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.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.

 

Ryan Truex to drive six races for JGR Xfinity team in 2023

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Ryan Truex is scheduled to run six Xfinity Series races in the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.

Truex ran five races for JGR in 2022, finishing in the top five three times. He ran third at Atlanta.

Truex also drove limited Xfinity schedules for JGR in 2011 and 2012.

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“We are looking forward to having Ryan back in our lineup in 2023 to run the No. 19,” said JGR vice president Steve DeSouza in a statement released by the team. “He has done well in the races he has run at JGR. His previous experience and driving ability will be assets as the No. 19 competes for an owner’s championship next year.”

JGR has not announced which races Truex will run or which drivers will be his teammates in the 19.

“I am thrilled to be behind the wheel of the No. 19 for a few races next season,” Truex said in a team statement. “It was fun to run well with this team this past year. I appreciate the opportunity to race for JGR again next year.”

Jason Ratcliff will be the team’s crew chief.

Truex, 30, has run 26 Cup, 84 Xfinity and 73 Camping World Truck Series races without a win.