By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
ISM Raceway isn’t just Alex Bowman’s home track, but the site where his racing career positively changed after capturing his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pole at Phoenix in November 2016.
Bowman returned to the site of his career-defining weekend on Friday and looks to improve from his career-best sixth-place finish in Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500.
In his last Cup trip to the “Valley of the Sun,” Bowman was a substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who sat out the final 18 races of the season due to a concussion. After leading a career-high 194 of 324 laps, fans noticed what Bowman can do in top-tier equipment, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
On Lap 317, Bowman restarted second next to leader Matt Kenseth and cleared past him. Kyle Busch saw an opening on the bottom which Bowman blocked the former series champion, but things went haywire from there.
Entering Turn 1, Bowman’s car got sideways after blocking Busch, resulting in him colliding with Kenseth, who dove down to Bowman’s racing line, with the collision sending Kenseth into the wall, diminishing his chance of making the Championship 4.
The now 24-year-old Tucson, Arizona native soldiered on to score his third and final top-10 of 2016. Two years later, Bowman now drives the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet full-time, scoring a pole in the Daytona 500 and sits 17th in points after three races.
During Friday morning’s press conference, Bowman said he hopes going back to his home track after successful performances in both Cup and the Xfinity Series will end with his first Cup victory.
“Yeah, it’s always fun to come home,” Bowman said. “Don’t really get to spend a lot of time out here. It’s definitely an enjoyable trip. I really enjoy this racetrack too. Pretty successful here, wish we could close races a little better here. We have run really well here in the Xfinity Series and in the Cup Series. Just never been able to close one off. Hopefully, that all changes this weekend.”
Last November, Bowman scored an eighth-place finish for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series, but added it’s not a track young drivers can easily adapt to, including himself.
“I feel like it took me longer to get kind of a grasp of this place than the 1.5-miles really,” Bowman said. “Honestly, I think a lot of what people look at as how a driver adapts to somewhere or a driver just runs really well on 1.5-miles or struggles on short tracks or as good on short tracks and struggles on 1.5-miles is much more about the racecar and the package than they have than about the driver themselves. When I first came here, we never really ran that well.
“The crew chief was like ‘man you just can’t qualify here, you can’t make speed here.’ And then I got in a good car and sat on the pole. It’s so much about equipment and sometimes your 1.5-mile program is better than your short track program and it makes you look like you adapt to different places differently. At least that is my opinion, some people may struggle with short tracks, it’s probably different for everybody, but I think it’s really more about your program.”
Since his last Cup start at Phoenix, Bowman is confident his race notes will benefit the No. 88 Chevrolet Sunday in spite of driving a Camaro ZL1 instead of the SS he finished sixth.
“Absolutely, we have a notebook of what I liked here and a really good one at that. We were really fast here before. I think it’s a positive. We’ve got some changes. The racecar has changed, we have the new car in the Camaro ZL1,” Bowman added. “A lot has changed, but at the same time at least we have something to kind of look back on and look at what changes I liked and didn’t like throughout practice and where our car was strong and where we needed work. I think it’s always good to have that notebook to lean on and especially here with as good of a notebook as we’ve had.”
Bowman was 12th quickest in opening practice with a time of 26.254 seconds (137.122 mph), 0.220 seconds behind Kyle Larson’s fastest time of 26.034.