JOLIET, Ill. — Alex Bowman climbed from his car, which was stuck in the mud, and steadied himself on the door. The next step he took elevated him into a moment of a lifetime.
There on the car’s roof, Bowman stood, a Cup winner for the first time.
As he relished the feeling, the 26-year-old shed the doubt, disrespect and disappointment that has followed him in his career.
“I feel like I’m so used to being disappointed in a way after Cup races and stock car races in general,” Bowman said after winning Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway. “My career hasn’t been what I would have hoped it would have been as a kid.”
If you get beat down enough, sometimes it’s hard to truly revel when things go so well. Runner-up Kyle Larson noted how Bowman’s celebration seemed muted.
“Looking at the big screen, he’s like the most unexcited person I’ve ever seen in my life to get his first Cup win,” Larson said.
Larson went to victory lane to congratulate Bowman and told his friend how calm he looked. Bowman said he didn’t know what to do.
“I’m so happy, and I feel like I’m not really showing it because I just don’t really know what to say,” Bowman later said.
Bowman’s voyage to this victory was an odyssey that no one will ever repeat. He was not ordained in the way others have been, their paths to Cup paved with the proper funding and elite rides.
“His story in climbing up through the ranks … is like the workingman’s story,” teammate Jimmie Johnson said.
Nine years ago, Bowman was in an intensive care unit, eyes swollen shut, ribs and collarbones broken after a vicious crash in a midget car. Told he’d be out eight weeks, he returned in half that time.
Bowman was the K&N Pro Series East rookie of the year in 2011, beating Chase Elliott for that honor, and won that same award the next year in the ARCA Series to earn a ride in the Xfinity Series in 2013.
The rise to Cup was quick but the rides were unremarkable. He drove for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, two teams that no longer exist, in 2014-15. He was prepared to run for Baldwin’s team in 2016 until he found out on Twitter less than a month before the Daytona 500 he was no longer with the team.
Bowman ran only nine Xfinity races in 2016 and returned to Cup only after Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the second half of the season because of concussion symptoms. Bowman filled in for Earnhardt for 10 races. When Earnhardt returned in 2017, Bowman ran no Cup races, two Xfinity races (with one win) and one Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. Instead, his time was spent mostly in Chevrolet’s simulator working for Hendrick Motorsports.
When Bowman was selected to take over the No. 88 after Earnhardt’s retirement in 2018, some people thought Bowman was a Cup rookie unaware he had run two full seasons.
“I feel like people question me a lot, and if I deserve to be here or not,” Bowman said. “Just based on the fact that I don’t have a big resume to fall back on. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities throughout my career, but when we went stock car racing, those opportunities got pretty slim.
“Just getting a Cup win is something that kind of relaxes me in the sense that I feel like I can finally say I deserve to be here. But there were definitely some times I was very worried about it. It made going to the race track not a lot of fun. But glad we’re having a lot of fun now.”
Crew chief Greg Ives understands the questions. There were those who wondered about him being paired with Earnhardt in 2015 even though Ives didn’t have experience as a crew chief in Cup.
“Sometimes respect is what you’ve got to go and get, and I think (Bowman) has been capable of doing that,” said Ives, who won three Cup races with Earnhardt in 2015 but none since until Sunday. “I feel like I’ve underperformed a little bit with the cars and been able to over the course of the last month and a half, two months been able to give (Bowman) an opportunity to run up front and show what he’s made of.”
Bowman scored consecutive runner-up finishes at Talladega, Dover and Kansas.
Bowman said the Talladega finish was good since he hadn’t placed better than 11th to that point in the season. The Dover result also felt good after he started at the rear. The Kansas finish was the most disappointing, he admits.
“I’m super bummed on that one,” Bowman said. “My family is from there, and I really wanted to win that race. I was pretty upset with myself, and I got back to the lounge, and one of our engineers, Tim (O’Brien), he’s like, ‘Just wait until Chicago, we’re going to go haul ass there,’ and we were able to do that.”
All four Hendrick Motorsports cars were strong Sunday but Bowman had to take this win from Larson after Larson chased him down and took the lead with eight laps to go. Tired of those runner-up finishes this season, Bowman pursued, pressured and persevered, passing Larson with an aggressive side draft and slight contact with six laps to go.
“The contact was pretty unintentional,” Bowman said. “That was just hard racing, and I think it’s a lot of fun to race Kyle like that.”
And even more fun winning.
“It’s something that,” Bowman said, “that’s all I’ve wanted my whole life.”
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