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Bowman Found Out How Other Half Races In Cup

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, July 18 2016
Alex Bowman slides into the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Sprint Cup car prior to the start of Sunday's race in Loudon, NH. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Alex Bowman slides into the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Sprint Cup car prior to the start of Sunday’s race in Loudon, NH. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Alex Bowman is well acquainted with the life of a racing have-not. He knows all about being cursed and finger-signaled to get the hell out of the way by other drivers who may or may not be better wheelmen but who are absolutely driving better equipment.

buganalysisThen on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, for the first time in 72 Sprint Cup starts, Bowman got to see how the other half races. He slipped into the cockpit of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in place of the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. and fired up one of those wonderful Hendrick engine shop V-8s.

And he liked it. Um, a lot.

“It was just an absolute blast,” the 23-year-old native of Tucson, Ariz. said.

During two full seasons in Cup last year and the year before, Bowman had zero top-10 finishes. His average starting position was 34th, his average finishing position was 32nd. His best finish
was 13th and that came in a Talladega plate race in 2014.

He’s been crashed, he’s had engine problems, vibration problems, qualifying problems.

Such is the life of a driver who has more want-to than horsepower. More talent than cars with scalpel-sharp handling ability.

Bowman had spent 2014 and 2015 driving for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing respectively. Both of those teams have bigger aspirations than budgets and in a sport that is

Life among the have-nots can come with some serious problems. A year ago in New Hampshire, things got warm for Alex Bowman. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

Life among the have-nots can come with some serious problems. Last fall in New Hampshire, things got warm for Alex Bowman in his Tommy Baldwin Racing Cup car. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

fueled more by money than gasoline, frustration almost always rides shotgun with their drivers.

Last week, Bowman’s phone rang. He was told Earnhardt was being forced to sit out New Hampshire because of “concussion-like” symptoms and Bowman had been tapped to fill in.

Bowman said his first thought was – uh-oh: New Hampshire, he knew, was a problem track for him.

“When I got the call I’m like, ‘Oh, Loudon? Really?  OK, well, I’ll try’,” he said.

Bowman started slowly. In the first practice, he was 13th fastest. Then he was 24th and 22nd in the final two practices of the weekend. In qualifying, he was 20th.

He started slowly in the race, too. But then he began to move up. Soon, he was leaving all his back-maker buddies behind and was up exchanging licks with the big boys of Cup. The top-10 boys. The podium boys. The Cup champion guys.

It was that, he said afterward, which produced “the absolute blast” at New Hampshire.

“I’ve raced with a lot of these guys for a long time,” Bowman said. “I raced around them, I’ve never got to actually race with guys like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, all those guys.  I had a lot of fun passing really good cars.”

Bowman was running eighth late in the race when he found out that bad luck is not the exclusive property of low-budget teams. An unfortunate incident not entirely of his making on pit road resulted in a cut tire and a wreck.

“I think the No. 19 (Carl Edwards) was backing up because he was blocked in as I was leaving the pit box,” Bowman said. “My left-rear hit his right-rear as I was leaving.  It caved it in enough, we thought we would be fine, but obviously, when I got into the No. 41 (Kurt Busch) it was already going down. I got really loose, got up the race track and got into him. I hate that for Kurt.  Obviously, just got loose had a tire going down and then it went down at about the start/finish line, I just tried to hang on to it.”

To witness a weekend like Bowman’s is both entertaining and instructive.

Most humans love to see a little guy get his shot and then respond. That was the entertaining part of Bowman at New Hampshire.

The instructive part concerns the importance of logistics in the Sprint Cup Series. Racing Mount Rushmore driver Mario Andretti was asked many years ago whether it was the car or the driver that was more important to success. Driver, he said sans hesitation.

And that may have been exactly correct back in the day when Mario was winning in everything from stock cars to Formula One machines. Today, significant hesitation may be required before answering the same question.

After the race, Bowman said several times that racing with the stars was not a one-on-one deal. He kept crediting his team, his owner and his teammates.

“This is the first time I’ve consistently run in the top-10 in a Cup car,” he said. “We made a lot of progress this weekend. This is by far my worst race track. To come here with these guys and run that well just shows what a great piece they bring to the race track.

“These guys helped me so much; and Jimmie (Johnson) and Kasey (Kahne) and Chase (Elliott) and looking at their data and being able to lean on them was just great.”

Finally, Bowman said something that other drivers who have been doomed to journeyman status because of an inability to get a ride with Hendrick or Joe Gibbs or Stewart-Haas can take to heart.

“I’ve spent two years of my career wondering if I can really do this at the Cup level and today I answered that for myself,” he said.

It makes one wonder how many of the back-half-of-the-field drivers that fans dismiss as low on talent are merely low on good equipment. Conversely, it makes one wonder why certain other drivers who quite clearly do have the good equipment can’t find the top 10 even on their best days.

For Bowman, it’s now back to the Xfinity Series and his part-time ride with Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team – where has five top-20 finishes in five starts this year – as Rick Hendrick has announced that if Junior is a no go for this week’s Brickyard 400, Jeff Gordon will come out of retirement and drive the 88 in Indianapolis.

As Bowman was wiping the sweat from his face but not the smile after New Hampshire, he said, “I think they knew we were here.”

A lot of fans are probably hoping this morning that the “they” includes the owner of a top-tier Cup race team.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, July 18 2016
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