Hendrick Motorsports picked up Sunday where it had left off with its early season performance, pouring on the speed it had shown in the four NASCAR Cup Series races completed before the coronavirus pandemic placed the sports world on hold. By day’s end at Darlington Raceway, Alex Bowman — the driver with the freshest ink on his contract — carried the banner on a wildly mixed day for the organization.
Bowman placed a strong second behind winner Kevin Harvick in The Real Heroes 400, leading 41 laps in Rick Hendrick’s No. 88 Chevrolet. He also sits second in the points standings behind Harvick, who battled closely with Bowman in the laps after the final restart.
“That’s tough. You’re racing one of the best in the business and one of the most technical hard race tracks we go to,” Bowman said. “Just to have the opportunity to get to race him hard and clean like that was a lot of fun.”
The day had the makings of a memorable day for the Hendrick operation, which has 14 Darlington victories but none since Jimmie Johnson’s most recent triumph at the historic South Carolina oval in 2012. Bowman and Johnson carried that charge early, taking turns at the front as all four Hendrick cars formed up in the top 10.
That Stage 1 delight abruptly went sour, when Johnson made an uncharacteristic miscue in traffic that pushed him out of control and into a race-ending impact on the last lap of the opening segment. The error handed the stage victory to lurking teammate William Byron, but his time at the front was a short-lived three laps. Before Stage 2 could get underway in earnest, Byron’s No. 24 Chevy careened into the outside retaining wall in Turn 3, then skidded to a halt at the track’s opposite end.
Byron limped to a 35th-place finish, the damage leaving him 14 laps off the pace. Johnson completed just 89 of the 293 laps and wound up 38th in the 40-car field.
“We had such a fast car today,” Byron said. “We just had a vibration that kept getting worse and the wheel finally came loose. I really appreciate me team sticking with it today and for all the hard work they have put in to unload with such a fast Axalta Chevy. Good thing we can rally and do it all again on Wednesday. We’ll be ready.”
The double-shot of early exits from the realm of contenders left the burden to Bowman and teammate Chase Elliott, who grinded out a fourth-place result in the No. 9 Chevrolet. Though Elliott didn’t bloom until the late going at Darlington and also didn’t reach the top of the scoring pylon, both he and Bowman continue to rank solidly among the top five in the Cup Series’ lap leaders for the 2020 season.
Hendrick Motorsports was not unlike other teams affected by the pandemic shutdown of the sports world, with stay-at-home orders bringing a temporary halt to race-shop production. But as NASCAR took its first step back toward resuming the season, the steps Hendrick made to regain some of its long-held competitive edge have kept that early stride.
Any extra spring in Bowman’s step could be attributed to his contract status. The 27-year-old driver ended any lingering notion of uncertainty by revealing Saturday he had re-signed with the organization for next season — quite an opening act for what was almost a winning effort Sunday.
“Obviously not having to talk about 2021 anymore and just focus on the task at hand and going and contending for a championship is really good,” Bowman said. “Gotta thank Mr. Hendrick and everybody at HMS. Obviously, my career has changed significantly since coming over to HMS and they gave me a big break and I’m very appreciate for that, so really enjoying it, glad to have that squared away and just ready to go try to win some more races.”