By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. still sidelined from competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series due to a concussion, and Jeff Gordon having prior commitments, Alex Bowman was once again called upon to pilot the No. 88 Axalta/University of Michigan Chervolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports. When Bowman rolled off of the truck for practice, he got his first taste on the lower downforce rules package that was used earlier this season at the first race at Michigan International Speedway of the year and Kentucky. Bowman was 14th in the first practice session.
As the first round of qualifying got under way, Bowman waited on pit road like many others. Bowman quickly put a time on top of the speed charts. Bowman’s time was slowly knocked down as his teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott, among others ran faster. Bowman finished the first round in the sixth position and advanced to round two.
In the second round of qualifying, Bowman ran a lap nearly a tenth faster than round one. However, Bowman was not the only one to pick up speed in round two. Bowman finished round two in the ninth position, well within the top 12 that advanced to round three.
Round three started with an interesting move. As Bowman sped off of pit road to be able to start his flying lap with momentum, Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Jimmy Johns Chervolet blocked him. Harvick had moved his car over just enough to force Bowman to slow his car to avoid contact.
The remainder of round three was uneventful for Bowman. Bowman was scored with the sixth fastest lap, which was over a tenth faster than his lap from round two. Joey Logano scored the pole for Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 with a speed of 201.698mph.
Bowman’s sixth starting spot is his best career start in the Cup Series. Bowman’s previous best starting spot was 14th in the 2014 Talladega Chase race.
When a thankful Bowman talked about his close call with Harvick, he also wished Earnhardt Jr. a speedy recovery.
“Well, he wanted to get on the race track and I wanted to get on the race track and we ended up about running into each other. It’s just part of this new qualifying deal. It makes it exciting for the fans a little bit. I’m just so glad to be here with HMS and I hate that it’s under these circumstances. Obviously we’re wishing Dale a quick recovery and hope he gets back in the car soon. I’m thankful for Axalta and the University of Michigan for putting some faith in me and letting me be here and drive their race car today.”
An optimistic Bowman also explained why he is looking forward to this weekend’s race.
“I feel like New Hampshire is not one of my better race tracks and this (MIS) is one of my best race tracks. I think that’s going to help me this weekend. Just having done it once is not as nerve wracking or as stressful. All these guys are so great to work with. They’ve stayed in close contact and I had a plan coming here with (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and it’s definitely been easier than Loudon was. I’m just really thankful for Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports to let me do this and I’m just glad to be here. Hopefully it opens some eyes and I can get a job or something for next year because having a day job isn’t much fun, but I’m just happy to be here.”
Bowman and his Hendrick Motorsports team will now look forward to Sunday’s race with a rules package that so far, has been dominated with wins by Team Penske.