Bowman earns first win with late-race drama at Chicagoland

JOLIET, ILLINOIS - JUNE 30: Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on June 30, 2019 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Holly Cain – NASCAR Wire Service

JOLIET, ILLINOIS – JUNE 30: Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on June 30, 2019 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

JOLIET, Ill.  – Alex Bowman’s first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup victory at Chicagoland Speedway was as much a lesson in perseverance, determination and guts as it was a show of his raw talent. It took it all those qualities for the 26-year-old to reach Victory Lane for the first time in Sunday’s Camping World 400.

Bowman’s No.88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet held off a hard-charging Kyle Larson for the win by .546-seconds – the two young drivers door-to-door in the closing laps, exchanging the lead twice in the final eight laps of the race.

Reigning Cup champion, Team Penske’s Joey Logano rallied to a third place finish, leading Bowman’s teammate Jimmie Johnson and Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney to the checkered flag.

During his inaugural victory lap celebration, the Tucson, Arizona, native Bowman drove into the track’s infield still soggy from rain showers that delayed the race finish by nearly three hours. Despite the good celebratory intentions, Bowman’s Chevrolet stuck there, but the good vibes of the night resumed when he climbed out and climbed onto the car’s roof, waving to the cheering crowd and taking in the moment as a first-time race winner.

“It’s all I’ve wanted my whole life,’’ Bowman said after climbing down off his car’s roof.

“I’m just tired of running second, didn’t want to do that anymore,’’ he said smiling in reference to his three runner-up finishes in the first 16 races of this season.

And he had a good laugh about his stuck-in-the-mud car as he navigated the mucky infield to walk across the track and take the checkered flag he earned.

“I’m the dumb guy that won the race but got the car stuck in the mud.’’

Actually Bowman’s win was an impressive display of drive – both figuratively and literally. His NASCAR career essentially got a “second chance” at glory, when he was hired by the championship Hendrick team to replace the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the famed No. 88 last year. He had competed fulltime at the Cup level in 2014-15 in a car that was not considered competitive, hoping to gain experience.

He was hired by Hendrick in 2016 to drive Earnhardt’s No. 88 while the sport’s star rehabbed from injury. Bowman then sat out a year of full-time Cup competition in 2017 as Earnhardt finished out his own decorated career. The car was all Bowman’s as of last year.

Earnhardt, who was part of the NBCSN broadcast team that officially took over the NASCAR Cup Series race broadcasts from partner FOX just his week, was understandably proud in the broadcast booth.

“I’m just so happy for Alex,’’ Earnhardt said. “I’ve seen a majority of his career up close and I’m so happy to see him achieve his dream.’’

Certainly Bowman’s victory Sunday night was not only a shot of emotional adrenalin for himself, but for the whole Hendrick Motorsports team. In addition to Johnson, second-year driver William Byron finished eighth and Chase Elliott finished 11th – the first time this season all four drivers have finished among the top 11. Bowman (88), Johnson (10) and Byron (nine) all led laps.

The big lap leader on the day was Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick, who led a race-best 132 circuits and won Stage 2, but finished 14th after hitting the outside wall late in the race.

For runner-up Larson, the outcome was obviously disappointing since he finished second last year after a tough last-laps battle with Kyle Busch. But the popular Californian seemed genuinely happy for his friend Bowman as well.

“I was actually surprised I even got to him,’’ said Larson, who took the lead from Bowman for two laps on lap 260.

“I thought when he came out about the same distance off pit road in front me, I thought he was just going to check out. But like I said, he was struggling and we were able to get to him and get by him, but did a good job. He did a good job regrouping and figuring out how to make his car driver better and got the win.

“Cool to see him get the win there. Would have liked for him to have to wait another week or so, but happy for him.’’

Cole Custer makes statement with win at Chicagoland

JOLIET, Ill. – For the vast majority of Saturday’s Camping World 300 at Chicagoland Speedway it looked like another non-too-subtle reminder of how good the NASCAR Xfinity Series triumphant trio has been – championship leaders Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick showed the way.

Ultimately it was Custer’s time to celebrate this weekend, leading a dominant 151 of the race’s 200 laps to take his fourth Xfinity win of the season in the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and the sixth victory of his career.

He earned a solid 2.917-second triumph over reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano, who was making his first Xfinity start of the season. Bell originally placed third, but was disqualified after measuring too low in post-race technical inspection. Reddick ended up 10th, losing positions only in the waning laps.

Michael Annett, who led 25 laps late in the race playing a pit stop strategy, finished third, followed by Brandon Jones in fourth, and fifth-place Austin Cindric.

“I think we’re going to hit it this summer, we have some awesome cars,’’ Custer excitedly told the front grandstands. “I don’t know how to get the car any better, I’m just lucky to drive it.’’

Custer, Bell and Reddick have now combined to win 11 of the season’s 15 races, including the last nine consecutively. Custer and Bell have a series best four wins apiece.

At times – especially following a restart – the well-worn Chicagoland Speedway surface helped sustain four and five-wide racing in a free-for-all that set the tone of the race behind Custer.

The SHR driver never seemed to have a problem retaking the lead – he passed polesitter Logano only three laps into the race, en route to the Stage 1 victory. Logano, who started from the pole position, retook the lead late in Stage 2 and held on to claim that stage victory.

But Custer’s No. 00 Ford was just too much for the field, losing the lead only briefly at times but then forcefully and easily retaking it at every opportunity. He passed Michael Annett on a restart with 22 laps to go and never looked back. It’s Custer’s second win in the last four weeks (also including Pocono) and he was runner-up to Bell in the last race at Iowa.

The effort in the oppressive 90-degree heat was impressive even to Custer’s competitors.

When asked where he was getting beat by Custer on track, Logano grinned and deadpanned, “At Chicagoland.’’

“They did a good job. They had the fastest car in practice and Cole did an amazing job.’’

Bell, who failed to lead a lap for the first time this season, was awarded one point for finishing last due to his disqualification. As a result, Bell fell from second in the standings to third. Custer ascended over Bell into second and trails leader Tyler Reddick by 71 points. Bell is 94 points behind Reddick.