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The Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team — described as “kind of a bunch of weirdos” and a “sea of awkwardness” according to one of its own in driver Alex Bowman — did its best impression of a mutual admiration society after Sunday’s surge to victory at Dover International Speedway.
Bowman keyed his radio on the Drydene 400’s cool-down lap: “Pit crew, you won that race, not me. I’m so proud of you guys. Hell, yeah!” The reply from the No. 48 crew was just as complimentary: “Ah, give yourself a little credit. You’ve been hauling the mail for a little while now.”
In the battle of “you’re great” vs. “no, you’re great,” both sides were right. After a pair of single-win seasons, Bowman had just elevated himself to the elite ranks of the multi-race winners by holding off three equally matched teammates through the final 97 laps. And his No. 48 over-the-wall group, led by crew chief Greg Ives, could take its fair share of the glory after winning the last consequential round of pit service with the NASCAR Cup Series’ fastest four-tire stop of the year — a sterling 12.1776 seconds.
A band of misfits? On a performance basis at least, there was little reason to ridicule the No. 48 team on Sunday.
“I give them all the credit for the win there,” said Bowman, who supplanted teammate Kyle Larson as the leader off pit road on Lap 304 of 400. “I think without them we wouldn’t have gotten it done. So appreciate Greg and all those guys working so hard throughout the week to continue to get better. They’ve been super-fast all year. It’s cool to win a race that you can really point back to them and say they’re who got it done. It was cool to be able to do that. I feel like other guys do that all the time.”
The No. 48 pit crew now might qualify as a less-than-secret weapon, both after Bowman’s attaboys and the speedy four-tire flirtation with the 12-second barrier. Some of the team’s chemistry even predates Bowman’s full-time arrival, and its legacy as a cohesive bunch stretches back to its incarnation as the No. 88 crew.
That collegial spirit doesn’t happen without the leadership component in place, and that’s where Ives has blossomed as a steady guiding force, one who hasn’t been shy about pushing the team’s comfort level by creating a variety of hurdles in pit practice.
“I mean, for me it’s all about, as Alex said, the details of it, but also letting the guys kind of play in their own space,” said Ives, who is in his fourth season as Bowman’s crew chief. “They want to play at a high level. It’s all about creating comfort in that high-level stress environment. The last couple weeks I’ve been putting them in a lot of changes, high-stress environments, trying to get them to go fast when they have to make a lot of adjustments. I think it’s kind of like a batter swinging a heavier bat.”
Girding the No. 48 crew with challenging drills is part of what’s made the team’s race-day routine click. The fine-tuning has worked both ways, with crew members offering constructive pointers and suggestions to Ives to improve their pit-road choreography.
“We all worked through it. They’re not scared to tell the crew chief that I need to get better in the situation,” Ives said. “I think ultimately being on the same platform as them, allowing them to make some mistakes; when mistakes come learning from them rather than scolding them. I really appreciate what they do, the family we’ve become. We’ve been together for five, six years now. It’s easy to work through complications when you have that open communication.”
Bowman doesn’t appear on the over-the-wall roster, but he’s far from exempt in pit-road study hall. Pit-road entry and exit, pit-stall entry and exit, hitting his target speeds for each pit-road timing segment — those expectations are all laid out for him each week in the most visual of ways.
“At Hendrick Motorsports we really like charts. In our meetings we talk about charts. There’s a lot of charts,” Bowman says. “Sometimes I look bad on those charts, and that’s when Greg yells at me. There’s a lot of different pit road charts and ways to look at it. He tries to do whatever he can to help me maximize each and every area.
“I feel like I’m gaining on it. There are definitely guys that do a little bit better of a job than me right now still. But that 48 pit crew makes up for it a little bit because they are super-fast each and every week.”
Out of that self-termed sea of awkwardness came a foreign concept — normalcy. With vaccinations on the increase and COVID-19 restrictions beginning to lift for NASCAR’s garage footprint, the No. 48 team’s victory celebration was more heavy on social, and easier on the distancing.
Bowman did his best impersonation of a Jimmie Johnson-style burnout, mimicking one of his predecessor’s smoky celebrations against the Monster Mile’s inside wall in front of his crew. Those festivities spilled into Dover’s Victory Lane, which welcomed back the spray of champagne and raucous group gatherings after a year of more muted jubilation.
For Bowman and his No. 48 bunch, the reasons to toast each other were mutual.
“Means the world when I get to share that with them when I think so much of it was influenced by them,” Bowman said. “Really, really cool.”