After being thrust into the spotlight as the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the No. 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports, Alex Bowman has impressed in his nine starts for the team, but took it to a new level at Phoenix, scoring a sixth place finish.
As a native of Tucson, Arizona, Phoenix serves as Bowman’s home track and in Bowman’s own words is a track that has “always been a place that’s been close to my heart,” so running well on the desert mile would be important for Bowman and his team.
Bowman kicked off the race weekend by storming to the pole position on Friday evening to lead the field to green on Sunday afternoon ahead of some of the other young guns in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Joey Logano.
Once the green flag flew on Sunday, Bowman showed that the pole run was no fluke and quickly pulled away with the lead and held onto the point for the first 92 laps before ceding the lead over to Logano. Though Logano and Jimmie Johnson would lead 63 of the next 64 laps, Bowman was able to retake the lead at lap 157 to resume his impressive run at the front of the field for another 101 laps led.
At lap 258, the majority of the leaders, including Bowman, made their way down pit road under caution, but Bowman’s four-tire pit stop kept him from leaving pit road as the leader as he would drop further down in the top-10. Despite losing the lead on pit road, Bowman just buckled down and set his sights on moving back up through the field to the lead.
As the laps wound down, Bowman picked off car after car, moving back into the top-three with 17 laps to go and back to second just two laps later. Over the final 15 laps, Bowman set his sights on race leader Matt Kenseth, but wasn’t making up much ground and looked to be on the way to a second place finish. However, the caution flag flew with two laps to go, giving Bowman one final shot at getting back to the lead to try and score his first Cup Series win.
On the ensuing restart, Kenseth got the jump on Bowman, who was trying to hold off a charge from Kyle Busch, but when the two got down to Turn 1, calamity ensued. Bowman was as low as he could be on the track as Kenseth cut down, causing the two to make contact, which sent Kenseth spinning into the outside wall and dropping Bowman to fifth place.
Bowman held steady in fifth on the final restart, but would lose one more position on the final lap to Kurt Busch to finish the race in sixth place with 194 laps led on the day.
“I’m not sure if he thought he was clear. Obviously, it’s really unfortunate, you never want to ruin a Chase guy’s day like that. I would have rather just raced him for the win. Obviously, it ruined our day too. Really unfortunate. We had a run on him and the 18 jacked me up and got me really loose on entry, but I was up against the inside wall when him and I made contact. So, I don’t know if his spotter cleared him or what there. It’s just unfortunate. I hate that for Matt. Obviously, very unintentional, but I’ve got to thank everyone at Hendrick Motorsports. Very thankful to be here and have such a strong day in my home state,” said Bowman.
“I’m here to win races. I don’t have anything to do. I’ve got nothing to lose besides try to win races, so if it would have come down to the last corner, I for sure would have moved him, but you never want to wreck somebody like that. Obviously, that sucks, but definitely just here to race and here to win.”
Even though he fell short of his first win, Bowman’s finish was still the highest of his Cup Series career and served notice that even though he does not have a full-time ride for 2017, he can get it done when he has the right equipment underneath of him and possibly will raise some eyebrows among Cup Series owners with open seats for next season.