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Bowman Heading for Brickyard Full of Confidence as Cup Series Winner, Playoffs Driver

Alex Bowman had enough.

Enough of the second-place finishes this year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Enough of the doubts he would ever win a Cup Series race. Enough of the whispers he wasn’t good enough to fill the seat vacated by retired legend Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Enough.

So Bowman silenced the doubts and the garage murmurs with a convincing, dramatic victory in the Camping World 400 on Sunday, June 30 at Chicagoland Speedway. It was his first Cup Series victory in his second full season driving the No. 88 Chevrolet fielded by powerful Hendrick Motorsports and made famous by Earnhardt.

The victory came in his 134th career Cup Series start, as Bowman also raced full time in Cup in 2014-15 for smaller teams. Bowman, 26, from Tucson, Arizona, suffered through a span of three consecutive runner-up finishes this spring, at Talladega, Dover and Kansas. That only magnified the scrutiny and pressure on him.

“I was just tired of running second,” Bowman said. “I don't want to do that anymore. I feel like this is the last box, aside from going and chasing a championship, that I needed personally for myself to validate my career. I feel like obviously there's a lot more left to accomplish, but this is always what I hear is, ‘You haven't won a race.’”

Bowman entered Chicagoland Speedway last weekend 70 points above the cut line to earn a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs. But now his second consecutive spot in the postseason is secure with the victory, as he qualified last year on points.

So Bowman can roll without stress through the summer and into the final race of the regular season, the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line on Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And he is ready to unleash a bit of the swagger that only race winners can enjoy.

“I can stop watching the points race every week and worrying about trying to be in,” Bowman said. “Obviously we’re pretty strong in points, but we weren't locked in by any means.

“Doing that, I feel like we can just be more aggressive, take more chances. I feel like I can be more aggressive on green flag pit stops and just little things like that that sometimes if you overstep, it completely ruins your day and costs you a ton of points.

“We don't have to worry as much about that, and I can work on getting 10-tenths out of it so when the playoffs come, I know how hard I can push or can't push.”

Bowman needed to push plenty hard Sunday at Chicagoland to hold off a charging Kyle Larson. Bowman led 88 of the 267 laps, but his three-second lead over Larson within the last 20 laps evaporated with eight laps to go when Larson passed him for the top spot.

But Bowman switched from the high line to the low groove and with six laps to go drove under Larson between Turns 1 and 2. He then side-drafted Larson on the back straight and took the lead for good in Turn 3. It was a carbon copy of Larson’s pass two laps earlier.

Bowman then pulled away to win by .546 of a second in the No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet.

“I felt like we had a car capable of winning,” Bowman said. “We got held up there (in traffic) for a little while. I got super frustrated with some lap cars just not helping us, which they don't have to help us, but that's just kind of part of it. We lost a big lead there, and I got pretty frustrated, burned the right rear tire off trying to get around some lap cars. And when Kyle got around me, I was going to tear the right side off it, try and run the fence or get back around him.

“So glad we kept it out of the fence, and I was kind of surprised that he left the top open the way he did and left clean air up there, and surprised that it worked. I guess I should have moved up there earlier. But I didn't want to run second again.”

While his three straight runner-up finishes this season solidified a spot above the Playoffs cutline, Bowman was especially irritated by finishing second Saturday, May 11 in the night race at Kansas Speedway.

Not only was it his third straight second-place finish, but he led 63 laps, including 62 in the final stage of the race. Brad Keselowski slipped past Bowman for the victory with 10 laps to go.

But there was a small silver lining in that gray cloud of frustration. The 1.5-mile layout at Kansas is almost identical to the track at Chicagoland. So Bowman’s crew chief, Greg Ives, decided to bring the same car to Chicagoland last weekend.

Smart move.

“Probably should have won that race,” Bowman said. “I gave that one away. We've just been so strong at this type of racetrack.

“I think after Kansas, we run second, I'm super bummed on that one. 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, he's like: ‘Just wait until Chicago. We're going to go haul ass there, and we were able to do that.”

The victory at Chicagoland also answered questions about Bowman’s future.

Filling the seat of Earnhardt, one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history, never was going to be easy for any driver. But the pressure was even higher for Bowman, who raced in 2014 and 2015 in the Cup Series in relative anonymity for low-budget teams BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.

Bowman made 10 starts in the No. 88 for Hendrick in the 2016 season, splitting the ride with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon as a replacement for Earnhardt, who missed the second half of the season with concussion symptoms.

The highlight of that stint was winning the pole at Phoenix and finishing sixth after battling for the lead with six laps to go.

But some fans and media questioned the selection of Bowman as Earnhardt’s replacement at Hendrick starting with the 2018 season since he wasn’t a household name with a winning resume at the Cup level.

Those doubts only increased as Bowman went through the first year and a half of his Cup career without a victory. But Bowman wasn’t the only Hendrick driver to struggle in the last 18 months. Chase Elliott was the only Hendrick driver to win in 2018 and 2019 before last Saturday night, with three victories in 2018 and one this season.

But now that Bowman has finally entered Victory Circle, he feels more comfortable about his future with team owner Rick Hendrick and his spot in the vaunted No. 88.

“I’m going to be driving the car next year,” Bowman said. “I’m not worried about that. Mr. H has told me I’m good there, so that's all I need to hear. We just need to go win some more races and maybe go chase a championship, and I'm confident the rest will take care of itself.

“The beginning of this year was rough. I feel like people question me a lot and if I deserve to be here or not, 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 racetrack not a lot of fun. But glad we're having a lot of fun now.”

 
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