Alex Bowman won the pole for the Daytona 500 Sunday but might be on the edge of losing a Corvette.
Team owner Rick Hendrick, a car collector, has challenged Bowman, part of his team’s youth movement, to a drag race in their respective street Corvettes. According to Hendrick, the loser will hand over the Corvette keys to the winner, a deal Bowman said he wasn’t exactly aware of.
It was pointed out that Hendrick sold the Corvette to Bowman, so the Chevrolet specialty vehicle could wind up “going home.” Then Hendrick told Bowman he would pay off the debt on the Corvette if he wins the 500.
This is a lot of information for the 24-year-old Bowman, a relatively unknown driver in such lofty circles, to digest. He is part of a youth revolution at Hendrick Motorsports, which also fields Chevrolets for 20-year-old rookie William Byron and 22-year-old Chase Elliott. The team’s only “old guy” is 42-year-old seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Bowman turned his winning qualifying lap of 195.644mph in the No. 88 Chevrolet, the car formerly driven by retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. When Junior was battling concussion issues in 2016, he recommended that Bowman substitute for him in the car, and Bowman performed well, pushing himself into the spotlight after struggling in equipment that wasn’t front-line.
“If you had told me in 2015 I would be driving the number 88 for Hendrick Motorsports I would have called you nuts,” Bowman said. “Everything happens for a reason. I’ve been able to lean on my past experiences. It helped prepare me for this job. I got to make a lot of mistakes without anybody watching.”
Bowman, who will make his 82nd Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start next Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox) in the 500, has been tagged with the “Bowman the Showman” nickname, one he doesn’t particularly like. After Sunday’s run knocked Denny Hamlin from the 500 pole, the nickname might gain even more traction.
Hendrick Motorsports, which has won the 500 pole for four straight years, put all four of its drivers into the second and final round of qualifying. Joe Gibbs Racing also had four drivers in the last round.
The day’s results make the Hendrick team the favorite in a 500 that could be noticeably different from the opening races of recent years. Aerodynamic changes have the cars “planted” to the race track, changing their stability levels in the draft and possibly making pack racing more difficult.
Hamlin had the day’s second-fastest speed – 195.092 – and will start second in the 500. The first and second positions are the only ones locked in. The remainder of the 40-car 500 field will be set in the Can-Am Duels, a pair of 150-mile races, Thursday (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1).
“This is going to be very much a handling race,” Hamlin said of the Daytona 500. “We had handling issues in practice [Saturday] when we had only our four Toyotas together. When you break traction, it’s bad. What will be hairy is when we’re three-wide on older tires. We’ll just have to play it by ear.”
That thought was illustrated later Sunday afternoon in the Advance Auto Parts Clash exhibition race when Kyle Larson broke out of a line in an attempt to pass and almost lost control of his Chevrolet.
Although the 150-mile qualifiers will give teams a chance to shake out their cars at a longer distance prior to the 500, the Thursday races don’t carry the importance they once did. With only 40 drivers entered in a race in which there are 40 starting positions, nobody will fail to qualify for the race.
Thursday will be another day of learning for Bowman, who suddenly finds himself the story of the week.
“He substituted phenomenally for Dale Junior,” Hamlin said of Bowman. “He got there the old-fashioned way, on hard work and grit. I think he’ll handle it. He’s a young guy, but he’s been in the Cup series quite a few years. I think he’ll be the surprising guy of this year.”