Rick Hendrick deemed Alex Bowman good enough to take over for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2018 and then Jimmie Johnson in 2021. The question that NASCAR fans have on the eve of the Cup Series playoffs is whether he’s good enough to win the title over one teammate who’s the defending champion and another who’s become the biggest name in the sport.
Given his uneven season, where Bowman finishes 10 weeks from is anyone’s guess.
The No. 48 Chevy starts the playoffs right in the hunt
All four Hendrick Motorsports Chevys have advanced to the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, led by top seed Kyle Larson and defending champion Chase Elliott, who starts the 10-race sequence fifth in points. Alex Bowman stands tied for sixth, and William Byron is eighth in the field of 16.
Bowman’s seeding is spot-on with his history. He has made the playoffs four straight years and finished sixth the past two seasons. If he finishes there again this year, Bowman could conceivably wind up fourth on the Hendrick Motorsports team.
“I’m just a guy that likes to wrench on race cars, spend time at home with my dogs. I’m a very regular person,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “I don’t mind if the media thinks I’m fourth in line to those three because they’re all pretty special and it’s just cool to be their teammate.”
Of course, the folks at Ally Financial would prefer for Bowman to feel like a champion instead of feeling cool to be part of the team. Upon Jimmie Johnson’s retirement, the organization moved Bowman from the No. 88 to Johnson’s No. 48, which Ally agreed to continue sponsoring.
That constituted a significant show of faith in a driver with two career Cup Series victories entering the current season.
Why Alex Bowman is the wild card who could miss the first cut
Kyle Larson has been the king of the hill this season, winning five points events as well as the All-Star Race. He’ll open the playoffs with a 28-point lead over Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr.
Blaney, Truex, and Alex Bowman won three times apiece during the regular season, but that’s about where the similarities end. Bowman has posted just three more top-five finishes, two fewer than Blaney and Truex. He’s also logged more DNFs (three) than either, led a modest 151 laps, and failed to secure a stage win.
Bowman has finished 22nd or worse six times in 2021. Doing that twice in one of the three-race elimination stages is a ticket to an ouster. Kevin Harvick won nine times in 32 races last season, then finished second, 16th, and 17th in the semifinals to miss the Championship Four at Phoenix.
The first three playoff races are at Darlington, Richmond, and Bristol. Bowman triumphed at Richmond, but he was 17th at Darlington and 22 (on the dirt) at Bristol, thus the Harvick mention.
Why Alex Bowman is the wild card who could win the NASCAR Cup Series crown
Anyone who wins three races during the regular season qualifies as capable of winning more between now and Martinsville on Oct. 31. A victory in one of the three-race elimination stages (Richmond, for instance) will advance Alex Bowman to the next stage, taking the sting out of potentially repeating those 17th– and 22nd-place showings.
Secondly, Hendrick Motorsports has figured out how to get the most out of its cars the past two seasons. After winning a respectable 11 times combined from 2017-19, the Chevys visited victory lane seven times in 2020 and 11 times thus far this year. The fleet twice swept the first four places in a race, a truly impressive accomplishment.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the value of a chip on Bowman’s shoulder.
“I think I can go win the championship and still, in the media’s eyes, be ‘the fourth guy’ there,” Bowman said in the NBC interview. “That’s fine with me. I’m not here to win a popularity contest.
“I don’t really mind it. I read what people say, and I see it. It is what it is. Last year, we had a great playoff run. I think just about everybody that was covering the sport had us going out in the first round last year and we finished sixth in the points and scored the (third) most points of everybody in the playoffs.”
Matching that sort of overachievement probably puts Bowman into the Championship Four, where it becomes 312 solid miles of driving in Phoenix to the season crown.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.