NASCAR: Denny Hamlin avoids playoff chaos, finally earns a win in 2021

Denny Hamlin got the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs off to a strong start, capturing his first win of 2021 as other contenders faltered.

The Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is no longer considered NASCAR’s “throwback” race, that honor instead being bestowed to the legendary track’s spring event. Sunday night’s winner, however, provided perfect throwback vibes as a victory lane staple finally got to hoist another trophy.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, finally earned his first race of 2021, holding off championship favorite Kyle Larson to win the opening race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Hamling stood atop the regular season standings for most of the year, but his lack of victories allowed Larson to take over.

As several other playoff contenders dropped out due to on-track incidents, Hamlin stayed out of trouble and held off a furious last-lap push from Larson to secure the win, his fourth at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”. Hamlin also earned automatic advancement to the second round of the Cup Series playoffs, which began with 16 drivers on Saturday night. The bottom four in the playoff grid will be eliminated after the upcoming race at Bristol on Sept. 18.

Non-playoff driver Ross Chastain finished third, while Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

FedEx Toyota finally delivers a win

Hamlin winning the regular season title seemed like a certainty, as he sat atop the points standings for nearly six months despite failing to visit victory lane. Entering last season’s playoffs, Hamlin and the No. 11 group had won six races before appearing amongst the championship-contending quartet in Phoenix. He maintained general consistency throughout this season (he remains the only driver in the Cup Series that has run and finished all 27 races) but saw his points lead evaporate thanks to Larson’s five victories in his return to the circuit.

The streak finally ended on Sunday night at a familiar locale. He needed no guidance toward victory lane, as he earned his fourth career victory at the legendary Darlington. That breaks a tie with Harvick for the most amongst active drivers and he becomes the eighth driver to win at least four times at a locale that has hosted NASCAR events since 1950.

Hamlin won the first of two 115-lap stages and was running second before some late damage at the end of the latter shuffled him to fourth. The No. 11 crew earned a chance to set up Hamlin for a victory when pole sitter Ryan Blaney’s spin at lap 318 of 367 brought out the caution. Hamlin beat out Chastain for the lead and then secured it for good on the restart.

“We had so many opportunities earlier this year to win races…For us, it certainly is significant,” Hamlin said of his win. “I’m not going to downplay the significance of it. It’s not just another win. This one is big for us and our team and the momentum.”

The No. 11 team now has a pair of consequence-free opportunities to tinker with their Camry before the playoff field is sliced down to a dozen.

“We didn’t have the playoff points that certainly we wish we had going into these playoffs,” he continued. “There was no room for error. And now to punch our ticket to the next round, we get to go out there and focus on getting through that second round, which I think is probably the most dangerous.”

Drive Stuck at Five

Eager to earn another win, Larson gave Hamlin everything he could handle on the final lap. Catching up to the No. 11 by running close to Darlington’s famous wall, eventually getting too close for comfort on the final lap. His No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crossed the start/finish line in a shower of sparks but managed to finish second.

“We got to the white, and I was like, well, I haven’t been able to gain on him now, I’m going to try something,” Larson said with a smile, admitting he went for the video game-style finish. “Honestly got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside, but gave (him) everything I had.”

Larson nonetheless owns a healthy 80-point lead above the 12th spot occupied by Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, a lead built through a series-best five victories and the 15-tally bonus offered to him through winning the regular season title.

Ross Is Boss Amongst the Remainders

Chastain missed out on the Cup Series playoffs but nearly disrupted the postseason party on Sunday night. His No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was leading at the time of Blaney’s spin after a strong green flag pit stop situated him in front of Larson with 67 laps to go.

Chastain and his teammate Kurt Busch are looking to send CGR out on a strong note. The team is set to shut down its NASCAR operations at the end of the season, having sold its assets to Trackhouse Racings (where Chastain will drive the No. 1 Chevrolet next season). Busch, the current driver of the No. 1, is seeking his second Cup Series title. He led 13 laps on Sunday and finished sixth to establish a 26-point lead ahead of the cutoff.

“This McDonald’s car, I think it was the fastest car here tonight,” Chastain said. “It’s humbling to come with this CGR group these final 10 races here, a place where my career kind of took a totally different trajectory three years ago and to have people like Clover and the Moose (Fraternity) and Advent Health on board supporting me and still letting me race three years later, it means the world. I’ve just got to clean up some more, though.”

Lady in Black Scorns Playoff Drivers

Darlington lived up to its reputation as The Track Too Tough to Tame, claiming the vehicles of several playoff drivers…

  • Larson’s runner-up finish salvaged a brutal night for Hendrick Motorsports: Bowman made contact with the wall at lap 16, damaging teammate William Byron’s car in the process. Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed to finish after a blow tired put him into the wall at lap 200, dropping him to 34th in the final running order and 15th in the playoff standings, nine points behind Reddick and Bowman’s cutoff. Bowman’s No. 48 Chevrolet finished the race in 26th, four laps down.

 

  • Defending series champion Chase Elliott, another HMS rep, was not immune to the struggles. His No. 9 Chevrolet was forced to make another stop after clipping a tire being held by a crew member from James Davison’s No. 53 stall at lap 28. Like Byron, a downed tire ruined Elliott’s day, as contact with Christopher Bell cost him his steering and relegated him to 31st.

 

  • Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell’s quest to shock the NASCAR world in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford was derailed by when he got loose coming out of Turn 2. His subsequent meeting with the inside wall pushed to dead last in 37th. Now 22 points away from advancement, McDowell may need another surprise victory to keep his Cinderella run alive.

 

  • Kyle Busch got loose in Turn 2 while racing Austin Dillon for the 12th position, putting his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the wall. A disgruntled Busch immediately went to the garage area and finished 35th, pitting him two points behind the cutoff.

 

  • Truex, the winner of May’s Darlington event, undoubtedly earned his top five finish. An unscheduled pit stop to fix a loose wheel put him a lap down before a late speeding penalty on pit road possibly cost him a chance at the win. Such a strong finish put Truex in third place, 36 points ahead of the cutoff.

 

  • Blaney finished 22nd after his spin.

Ware Released After Carbon Monoxide Scare

Cody Ware retired from the race early after reportedly showing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. His No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet was previously involved in a stage one incident with teammate Davison and spent an extended stay in the infield care center. Ware was in good spirits on Twitter after the race and thanked both the Darlington medical staff and well-wishers.

What’s Next

The second leg of the Cup Series’ opening playoff round comes at the short track at Richmond Raceway, where drivers will compete in the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). This will be the second visit to Richmond this season, as Bowman earned his first victory in the No. 48 Chevrolet, passing Hamlin on a restart with 10 laps to go in securing the victory. Kyle Busch is by far the most accomplished driver at the track, earning six Cup Series wins (his last in September 2018).

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series: Larson blows tire on final lap, Bowman steals victory at Pocono

With four laps to go in the NASCAR Cup Series Pocono Organics CBD 325, Kyle Larson assumed the lead from Alex Bowman after Bowman jumped ahead on a late-race restart.

Three laps to go. Two laps to go.

As time was running out, Larson’s lead expanded, and it seemed that the driver of the No. 5 would be well on his way to his fourth consecutive Cup Series points-paying victory.

One lap to go. One turn to go.

And then: BANG!

Larson suddenly blew a tire, hitting the turn three wall hard, gifting a victory to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

“It’s a bummer,” Larson said postrace. “At least we showed everyone that we were going to win another one and just bad luck took it from us”.

However, it’s a completely different attitude for the No. 48 squad, as Bowman’s good luck helped him secure his third victory of the 2021 season.

“This is the strangest win I’ve ever been a part of,” Bowman said. “I thought I was [going to run] 2nd, which was still going to be a good day for us with how we struggled throughout the course of the day, but then he blows a tire and we win”.

Bowman ran around 10th place for most of the day, but a late-race debris caution allowed him to advance to the front-row with the choose-cone rule. He launched into first place behind a push from Ryan Blaney and was passed by Larson with four laps remaining. Bowman regained the lead in turn three of the final lap to hold on for the victory.

“Our plan was to minimize our [final] stop and get enough fuel to make it to the end, and we did that with two right-side tires,” Crew Chief Greg Ives said. “12 gallons [of fuel] is what we needed, maybe a little less with cautions. We were lined up fourth on that restart coming to the choose cone, and he elected to take the bottom, and that obviously was the winning move”.

While Ives instructed Bowman to pit right before the end of Stage 1 for track position in Stage 2, Kyle Busch stayed out and won the opening stage fresh of his Camping World Truck Series defeat just hours before. Larson started the race from the pole position, but surrendered the lead to teammate William Byron on Lap 5, just prior to an early debris caution.

Just a lap after the debris caution returned to green, Cole Custer’s day ended early after colliding with Brad Keselowski on the frontstretch.

“It was just a tight hole [that I was trying to pass in],” Custer said. “At least we don’t have to wait a whole week and sulk about it, we can just go back tomorrow and get it done”.

Stage 2 was taken by the older of the Busch brothers, Kurt, for some much-needed stage points for the No. 1 team. Younger brother Kyle dropped to ninth, while Larson, Joey Logano, William Byron, and Ryan Blaney finished in positions two through five.

The second stage featured a trio of incidents, including a Ryan Newman spin on lap 54, a wreck involving Corey LaJoie and Anthony Alfredo on lap 61, and a blown tire off the car of Ross Chastain. Stage 3’s only caution was the debris caution to set up the dramatic finish.

With eight races until the playoffs, Kyle Larson leads the playoff standings with Denny Hamlin leading in overall points. Austin Dillon is the final driver in on points, while Kurt Busch sits 24 points away from the top-16.

The top-20 of Saturday’s will be inverted to start the finale of the Pocono Doubleheader on Sunday. That puts Chris Buescher and Michael McDowell on the front row after finishing 20th and 19th, respectively. Custer, Newman, Larson, Chastain, LaJoie, Alfredo, and Ryan Preece have had their backup cars approved, and will start Sunday’s race from the rear. Chase Elliott also has severe damage and is expected to switch to a backup car.

Race No. 2 of the Pocono Raceway Doubleheader begins Sunday at 3:30 PM Eastern Time on NBCSN. The Xfinity Series race will start at 12:00 PM, also aired by NBCSN.

 

NASCAR: Alex Bowman wins after Kyle Larson misfortune at Pocono

A Hendrick Motorsports civil war ended in heartbreak for Kyle Larson, whose teammate Alex Bowman sped off to victory.

Kyle Larson seemed well on his way to his fourth consecutive victory on Saturday afternoon at Pocono Raceway. The racing gods had other plans for him, but Hendrick Motorsports was nonetheless there to pick up the pieces.

Larson passed teammate Alex Bowman with four laps to in the Pocono Organics CBD 325, but lost a right-front tire on the white flag lap allowed Bowman to reassume the lead and earn HMS’ sixth consecutive team victory. The victory ends Larson’s personal winning streak at three races, but the No. 5 Chevrolet still managed to cross the finish line in ninth place. Bowman earned his third victory of the season in the No. 48 Chevrolet and beat out Kyle Busch, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Blaney, who rounded out the top five.

Saturday’s race was the first of the second annual Cup Series doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, with the latter race being run tomorrow afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“The morale is obviously super high at Hendrick Motorsports. It’s really cool to see it that way. I think there’s not one thing,” Bowman said after his win “It’s each and every individual at Hendrick Motorsports from top to bottom in every department, it’s everybody at Chevrolet. Our engines are strong, bodies are great, chassis are great. The guys putting them together are doing a great job.”

Bowman lingered in the upper half of the field in the early stages of the 130-lap race while Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, broke the HMS monopoly on stage victories. Kyle earned the first stage victory (25 laps) while Kurt took the latter after lap 77. Larson, Saturday’s pole sitter, reassumed the leap on lap 84 from Kurt. During the third stage’s round of green flag pit stops, Bowman inserted himself into contention with a two-tire stop on lap 93, which put him in the top five. A caution for debris on lap 108 bunched the field together, giving Bowman his chance.

Situated in the front row after the choose lap, Bowman warded off Larson and Kyle Busch to take the lead before engaging in a civil war with his teammate. Larson made what was believed to be the winning pass with four laps to go, but lost his right front tire headed into the “Tricky Triangle’s” third and final turn, allowing Bowman to coast to his third win of the season and the fifth of his career. Bowman, who succeeded seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chevrolet this season, will go for the sweep tomorrow in the same vehicle.

“This is the strangest win I’ve ever been a part of,” Bowman said of his unusual victory. “I thought I was running second, which was still going to be a good day for us with how we struggled throughout the course of the day. Then he blows a tire, we win; can’t do a burnout because I have to race the car tomorrow. I typically stand on the roof of the car; can’t do that because I got to race the car tomorrow. I typically drink all the beers; can’t do all that because I got to race a car tomorrow.”

Larson’s bad luck cost him the honor of being NASCAR’s first winner of four consecutive points events since Johnson in 2007. He did secure his seventh straight top-ten finish but will start from the rear of the field tomorrow because the late wreck will force him to a backup car.

“It’s little bit laughable just because I can’t believe it,” Larson told NBC Sports in his interview after making the mandatory stop at the infield care center. “I hate that we didn’t get another win. It would have been cool to win five in a row. It just wasn’t meant to be I guess today. I felt something like right in the middle of the tunnel. I wasn’t quite sure what it was yet. (The tire) finally kind of shredded halfway through the short chute there.”

“I hate that we didn’t get the win, but cool that Alex still did, a Hendrick car with another win. Cool to keep (team owner Rick Hendrick’s) streak going.”

Race Notes

  • The top 20 of Saturday’s final ledger will be inverted to form the starting lineup for Sunday. Thus, 20th-place finisher Chris Buescher will start first next to Michael McDowell (19th). Buescher is currently four points out of the last playoff spot behind Kurt Busch.

 

  • The latest HMS victory comes days after the team announced that Jeff Gordon would become the vice chairman of the team. Gordon, a four-time Cup Series champion, spent nearly his entire career in the No. 24 Chevrolet now piloted by Byron.

 

  • Cole Custer and Ryan Newman each failed to finish due to their involvement in on-track incidents.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Hendrick Motorsports dominates historic day at Dover

Hendrick Motorsports ruled the day at Dover International Speedway, as Alex Bowman took home the team’s 267th victory.

No matter how well your weekend’s going, it’s probably nothing compared to what Hendrick Motorsports enjoyed on Sunday afternoon.

A new kind of monster took over Dover International Speedway, best known as the Monster Mile, as HMS Chevrolets led all but 18 of 400 laps of the Drydene 400. It was Alex Bowman’s No. 48 that led the final 97, using fast service on pit road to his advantage en route to his second victory of the season. His teammates completed a clean sweep of the top four, with Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and William Byron following him. Larson’s No. 5 led the most laps on the after (258). It marked the first time a single team swept the first four spots in a race since Roush Racing did so at the end of the 2005 season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bowman’s win, the fourth of his career, was also the 267th visit to victory lane for team owner Rick Hendrick. The next will tie Richard Petty for most wins amongst Cup Series owners.

Larson appeared to be well on his way to his own second victory of the season, as only pit cycles interrupted his stranglehold on the lead for a majority of the race. He first took the lead after pit stops during a competition caution at lap 37 and led all but three of the next 267 circuits.

The No. 48 team seized its opportunity after the caution waved for Aric Almirola’s wrecked No. 10 Ford with just under 100 to go. Bowman brought his Chevrolet down pit road for a stop that lasted 12.1776 seconds, the fastest four-tire service in the 2021 season to date. He would go on to lead the final 97 laps to create his first-career multi-win season and set up the Hendrick quartet.

“If we don’t beat the 5 off pit road, we probably don’t beat him in the race. I give (the crew) all the credit for the win there,” Bowman said. “I think without them we wouldn’t have gotten it done. So appreciate (crew chief Greg Ives) and all those guys working so hard throughout the week to continue to get better. They’ve been super fast all year.”

With restrictions in place due to the ongoing health crisis slowly being loosened, Bowman was allowed to celebrate the win with his crew in victory lane. The team also won at Richmond last month, becoming one of two drivers to win multiple races in 2021 (the other being three-time winner Martin Truex Jr.)

Winning at Dover resumes an unofficial tradition of sorts for HMS’ No. 48 Chevrolet. The prior occupant, seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, won a career-best 11 races at the mile-long speedway, including a sweep of the two races in his rookie season in 2002. Bowman, previously driving the No. 88 for the team after being handpicked by Hendrick Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the role, was chosen to fill in.

Bowman was happy to not only vindicate Hendrick’s trust in him to fulfill an iconic ride but to win at Dover using tips he gained from Johnson during his first year in the No. 88.

“To come to a place like Dover, where the 48 has had so much success, get a win here, (I’ve) never won here with Mr. Hendrick here, so it’s so cool to be able to do that,” Bowman said. “I feel like throughout my career I’ve had my fair share of doubters. To be able to get two wins here to start off the season, be having a good start to the year, is really cool.”

Hendrick entered the Cup Series in 1984 and has won 13 Cup Series titles, the last coming with Elliott’s triumph last year. Even though Elliott has yet to win a race in 2021, each Hendrick car would be a playoff participant midway through the 26-race regular season. Byron has been particularly impressive, earning top ten finishes in each of the last 11 events while piloting the No. 24 Chevrolet previously repped by four-time champ Jeff Gordon.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday, as the series will make its debut at the Circuit of the Americas road course in Austin for the EchoPark Texas Grand Prix (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Joey Logano was the top non-Hendrick finisher, rounding out the top five in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford.

 

  • Points-leader Denny Hamlin finished seventh.

 

  • In the last two spots of the top ten, Daniel Suarez and Cole Custer each earned their second such finishes of the year. They beat out Bubba Wallace, who came home 11th, the best finish to date for his No. 23 23XI Toyota squad.

 

  • Josh Berry finished 30th in his NASCAR Cup Series debut. Berry took over for Justin Haley in the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet after the Xfinity Series regular was ruled out due to COVID-19 protocols. Berry was the runner-up in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Dover, driving the No. 8 Chevrolet for owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Alex Bowman steals Richmond triumph, ends Hendrick drought

In a NASCAR race dominated by Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, Bowman took the lead from Denny Hamlin with 10 to go to earn a win for the No. 48 team.

A new driver may pilot the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but its propensity for dramatic victories apparently remains.

Alex Bowman, driving the vehicle Jimmie Johnson took to seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, earned his first win in the iconic machine, passing Denny Hamlin with 10 laps to go to win the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on Sunday afternoon. Bowman began a final 12-lap stretch in third place before getting by Hamlin and Joey Logano to earn the victory, his first since taking over for Johnson. It was HMS’ first triumph at Richmond since Johnson won in September 2008.

Hamlin, who led a race-high 207 of 400 laps, finished second ahead of Logano, while Hamlin’s fellow JGR drivers Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top five.

“It means a lot to get Ally a win, get the 48 back where it belongs,” Bowman said. “It’s been a rough start to the year, but Ally has been super committed…so cool to get them a win. It means the world to me. I’m appreciative for them to have faith in me.”

Bowman, 27, earned his third career Cup Series win, all coming at HMS. He burst onto the scene in 2016, taking over for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr in the No. 88. He earned full-time honors when Earnhardt retired after the 2017 season and was called upon to succeed Johnson in the No. 48 when “Seven-Time” moved on. Ironically, Bowman’s victory came on the same weekend that Johnson made his IndyCar debut, finishing 19th in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Despite dominance from the Gibbs Toyotas of Hamlin and Truex…combining to lead 308 of 400 laps…Bowman’s car lingered in the top ten for most of the day. Logano took over after Truex’s No. 19 for speeding at lap 294. As Hamlin and Logano waged war for the lead, Bowman’s opportunity came when Kevin Harvick lost his right-side tires and wrecked with 18 to go. The No. 48 emerged third after the lead lap cars came to pit road.

Bowman was able to beat Hamlin into the corner and take the lead with 10 laps to go in the dozen-lap shootout. The driver was shocked he was able to open and keep such a large lead; he mentioned that the No. 48 was not a good short-run car prior to that last stretch.

“When we drove away I was like, oh my gosh, what’s happening!” Bowman said with a smile. “I was super loose on the last couple of laps and did my best to get it back…we did a lot to improve the racecar and have it take off.”

Either way, Bowman became the eighth different winner in nine races this season. Two of Bowman’s Hendrick teammates…William Byron and Kyle Larson…are also among the winners, while Chase Elliott is the defending Cup Series champion.

The Richmond endeavor turned out to be another tough break for Hamlin, who has now earned top fives in all but one of the first nine races…though none have ended in victory lane. He continues to lead the NASCAR Cup Series points standings with a sizable 81-point lead of Truex, the only repeat winner so far this season.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Hamlin said of his 2021 season. “You’re upset in the moment. You feel you should capitalize when you have great cars…but we’re running very strong. It’s mixed emotions.”

The unpredictability of the 2021 season will likely be raised even further next weekend, when the NASCAR Cup Series descends upon Talladega Superspeedway for the GEICO 500 on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Aric Almirola (6th) and Matt DiBenedetto (9th) earned their first top-ten finishes of the season.

 

  • Justin Haley was the only driver who failed to finish the race, completing only one lap due to engine issues.

 

  • Defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric made his first career Cup start on a short track, his third overall. He finished 28th.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Hendrick Motorsports

Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR watch has ended at HMS. Are Chase Elliott and his teammates ready to follow in the steps of Johnson and Jeff Gordon?

2021 Hendrick Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kyle Larson 5 Cliff Daniels NationsGuard/HendrickCars.com
Chase Elliott 9 Alan Gustafson NAPA Auto Parts/Hooters/Llumar
William Byron 24 Rudy Fugle Axalta/Liberty University
Alex Bowman 48 Greg Ives Ally

History

In metropolitan terms, Hendrick Motorsports could well be the New York Yankees. Since North Carolina auto dealer Rick Hendrick entered the sport in 1984, some of the finest names in the sport have driven his Chevrolets…including fictional ones, as Hendrick provided the cars used in the NASCAR blockbuster Days of Thunder.

The early days at HMS were dominated by strong runs with names like Geoffrey Bodine, Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip, and Ken Schrader, but championships proved elusive. That all changed in 1995, when wunderkind Jeff Gordon, in just his third season on the Cup Series circuit, held off Dale Earnhardt to earn the 1995 championship with the No. 24 team. Hendrick vehicles took each of the next four championships, with Terry Labonte triumphing in the ensuring 1996 season before Gordon captured two more. The fourth and final championship for Gordon came in 2001. Each of his 93 Cup Series victories, third-best all-time, came in Hendrick’s No. 24.

Just when the circuit had enough of Hendrick dominance…Joe Gibbs Racing was rising to power through championships for Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart…Hendrick and Gordon unleashed the monster known as Jimmie Johnson unto the racing world in 2002, driving the newly formed No. 48 Chevrolet. It took a little more patience for Johnson to earn his first championship, but once he did so in 2006, his fifth full year in the Series, there was no stopping him. Johnson would go on to win five consecutive championships (2006-10) before adding two more (2013, 2016) to solidify himself as the driver with the most titles alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Like Gordon, Johnson won each and every one of his Cup Series races under a Hendrick banner, tallying 83 when all was said and done.

So, suffice to say…there’s a lot to live up to for Hendrick’s current crop.

2020 in Review

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as Semisonic routinely sang during Jeff Gordon’s heyday. That perfectly defined the Hendrick Motorsports mindset in 2020. As Jimmie Johnson struggled in a swan song, failing to earn one last win or a playoff berth in a tough season, Chase Elliott followed in his father Bill’s footsteps behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott had been consistent all season…his three-win tally entering the penultimate race at Martinsville could’ve been more than doubled if not for some bad luck along the way…but many were expecting him to perform to a higher standard with strong equipment and a legendary NASCAR pedigree.

But Elliott proved his mettle in historic ways during the final segments of the season. An advancement to the championship round thanks to a win at Martinsville was seemingly for naught when he was forced to start the title-clincher at Phoenix at the back of the field due to failed inspection. But Elliott looked at the best possible way a racer could: more cars for him to pass.

“The confidence level with Chase Elliott is unbelievable,” Hendrick told the media this week. “That’s something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. told me one time. He said you have to know when to race. He said you have to know how to race, but you have to know when to race. And Chase does that.”

Elliott not only worked his way up to the front at Phoenix, but he wound up leading a race-best 153 of 312 laps to clinch the title, the 13th in HMS’ treasured history. He and Bill also became the third father-son duo to take home matching Cup Series championships, joining the Jarretts (Ned and Dale) and Pettys (Lee and Richard).

Other drivers had their chance to shine for Hendrick as well. Alex Bowman, the internal successor to Johnson in the No. 48 Chevorlet, finished out his career under No. 88 branding with an appearance in the semifinal round of eight drivers, ironically dominating the California native Johnson’s final visit to Fontana early in the year. William Byron, bearing Gordon’s iconic numerals, earned his first victory at the regular season finale at Daytona.

Meet the Drivers

Kyle Larson

Experience: 7th full season
Career Cup Victories: 6 (last: Dover fall, 2019)
2020 finish: 34th
Best standings finish: 6th (2019)

By now, both the casual observer and the die-hard fan alike knows about Larson’s transgression that led to his ousting from Chip Ganassi Racing, uttering a racial slur during a virtual event on the iRacing platform. Larson’s return was earned through not only undergoing mandated sensitivity training from NASCAR but lending his time and resources to several charitable causes to educate himself on modern affairs and to be a better person. It was enough to convince Hendrick that Larson had earned a new opportunity, one to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet that Labonte drove to a championship a quarter-century prior.

“When you look at the character of what he is; a lot of people do things and they say I’m sorry, right?” Hendrick asked rhetorically. “They just say I’m sorry and go right on running their life. And that’s all they have to do. And people say okay, we’ll give you another shot. This guy did ten times that. And he’s created an image and things in that community that people really respect him. So, I guess the answer to the riddle is that I’m a part of it, but it was Kyle’s heart and Kyle’s desire that got him back.”

There’s no denying that Larson has the talent to succeed in racing. He won six races driving CGR’s No. 42 (four during the 2017 campaign) and earned countless victories driving dirt cars during his suspension.

Chase Elliott

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 11 (last: Phoenix fall, 2020)
2020 finish: 2020 Champion
Best standings finish: 2020 Champion

It truly is a bit of a shame that Elliott’s career is connected to so many of the sport’s most memorable names. He’s the son of Bill Elliott, originally took over for Jeff Gordon after racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team in the Xfinity Series. Such connections have helped Elliott reach this point, but may be used by detractors to discount his incredible success. With his first championship under his belt, Elliott is now ready to truly leave a mark on the sport; he knows that NASCAR is a world of “what have you done for me lately”, a feeling he feels has permeated every professional sport. He compared it to those who asked Jimmie Johnson the same questions toward the end of his career.

“In any sport, it’s what have you done lately,” Elliott remarked. “I think about all the disrespect that Jimmie Johnson got toward the end of this career. It’s like everyone forgot about how great he is just because he had a bad race or a bad stretch of races. The lesson that taught me is that no matter what you do, if you have a bad stretch or don’t do well, then they’re going to come after you about whatever you’ve done recently.”

“On the flip side of that, if you have a good run after being trashed for a year or something, everyone is going to be hyping you up, be excited for you and jumping on the bandwagon. It’s all about performance and all about what you’ve done lately. We want to push; we want to continue to do good for ourselves and push our team internally. That’s all that matters to me, and that’s all that matters to our entire group.”

Only making Elliott ever more dangerous this season? As the winner of the last four visits to road course events, perhaps no one is more excited to see a record seven on the 2021 slate than Elliott.

William Byron

Experience: 4th season
Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Daytona summer, 2020)
2020 finish: 14th
Best standings finish: 11th (2019)

Byron has had a little trouble racing up to the reputation that his numerals mandate, failing to finish in the top ten in any of his first four seasons. He did get one monkey off his back by earning his first career victory at the regular season finale at Daytona that punched his playoff ticket. Byron mentioned that going into the new year liberated from the burden of missing out on his first Cup win will work in the team’s favor.

“It’s great that there is not as much attention on that headline and not as much outside noise. For us, the goal is still the same – to win. Our goal has always been to win and now we can do it with some confidence. We can just focus on just doing our jobs.”

Alex Bowman

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: Fontana 2020)
2020 finish: 6th
Best standings finish: 6th (2020)

To put things in metropolitan terms, Bowman replacing Johnson in the No. 48 is the equivalent of what Didi Gregorious went through when he took over the mantle of New York Yankees shortstop from Derek Jeter. It’s a spot that will feature increased eyes and heightened scrutiny, a challenge Bowman believes he’s handling well going into this fateful season.

Bowman is eager to fulfill those sky-high expectations but stays grounded by reminding himself that he’s working his way through NASCAR for himself.

“The biggest thing for me is there’s not a car number or situation in the world that’s going to put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I feel like all race car drivers are selfish but I’m really selfish,” he said. “I just want to win for me. Obviously, I want to win for Hendrick Motorsports and for Chevrolet and for Ally and for everybody that makes this deal possible.

“But more so than any of that, I want to win for me. I put a ton of pressure on myself each and every week to go do that and to run well and to run how we should. I think outside situations don’t really add to that. I probably put too much stress on myself and too much pressure on myself at times, but it’s all from me because I care about how we run and because I want to run well. It’s not really because somebody is saying oh the No. 48 has to go win or needs to go win a championship. It’s because I want to win and because I want to win championships.”

Outlook

Elliott is obviously going to be someone to keep an eye on in the grand scheme of things, while it’ll be interesting to see how Bowman handles the newfound responsibilities that are attached to the No. 48. Both Byron and Larson will each face heightened expectations as well, as Hendrick Motorsports undergoes a youthful revolt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Alex Bowman christens new ride with Daytona 500 pole

Bowman will sit on the pole for NASCAR’s season-opening event. He will line up next to Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron.

In NASCAR, some things never change. Jimmie Johnson has retired and Jeff Gordon will be in the media booth, but their respective vehicles will nonetheless pace the field at the Daytona 500.

Alex Bowman christened his new number with a run of 47.056 around the iconic 2.5-mile oval on Wednesday night, earning the pole for Sunday’s Great American Race (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). It will mark Bowman’s first race in the No. 48 Chevrolet after the retirement of its seven-time Cup Series champion Johnson. William Byron (47.314) will be right beside him in the No. 24 previously occupied by Gordon.

Qualifying for the Daytona 500 consists of two different stages. Single-car qualifying, where each car runs a single timed lap, settles only the front row, while the rest of the field is determined through qualifying races known as the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, FS1).

Bowman, 27, earns his fourth consecutive front row start in the 500, also winning the pole for the 2018 event while driving Hendrick No. 88. He also started in the front row next to then-pole sitter Byron in the year after. Alas for Bowman, coming off a career-best sixth-place finish in last year’s standings, no pole-sitter has won the 500 since Dale Jarrett did so in 2000 for Robert Yates Racing.

Byron will return to Daytona’s oval for the first time since earning his first Cup Series win at the regular season finale in August, a win that clinched him a spot in the NASCAR playoffs. The No. 24 rounded out the top five in Tuesday’s Busch Clash exhibition held on Daytona’s road course.

In addition to Hendrick Motorsports, Wednesday night proved to be a big one for both Ryan Preece (8th, 47.585) and David Ragan (13th, 47.730). Those two drivers were the fastest non-chartered drivers, guaranteeing them a spot in the main event on Sunday. Preece drives the No. 37 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing, while Ragan, who won Daytona’s 400-mile summer event in 2011, will pilot a part-time car for Front Row Motorsports. All other non-chartered drivers will have to race their way in through their respective Duel races. Among the contenders are defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric (driving a part-time car for Team Penske before making his full-time Cup debut next season) and his competitor at the de facto AAA-level Noah Gragson.

Wednesday’s qualifying saw 42 cars partake. Gragson’s No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet was barred after failing inspection while Derrike Cope had battery issues with his No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet. Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner, is locked into Sunday’s race through an RWR charter, will be making his first Cup Series start since 2018.

For Thursday’s Duel lineups, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series: Your guide and tracker to new rides in 2021

Jimmie Johnson, Williams Byron

When it comes to Silly Season, ESM has you covered with this updating list of offseason ride exchanges at the Cup Series level.

(This list will be updated)

No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (formerly No. 88)

IN: Kyle Larson
OUT: Alex Bowman

Larson returns to NASCAR after his ousting from Chip Ganassi Racing over his use of a racist slur earlier this spring during an event on the iRacing platform. His efforts to rehabilitate since the incident were enough to satisfy both NASCAR (who will lift his indefinite suspension on January 1) and team owner Rick Hendrick, who has resurrected the No. 5 branding last used by Kasey Kahne in 2017. Previous occupants of the HMS No. 5 include Mark Martin, Kyle Busch, and Terry Labonte, who won the 1996 Cup Series championship in the car. The No. 88 identity will be retired after 13 seasons, it’s tenure represented by Bowman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Larson won six races over six full seasons at Ganassi, the most recent coming in 2019’s fall event at Dover.

No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet

IN: Corey LaJoie
OUT: New Car

Having purchased Leavine Family Racing’s assets, the low-budget Spire is hoping to take a big step forward by adding a second car to their stable (also fielding the No. 77, whose full-season plans will be announced at a later date). The new driver will be LaJoie, who spent the past two seasons in GoFas Racing’s No. 32 (which will now run as a part-time team), earning three top-ten finishes.

No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet

IN: Team folding
OUT: Ty Dillon

The midbudget team from Bob Germain had been racing at the Cup Series level since 2008. Success in the Cup Series proved elusive, but the team earned a pair of Truck Series titles with Todd Bodine behind the wheel (2006, 2010). The team was forced to shut down when longtime sponsorship partner GEICO opted not to renew their deal (though they will remain a NASCAR partner), shutting down the No. 13 machine. Dillon’s future remains uncertain, as he hopes to continue racing at the Cup level but would be open to a return to the Xfinity Series.

No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford

IN: Chase Briscoe
OUT: Clint Bowyer

Bowyer’s retirement and subsequent transfer to the Fox Sports booth opened the door for Briscoe, who won 11 races at the Xfinity Series level (including a series-best nine this past season). It’s a dream come true for a Tony Stewart fan like Briscoe as he will occupy the car in which team owner Stewart won his third and final Cup title in 2011. Bowyer had operated the No. 14 car for four seasons, reaching the playoffs in each of the final three.

No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

IN: Christopher Bell
OUT: Erik Jones

After starring for Gibbs at the Xfinity level (15 wins over two full seasons), it seemed inevitable that Bell would be racing for the Super Bowl-winning coach at the Cup level sooner or later. He got his feet wet in the premier series with his rookie campaign at the smaller, Gibbs-affiliated Leavine Family Racing, posting respectable results (16 finishes in the top 20, first top 20 standings finish for LFR). Jones failed to live up to the reputation pushed ahead by No. 20 predecessors Stewart and Joey Logano, missing out on the playoffs entirely this season.

No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota

IN: Bubba Wallace
OUT: New Team

All eyes will be on this new endeavor from Wallace, Michael Jordan, and Denny Hamlin. The debut vehicle will bear the famous numerals that Jordan wore during a majority of his NBA days. Championship figures from other sports have entered into NASCAR endeavors before and there have been more misses than hits. For every Joe Gibbs Racing, there are multiple Hall of Fame Racings (headed by former Dallas Cowboys champions Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach). But Jordan’s acumen and resources…not to mention Wallace’s skills that were quite respectable for his equipment over at Richard Petty Motorsports…should certainly set this team apart from other start-ups. The team has secured a charter from the aforementioned Germain.

No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

IN: Ross Chastain
OUT: Matt Kenseth

Kenseth was never meant to be a permanent solution in the No. 42 after Larson’s firing, and that was confirmed with Kenseth more or less announcing a third retirement, calling his full-time racing days “over” earlier this week. Chastain was a strong, veteran solution with strong postings with equipment that wasn’t always the best at both the Xfinity and Truck levels. He made a three-race cameo in Ganassi’s Xfinity program (ironically also driving a car number 42) back in 2018, winning a visit to Las Vegas.

No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet

IN: Erik Jones
OUT: Bubba Wallace

Jones will take over the seat that Wallace left behind at RPM. Despite being dealt his walking papers from Gibbs, Jones, the 2015 Truck Series champion, managing to score four finishes in the top five over the ten playoff races. He has two wins at the Cup level, the last being the 2019 Darlington race. RPM is seeking their first win since 2014, when Aric Almirola drove the iconic No. 43 to victory lane.

No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

IN: Alex Bowman
OUT: Jimmie Johnson

For months, the 2021 status of the iconic No. 48 was in question with the retirement of seven-time Cup champion Johnson looming large over the entire season. Hendrick went in-house for the succession, calling up Bowman, the former bearer of the No. 88. Bowman made a strong case to take over Johnson’s seat with his strongest season to date. He finished a career-best sixth in the final standings and finished no worse than 16th over the final dozen races of the year, a stretch that included nine postings in the top ten.

No. 78 Live Fast Motorsports Ford

IN: BJ McLeod
OUT: New Team

McLeod will serve as the has entered into a new team endeavor with Matt Tifft, who returns to NASCAR after a seizure indefinitely ended his racing career in 2018. The team has obtained its charger from Go Fas Racing, whose No. 32 will be reduced to a part-time schedule next year. McLeod has run his vehicles at several NASCAR levels since 2016.

No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota

IN: Team folding
OUT: Christopher Bell

A technical alliance with Joe Gibbs and a strong performance from Bell (his 20th-place in the standings being the best in team history) wasn’t enough to save LFR. Previous drivers of the No. 95 include Kasey Kahne and Matt DiBenedetto. LFR’s assets have since been sold to Spire Motorsports, which is seeing an expanded role in the Cup for 2021 (their full plans have yet to be announced).

No. 99 Trackhouse Chevrolet

IN: Daniel Suarez
OUT: New Team

Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion and formerly of both Gibbs and Stewart-Haas, joins with this new team after a year with the No. 96 of Gaunt Brothers Racing (whose 2021 plans have yet to be revealed). The endeavor is headed by former road course ringer and current racing businessman Josh Wise and former Dale Earnhardt Inc. executive Ty Norris.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Alex Bowman reflects while waiting on the playoff fringe in Texas

Even if his NASCAR playoff journey ends in the Round of 8, Alex Bowman is one of the year’s biggest winners through a powerful evolution.

With the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 trapped in rain-induced purgatory at Texas Motor Speedway, the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series have sought ways to entertain themselves as precipitation, mists, and chilly weather rocks the Lone Star State. Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney are engaging in virtual sparring on the links of their PlayStations. Joey Logano, locked into the group of four drivers eligible for a champion win in Phoenix in two-and-a-half weeks, told reporters that he was so racked with bored that he considered calling TMS president Eddie Gossage to ask if he could drive one of the massive trucks tasked with trying the track.

Alex Bowman, on the other hand, is working on his cars. Tampering with his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during the weather delays is forbidden, but Bowman has instead spent his time ordering parts for a sprint car endeavor he showcased on Twitter last week. The vehicle bears the marks of Valvoline, one of his primary Cup Series sponsors, and was tested by up-and-coming sprint car star C.J. Leary at The Dirt Track on the campus of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It’s certainly one way to keep Bowman occupied. The driver mentioned to the NASCAR media gather via Zoom that he was out of clean clothes in his motorhome and had In-and-Out Burger and pizza for lunch (though he offset the meal with a visit to the track’s gym, located below The Speedway Club suites.

It was another form of boredom, the kind induced by the ongoing health crisis, that inspired Bowman to take on such a challenge. His team is in the early stages of such a process, but he proudly spoke of the new purpose in a media session brought upon by the continuing rains in Fort Worth.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Bowman said of the project. We went and tested on Friday and C.J. was really fast right off the bat, as fast as anybody that’s tested during the day there. We were going pretty good.

“I think (he) ran like 7-8 laps and had a ton of fun. We’re going to start racing it here soon and have lot of fun doing it. That’s why I do that deal: to really just have fun and no expectations. I have a really, really good group of people that help me on those cars. We’ve never lost a party when we go dirt racing, so that’s what we’re going to go do this winter.”

Adding the title of team owner would be a stellar way for Bowman cap off the 2020 refurbishment of his racing resume. The 27-year-old is currently one of eight drivers left in contention for the NASCAR Cup Series title as the 500-mile event in Texas sits in a wet holding pattern. His No. 88 team entered the race 27 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final spot in the championship four and seemed poised to at least partially whittle that margin before the skies opened on Sunday.

The Chevrolet started fifth but took the lead on lap 29 when polesitter and points lead Kevin Harvick got into the wall. It was a lead he would keep for the next 17 laps until the first precipitation brought out the caution flag. With pit strategies featuring both two-tire stops and ignoring a service visit entirely, Bowman has been scored in the 18th position since Sunday late afternoon, when the race was temporarily shut down on lap 52 of 334. The third attempt as resumption will come on Wednesday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Bowman is confident his team can continue to run upfront with the leaders as the season dwindles down. He will clinch a spot in the championship competition with a win, though one more opportunity will come next week at Martinsville Speedway. The championship race will be held at Phoenix Raceway on November 8. It’s the first time the Phoenix, a two-hour drive from Bowman’s birthplace in Tuscon, hosts the season finale.

“I was so happy with the race car. I was nervous going in, just because this is a place we’ve really struggled at in the past,” he said. “We’ve really only had one really strong race here. Was really just looking forward to getting here and seeing how the car was going to be, and it was just really good off the bat. So, that gives me a lot of confidence.”

The 17 laps Bowman led on Sunday was more than he led in ten prior visits to For Worth. His “one really strong race” was a fifth-place finish in this very event last fall.

Even if Bowman misses out on the championship battle, his entry into the Round of 8 has been the furthest postseason trek of his career. This trying season has also seen him set a new career-best in top-ten finishes (13) and post the most dominant effort of his racing career. Back in March, Bowman led 110 of 200 laps to earn his second career victory at the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, CA. Earlier this month, it was announced that Bowman would be the long-sought successor to seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the Hendrick team’s No. 48 Chevrolet.

Bowman still thinks that, despite the accomplishments, there’s room for improvement over his final three races in the No. 88 branding.

“Right now, I think we’re running great. The last two months or so have been really, really good for us,” he noted. “The summer was really rough and the beginning of the year was amazing. So, we’ve definitely had our fair share of ups and downs. But I would give our team a B+ or A-, just based on how well they’ve worked together.”

Bowman was as high as second in the standings (sitting in the runner-up spot after NASCAR’s return from the COVID-19 pause at Darlington Raceway in May), but went a tough summer (three top-tens over the next 13 races) shifted him to the middle of the pack. But the team has refound their swagger during the postseason, finishing no worse than 16th in the last seven completed events.

The fact that Bowman is even in this position in the first place is one of the more inspiring chapters in recent NASCAR history. A champion on the midget car circuit, Bowman got his first taste of major NASCAR racing in 2012, when he made his debut on the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series circuit. He would run a full-season the year after, taking over the No. 99 Toyota for middle-tier RAB Racing. Bowman brought the car home 11th in the standings and became the first (and only) RAB driver to post multiple top-five finishes. That finish was made somewhat more impressive by the fact that Bowman was released from RAB when his sponsor pulled out of its duties prior to the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

After that successful campaign, Bowman felt he needed more experienced at the lower levels before advancing to the Cup Series. Several teams did come calling, but a tough financial bind forced him to cut back on his Nationwide efforts. He thus accepted a ride for BK Racing’s No. 23 Toyota, a microbudget team where merely finished the race was just as valuable as a win.

“A lot of teams called and only one didn’t ask for money. And I didn’t have any money,” Bowman said. “That’s where I ended up and it was (either) do that or sit on a couch. There wasn’t an opportunity to return to the Xfinity ride that I had in 2013. I feel like we really did a lot with a little in 2013 and outperformed where we should have been and did a really good job. We had a really good group of people and outperformed what we had financially.”

Bowman ran a full season at BK, finishing no better than 13th. He would then move on to another small team, driving a No. 7 Chevrolet for former Cup Series crew chief Tommy Baldwin. He’d mostly run at the back of the field, but he started to garner attention from NASCAR’s elite.

One of Bowman’s first fans included the man he’d eventually succeed: Johnson.

“I was pretty down early in the season and Jimmie Johnson was the first guy to come and talk to me,” Bowman said. “(He’d) just be like ‘man, you’re doing a really good job with that car’, just out of nowhere. I still have no clue why he did that. I talked to him about it a couple weeks ago and he was like ‘man, I just came up to lap you and you were completely sideways, driving the wheels off of it, and I felt like I needed to say something and tell you that you were doing a good job’. He was really supportive.”

The support of Johnson, as well as fellow former Cup champion Kurt Busch, wasn’t the only thing keeping Bowman going during early growing pains. A fight to survive, not even only for the sake of his racing career, was the strongest factor.

“I refused to give up. I didn’t have a backup plan, so I couldn’t give up,” he said. “I wasn’t like ‘oh, I can go do this and I’ll be fine’. It was like, ‘you’ve got to keep doing this or you’re going to have to find another job and another way to pay for food’. So, yeah I didn’t give up and I refused to let it beat me.”

That job became even more arduous when he and Baldwin parting ways, leaving him without stable racing ground. But his performance caught the eye of none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. The face of NASCAR would bring Bowman in to represent his Xfinity unit at his JR Motorsports team for nine races, seven of which ended with his No. 88 Chevrolet in the top ten.

Those numerals once again proved to be foreshadowing. When Earnhardt was forced to miss the latter stages of the 2016 Cup season due to injury, Bowman teamed up with Jeff Gordon to drive his Hendrick Cup for the remainder of the season. In his retirement speech the following spring, Earnhardt hand-picked Bowman to replace him in the Hendrick stables. Team owner Rick Hendrick acquiesced, naming Bowman the replacement two months later. He has since become one of the more consistent drivers on the circuit, reaching the playoffs in each of his three full-time seasons with HMS.

“A crazy set of circumstances to go from (the No. 23) to driving the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports,” Bowman admitted. “Driving for Tommy Baldwin the following year, that deal falling apart, then, driving the simulator and getting called to fill in for Dale, it was a pretty wild couple of years there and definitely a lot of very uncertain times and stressful times.”

Stability was supposed to come at Hendrick, thought 2020, his contract season, has proven to be one of the most unusual seasons in NASCAR history. But in the midst of unprecedented times, Bowman has made his own luck and has emerged from this trying campaign as one of its brightest silver linings.

Bowman may be bored as NASCAR continues to wait out the weather in Texas. But if a little boredom is the price of stability, a strong team unit, good health, and a chance to race at a championship, it’s safe to say that Bowman, a driver who hasn’t been handed a single thing in his NASCAR career, will run that race every single time.

Surviving at the Cup Series level used to mean racing cars to the finish on a wing and a prayer. Now, it’s a steady diet of In-and-Out Burgers and pizza.

Sounds like a fair trade.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview: Bank of America Roval 400 (Charlotte)

The twists and turns of the NASCAR Playoffs descend upon…the twists and turns of Charlotte Motor Speedways’ famous “roval”.

What: Bank of America Roval 400
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, Concord, NC
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Watch: NBC

Precipitation has left its mark on sports’ playoff proceedings. Snow has regularly blanketed Green Bay Packers playoff games at Lambeau Field. New York Jets fans are still haunted by their loss in the “Mud Bowl”, where South Floridian rains decimated the Orange Bowl field prior to their 14-0 defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins in the 1983 AFC title game.

Now, rain in North Carolina could have a significant role in how the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture shakes out.

Storms often force NASCAR events to be put on hold, but special rain tires and setups will be on-hand as the premier Cup Series prepares to hold an elimination race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s “Roval”…a half-oval, half-road course behemoth featuring 17 turns that have made and broken playoff fortunes. After Sunday’s race, four races will remain on the 2020 Cup Series schedule. Four drivers from the remaining field of a dozen drivers will be eliminated from championship contention, giving way to the Round of 8 that gets underway at Kansas next weekend. Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin have clinched their spots into the next round through prior Round of 12 wins at Las Vegas and Talladega respectively. But six other spots are up for grabs as the season hits its twilight stages.

The potential for rain in the forecast only raises the potential for postseason chaos. Saturday’s Xfinity Series event was run in a storm and featured numerous incidents that shaped their own cutdown from 12 to 8 playoff drivers. Former Cup regular AJ Allmendinger wound up taking the victory.

Aric Almirola is one of the drivers on the outside of the advancement picture. At 48 points out, Almirola more than likely needs to win to keep his championship hopes alive. But he welcomes any form of additional chaos to the Roval setting, feeling confident he can avoid the pandemonium to earn his first win of the season.

“I think for us at this point the more chaos the better. It creates more opportunities and more chances for other people to have bad races and for us to capitalize on that,” said the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in a conference call earlier this week. “Where we’re at in points, if we have a bad race, so what? We are currently not in a position to make it anyway so we have to win. If there is rain or something else that is going to create more chaos and potential for more wrecks and more attrition, then that could potentially work out in our favor.”

The Track

First Cup Series Race: 2018
Length: 2.28 miles (109 laps, 248 miles)
Most Wins: Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott (1)

The Roval is contained within the infield of the de facto hub of NASCAR at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which sits a 20-minute drive away from the Hall of Fame. It contains portions of the traditional oval with the interior turns, its most treacherous being its chicane (a serpentine curve) in the backstretch. It has created an optimum spot for passing, but has also increased the potential for big wrecks.

They Said It

“We all care and I wouldn’t be continuing to go to the race track each and every week and pouring my heart and soul into this and taking time away from my family if I didn’t care. Obviously, there’s M&M’s and Interstate Batteries and Toyota and everybody else on my race car and at Joe Gibbs Racing that supports us that works as hard as they do and my team and my crew chief and all my guys, they don’t spend the time and effort that they do each and every week and all year long for the years that we’ve been together for one of us not to care. That’s tongue in cheek talk and should be known as that coming from me obviously, I say a lot of dumb s***. It is what it is and we’re going to go on into this week and fight like hell and try to make it through.”-Kyle Busch, 21 points from the cutoff, on his previous claim that he “didn’t care” about making the next round. 

“We had a really good season so far. To me, my focus won’t shift to the Round of 8. I’m still going to put in the same amount of work this week getting ready for the Roval as I would if I wasn’t locked in. But certainly, the stress level will be less. Certainly, we can be a little bit more aggressive with our strategy calls starting at the beginning of the race.”-Denny Hamlin on how he’s approaching the Roval 

Three To Watch

Chase Elliott (Starting 2nd)

If anyone was pleased about the inclusion of a record six road courses on the 2021 Cup Series schedule, it was Elliott. His No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been at the top of the leaderboard at the end of the last three road course events, including the most recent Roval event last fall. After a rollercoaster postrace session at Talladega last week…his fifth-place finish was rescinded then retained after possible rules violation…Elliott is relatively safe in the standings (44 points ahead of the cutoff), so he has some extra freedom in terms of strategies to protect his title. The No. 9 has had a strong season as is, but a strong display of power could well come at the Roval. 

Alex Bowman (Starting 5th)

Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate received some big news this week, as he’ll be the lucky driver taking over the iconic No. 48 Chevrolet upon Jimmie Johnson’s retirement at the end of the year. Bowman still has a chance to end his time in his current No. 88 incarnation on a most victorious note. He’s 22 points ahead of elimination and has finished in the top five in each of the first two Roval events (including a runner-up finish behind Elliott last season).

Clint Bowyer (Starting 11th)

Bowyer’s situation is almost a Bizzaro version of Bowman. Earlier this week, Bowyer announced that he be retiring from the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford at the end of the season to join Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage. He’s 38 points from the next round after a tough prior two races, but he likewise is riding a streak of good luck at the Roval, having finished in the top five in each of the first two events (he and Bowman are the only two to do so). Bowyer’s also had considerable success on road courses, having finished no worse than 11th in all but one of the past nine events held on such tracks.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags