By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
It was a tale of two stories for Hendrick Motorsports in Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway. Two of them ended up crashing while being front runners (Jimmie Johnson and William Byron) while two others (Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott) brought home top-fives.
The best of the bunch was Bowman, who not only is fresh off signing a contract extension through 2021, but scored a runner-up finish.
The black and gold No. 88 NOCO/ChevyGoods.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE led 41 of 293 laps and while he had nothing on race winner Kevin Harvick at race’s end, he did contend for the top spot on the final restart with 34 laps to go.
For a brief moment, Bowman had the advantage over Harvick going into Turns 1-2 but wasn’t able to clear him as the 2014 Cup Series champion one-upped him and went on to lead 159 laps en route of his 50th career NASCAR Cup Series victory.
“It’s great to be back. Obviously, a little different but felt really good to be back in the car,” Bowman on returning back to real-life competition. “We’re really strong on short runs right off the bat, it just got tight as the run went on. Freed it up quite a bit throughout the first 2/3 of the race and got the car pretty good. Then I kind of leaned it on the wall a little bit and hurt us there at the end.”
While Bowman was satisfied to have another strong run in the sport’s return of real-life racing after 70 days, he wasn’t fully content how the final run went as a shot of a second Cup win this year slipped away.
“I felt like I didn’t do a great job knowing what I needed to be able to beat the No. 4 on long runs at the end,” Bowman on battling Harvick. “I felt like if I could’ve got in front of him on the short run, I could’ve held him off from clean air. I couldn’t get the car free right on the wall or get it tight by turning down off the wall a little bit and I didn’t really knew which direction to go on that last change.
“I got to do a little better drop there, but I’m really happy with everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. To come off of a mini-off-season there and have four cars that were all really strong and have a good solid day like that means a lot. I can’t wait to be back here on Wednesday.”
On a positive note, Bowman added that not having to worry about his racing future took tremendous weight off his back and excited to focus on racing over contract negotiations.
“Not having to talk about 2021 anymore and focus on the task at hand and contending for the championship is really good. Got to thank Mr. (Rick) Hendrick and everybody at HMS. Obviously, my career has changed significantly since coming over at HMS,” Bowman on signing the extension. “They gave me a big break and I’m very appreciative for that. I’m really enjoying it and glad to have that squared away, and just ready to go and try to win some races.”
Sunday’s result marked the 27-year-old’s second top-five of 2020 and will head into Wednesday’s Toyota 500K second in points, trailing Harvick by 28 points.
Bowman commented how Sunday’s 293-lap race was a true testament that all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers as their intermediate track program continues being strong and they’re far from done as he feels HMS are on the rise.
“The way we started the season, especially unloading at Las Vegas. I think we saw that our race cars were going to be really strong and to continue that after we got shut down and firing everything back up, and continuing the streak that we have means a lot,” said the Arizonian.
Bowman added that the time off due to COVID-19, this past week was an example of teams getting a chance on working the cars in some capacity.
“It was an interesting time period because guys couldn’t really be in their shops developing new stuff. We weren’t allowed to be in the wind tunnel, simulators and all that stuff, but everybody is at home working on their notebooks and trying to piece together to make the race cars better,” Bowman commented.
“In a sense, it didn’t really give that complete opportunity to catch up, but it at least gave them some opporutnity and I think for everyone at HMS to stay on top of things and improve our race cars, we didn’t just come back with what he had at Vegas or Fontana (which Bowman won), I think we came back with something better. We need to keep working on it because everybody around us is constantly getting better as well.”
Going into the 228-lap weeknight race, Bowman won’t have clean air right out of the gate as Sunday’s second place starter will roll off 19th due to the inversion of the top-20 drivers.
Not only he’ll deal with tremendous traffic early on, he still expects the same top contenders from Sunday being strong Wednesday. That said, there’s a strong chance the No. 88 team will have to bring another car.
“I don’t know if you can bring the same car or not. I did get the wall a little bit, so they’d have to probably put a brand new right rear quarter panel on it. I think it’s pretty tricky on trying to turn stuff around, so I don’t think we’ll bring the same car,” said Bowman. “I’m very certainly we’ll bring a different car, but everybody at HMS does a really good job on getting all the cars extremely close and I think we can take what we ran.
“I have a pretty good idea on some adjustments we couldn’t do on pit road, but I felt like would really help what I needed in a race car there to be a little better on long runs and help me in some areas. I’m really looking forward, I think we have a good game plan for it and obviously our cars are really strong right now.”
Live coverage of the second Darlington race begins at 7:30 pm EST on FS1. Ryan Preece is the pole sitter by virtue of the invert after finishing 20th in Sunday’s race.