By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
The pressure on the shoulders of Alex Bowman must have been immense all week long, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell as the young driver from Tucson, Arizona looked calm, cool and collected while driving in relief of NASCAR’s most popular driver — Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Bowman got the call mid-week to run the Sprint Cup Series race for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 team, after Earnhardt found out that what he believed to be a sinus infection was actually symptoms of a concussion likely sustained after recent crashes in Michigan and Daytona.
Bowman, who has finished inside the top-10 in all five of his NASCAR Xfinity Series starts this season with JR Motorsports, qualified for his first Sprint Cup Series start of 2016 in the 20th position.
When the race went green Sunday, Bowman quickly became comfortable in one of the best cars in NASCAR’s premier series garage. By lap 25, Bowman had rocketed to 16th and it appeared that he would make some noise in his relief effort.
As the first run of the day drug on, Bowman’s car began to get tighter. When the competition caution came out on lap 35, Bowman and the No. 88 team got just two tires, while just about everyone behind them were on four tires. This decision sent the No. 88 backwards in the field, and for the majority of the middle stages of the race, Bowman would sit around 17th-20th.
As his car began to free up in the second half of the event, Bowman began to charge back forward. After a green-flag pit stop sequence cycled through on lap 192, Bowman was up to 12th and he had his eyes set on his first-career top-10 finish in his 72 Sprint Cup Series starts.
On lap 221, Bowman utilized a fast Hendrick Motorsports pit crew to move inside the top-10.
On a restart on lap 273 Bowman skillfully dodged the wounded race car of Martin Truex Jr., but in the process he picked up a tire rub. A few laps later Bowman made contact with Kurt Busch as he had a flat left rear tire, which sent him sliding out of control and into the wall.
After the race, Bowman explained that the initial tire rub actually came during the round of pit stops before the restart.
“I think the No. 19 (Carl Edwards) was backing up because he was blocked in as I was leaving the pit box. My left-rear hit his right-rear as I was leaving. It caved it in enough, we thought we would be fine, but obviously, when I got into the No. 41 (Kurt Busch) it was already going down,” Said Bowman. “I got really loose, got up the race track and got into him. I hate that for Kurt. Obviously, just got loose had a tire going down and then it went down at about the start/finish line, I just tried to hang on to it. It is really unfortunate. They knew we were here for sure and I had a blast.”
Bowman would soldier on the rest of the day, and would come home 26th. But the finish surely wasn’t indicative of the great run he had on Sunday. But even after the disappointing finish, Bowman was able to find positives from the day.
“It was amazing. I can’t thank Hendrick Motorsports and all these guys enough. They took me to my worst race track by far and made me look good,” Bowman stated. “I just have to thank Mr. H.I had such an amazing time. Everybody, Greg (Ives, crew chief) and all the guys were so welcoming. I hate the circumstances and really hope Dale is feeling well, but I had so much fun today. Obviously, I hate that we didn’t get the finish we deserve, but I’ve raced with a lot of these guys for a long time. I raced around them I’ve never got to actually race with guys like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, all those guys. I had a lot of fun passing really good cars.”