lap shootout. 

And Bowman won. It marked the third time Larson has finished second to Bowman.

Dramatic finishes are not new to Bowman. Among his four wins last season, three came in the final 10 laps:

“It was awesome last year to win four races,” Bowman told NBC Sports in the offseason. “Obviously want more consistency. … I’m here to win trophies and Mr. Hendrick wants wins, and that’s what I’m here to deliver. While we would like to tie it together with more consistency, that’s obviously the goal for ’22, I like trophies.”

To win more trophies and gain that consistency, Bowman is trying new ways to be a better driver.

“I’ve really worked on trying to get outside my comfort zone,” he said in the offseason. “I’ve done a lot of types of training. I went to a flat track motorcycle school, which is something I never thought I would do and, to be quite honest, will never do again. 

“I fell down a lot, and I was way outside my comfort zone, but stuff like that, it’s why I’m going to race cars a lot this year and race cars that I haven’t raced before. Just try to do things that help me learn and try to do things that improve myself as a driver for Sundays.”

As for the flat track experience, Bowman said the track was too muddy, so the school ran on a dirt bike course. 

“A lot of time on the ground,” he said. “A lot of time getting really muddy. That was really it. I think the biggest thing for me was trying to figure out how to lean over and not wash the front end out. It was definitely interesting.

“Very uncomfortable. Pretty much the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life. It was rough.”

So was the early part of his Cup career, but he’s shown the ability to win.

2. Don’t overlook Trackhouse Racing

While much has been made of Trackhouse Racing scoring a top-five finish with Daniel Suarez (fourth at Auto Club) and Ross Chastain (third at Las Vegas), part of that attention is based on the team being an underdog in the sport.

That’s not how Chastain sees it.

“We are no underdog,” he told reporters Thursday.

Justin Marks’ organization is in its second season. The team expanded to a two-car operation this season. It seeks its first Cup victory. Chastain gave the organization its first stage victory last week at Las Vegas.

NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 - Qualifying
Trackhouse Racing teammates Daniel Suarez (left) and Ross Chastain have each scored a top-five finish this season. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

While recognizing the milestone, Chastain says the team seeks bigger goals.

“The plan is and the preparation we’re putting in is to get to a point where it’s just ‘Yep, OK, we won another stage. Did we win the race?”‘ Chastain said. “I don’t view us as an underdog. We don’t feel we’re lacking anything.”

After crashing in practice at Auto Club Speedway and going to a backup car, Chastain bounced back to finish third last weekend at Las Vegas and lead a career-high 83 laps. 

Chastain said he didn’t leave Las Vegas disappointed despite not getting the win after such a strong performance. 

“It was great, it is great,” Chastain said of his result. “Especially coming off the start of our season, it’s exactly what we needed. …  Super happy. I have no regrets. I know things I could have done better, I know things I could have been faster at, but as far as a whole picture, if I could have written down how the weekend would go, I would’t change anything for how it went.”

3. Sneak peak

Justin Allgaier was among three drivers who took part in a wheel force transducer test last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, marking the last time drivers will be on the repaved and reconfigured track before next weekend’s events for Cup, Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series. 

Wheel Force Transducer Tests allow manufacturers and Goodyear to collect data using specialized vehicle mounted transducers. Each manufacture is allowed to have a car at the test to compile data. Allgaier drove Chevrolet’s car. David Ragan drove Ford’s car. Drew Herring drove Toyota’s car.

For Allgaier, it was his second time on the track. He took part in the Xfinity tire test there in January. 

He says the Xfinity and Cup cars drive differently at Atlanta.

What I can tell you is the packages between the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series are completely different,” Allgaier said. “I was really surprised in the difference of speed and kind of how the cars drove.

“I would say the Cup car is obviously a lot faster and more on the limit of grip vs. what the Xfinity Series car was at the test. That will be interesting to see how that all plays out. …  I think when you look at the course of the weekend, between the Trucks, Xfinity and the Cup Series, I think you’re going to see three different types of racing over the course of the weekend, so I’ll be very excited to watch the other two.”

Cup cars will run the superspeedway package that was used at Daytona and Talladega, but will the race look like the pack racing common at those tracks?

“I think some of it is going to come down to do teams really try to go full Daytona/Talladega and trim their cars way out and do all the things we do at Daytona and Talladega?” Allgaier said. “I think there’s a lot of thought that’s going to be the right way to do it. 

“Truth be told, when we get there, having the most downforce, the most grip you can have is going to be super important because the tire doesn’t seem to fall off a lot, so the speeds stayed up kind of the whole time. You’ve got some grip to be able to maneuver around if you wanted, if you wanted to go to the middle or the top. I don’t foresee there being any issues, it’s just whether or not the drivers and teams are comfortable with being two- and three-wide.”

AUTO: JAN 06 NASCAR Goodyear Tire Test
The repaved frontstretch at Atlanta Motor Speedway during the January Goodyear tire test. Kurt Busch was among those who tested then. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NASCAR hasn’t made a formal announcement, but Steve O’Donnell, chief operating officer, suggested that the sanctioning body would have the double yellow-line rule for Atlanta.

That rule is used at Daytona and Talladega. Any driver going below the double yellow lines to pass another car will be black flagged. Any driver that forces another car below the double yellow lines to avoid being passed may be black flagged. 

Since the January tire test, Atlanta Motor Speedway, at the suggestion of drivers, made an alteration to the frontstretch wall.

A Speedway Motorsports spokesperson said track officials “softened” the entry coming out of Turn 4 and into the traditional dogleg corner by moving the outside wall in about five feet at the dogleg corner for 320 feet. A new SAFER barrier and concrete wall were put in that section.

That won’t reduce the frontstretch width, as track officials repaved much of what used to be frontstretch grass. 

4. Dirt track ready to go at Bristol

Steve Swift, senior vice president operations and development for Speedway Motorsports, says the dirt track at Bristol Motor Speedway is ready to race, adding that the task was completed about two weeks ahead of schedule.

The track will host the Bristol Dirt Nationals March 20 – April 2 before the Camping World Truck Series (April 16) and Cup Series (April 17) compete there, followed by the World of Outlaws April 28-30.

The track is using the same dirt as last year. It was stored on the track’s property. 

Citing driver feedback, officials adjusted the banking on the track. Swift said the banking is progressive, steeper at the top than the bottom.

“In talking with several of the drivers, they felt like that would make much better racing, make the track much better, make all lanes come in a lot easier,” Swift said this week.

The banking is 19 degrees at the top, 18 degrees in the middle and 16 degrees at the bottom.

5. 2023 Cup schedule update

Ben Kennedy, senior vice president of racing development and strategy for NASCAR, said the goal is to release the 2023 Cup schedule this summer. 

The past two years, NASCAR announced the schedule for the upcoming season in September. Before then, NASCAR was revealing the schedule in the spring. The schedule reveal was pushed back on the calendar the past two years as the sport dealt with the COVID pandemic. 

The later the schedule is released, the more time NASCAR has to potentially add any new venues. 

A report last month from Sports Business Journal stated that NASCAR remained in talks with Chicago for a street course race there, possibly as early as next year.

Asked about that, Kennedy said: “Definitely continue to consider all the options from a scheduling standpoint. Chicago has been one of them, and I think that’s no secret from the iRacing event we had last year. That said, nothing to confirm at this point. Still looking at a handful of different options on the table.”

NASCAR Cup Series Busch Light Clash
A estimated crowd of at least 50,000 attended The Clash at the Coliseum last month at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, marking the first time NASCAR raced in the historic stadium. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kennedy also said talks continue on the status of the Clash at the Coliseum for next year. NASCAR’s contract to have the event at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was for this year but also included options for NASCAR to have the event there in 2023 and 2024.

NASCAR’s contract with the Coliseum states that the sanctioning body must inform the facility within 90 days of the race if it seeks to run the event there next year. That would put the deadline at May 6 for NASCAR to inform Coliseum officials.

“We’re still pulling together a ton of data and recaps over the next couple of weeks or so,” Kennedy said. “Hopefully, in the next few months or so, we’ll share more on that. 

“I think overall a great event this year. A lot of new fans that were out there, both in person as well as tuned in on TV. I think it was a great way to kick off our season with the Next Gen car, which definitely didn’t disappoint as well on the racetrack.”