Alex Bowman's early uptick offsets pressure: 'It's our job to turn it around'

Through six races last season, Alex Bowman was enjoying a tidy three-week run as the NASCAR Cup Series points leader. He won the Daytona 500 pole, led laps in the first three events and rode solid consistency (five top 10s) into that prime perch.

Things did not go up from there. A slight tapering-off led to a more dramatic fall with Bowman’s four-week absence after he suffered a back injury in a sprint-car crash that April. His return to Cup Series competition was a shaky one that yielded just one top-five finish in the 23 races that followed, and his playoff hopes were dashed in his first winless campaign since 2018. Teammate Chase Elliott’s season followed a near-parallel line with a six-week injury pause and a postseason miss, while fellow Hendrick Motorsports drivers William Byron and Kyle Larson marched to multi-win seasons and Championship 4 appearances.

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Six races into this campaign, Bowman has responded to the pressure to perform — both with his elite teammates and the rest of the Cup Series field as measuring sticks — with some early signs of a positive turnaround. The 30-year-old driver registered his second consecutive top-five result in Sunday’s road-course contest at Circuit of The Americas, providing some stability to the rough edges of the season’s start.

While it’s premature to label Bowman as all the way back — a win would do that — the No. 48 Chevrolet driver has modest early indicators in his favor. The steep expectations that stem from being part of one of NASCAR’s powerhouse teams, Bowman says, are just the price of business.

“You look at last year, we started the year really strong, and then after I broke my back, we struggled the whole rest of the year. Yeah, you have to shoulder a lot of that, even when there are things that are outside of your control going on,” Bowman said last week at a Hendrick Motorsports preview for the team’s 40th anniversary celebration. “So that’s just part of racing. As a driver, your name’s always on the door, so you’re always going to have to shoulder that, but this is a high-pressure environment, right? Two of our teammates really thrived last year, and the other two of us struggled more than we would have liked. It’s our job to turn it around and get pointed in the right direction.”

At last season’s pivot point, Bowman noted the daunting nature of pressing “send” on the phone call to inform team principals Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon about his injury. The message on the other end, he said, was one full of support. “It wasn’t like, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe you did this to yourself,’ ” Bowman recalled. “It was like, ‘How can we help you? And what do you need, and we’ll do everything we can to help you and help you heal and get better as quick as possible.’ ”

Alex Bowman\
Alex Bowman\

But last year was also a fragmented breaking-in period for Blake Harris, in his first season as the No. 48 crew chief after moving over from Front Row Motorsports. Harris was suspended for four races just a month into the season for L2-grade penalties across Hendrick’s four-car fleet. He was back for just two races before Bowman was sidelined, and he shifted gears to work with short-track vet Josh Berry, a capable substitute now driving full-time for Stewart-Haas Racing, over a four-week span last spring.

“I mean, certainly would have scripted it differently, right?” Harris says in reflection. “But no, I’m super fortunate to be with this group and this company. They’ve got so much depth and so many people behind us that make all this happen. So I take every day as feeling fortunate to be able to be in the position and work with Alex, and I love working with him. I know it hasn’t gone the way that we’ve wanted, and we’ve had opportunities to win races, though. We might not be where we want to be every week, but we’ve had plenty of times we’ve been in the mix, and things just haven’t fallen our way. And when it does click and it does go our way, I think it’ll be fine and we can get on a roll.”

Key to the approach, Harris notes, is the team’s philosophy of resetting after each race, not allowing any frustrations to mount from one week to the next. The No. 48 team persevered after an in-weekend reset at COTA, making forward progress Sunday after a middling 17th-place qualifying effort on the eve of the race.

Those conscious breaks have helped the team navigate those hardships — however big or small — this season. Gordon, Hendrick’s vice chairman, has taken notice.

“I mean, Alex is one of those guys where the bigger the challenge, seems like the better he does,” Gordon said. “I’m going to leave here and try to find more ways to really challenge him even more.”

In whatever shape those in-house challenges might take, the task for Bowman will involve breaking out of a winless drought that spans two-plus years and 67 races back to his last Cup triumph in March 2022 at Las Vegas. He’s a former winner at Richmond Raceway, where the Cup Series pays a visit this weekend for Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 (7 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

MORE: Weekend schedule: Richmond

A pair of fourth-place finishes are a start toward re-establishing Bowman’s place among the sport’s — and his team’s — best. Climbing into podium contention is the next step.

“Bowman, yeah, when he gets on a roll, he gets his confidence up, there’s no telling what they’re capable of doing,” Gordon said. “I’m really happy for them. Two top fives in a row. They’d had a couple rough weeks, so they needed this. Hendrick Motorsports is tough, right? Four of the top drivers and teams out there, and there’s a lot of pressure on you. If you’re winning, there’s pressure to continue. When you’re not winning or you’re not at the same level as your teammates, there’s a ton of pressure that you got to get there.

“I’m proud of him and Blake, the way they’ve been working hard together to get some good finishes. Now I can’t wait to see what they do next, as well.”