Friday at Richmond Raceway wasn’t the best of days for Alex Bowman.
Bowman was 22nd fastest in both 50-minute NASCAR Cup Series practice sessions. Afterward, a few hours before he would then qualify 20th for the race, Bowman used the words “pretty terrible” twice when talking about his car.
“We’ve been pretty terrible since we unloaded, so throw the kitchen sink at it for the race and hopefully be better,” he said. “We need to be better than where we are; we’re pretty terrible.”
It wasn’t exactly a surprise. As Bowman and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates pointed out, the three-quarter-mile oval has been a struggle for the company. In his three starts at Richmond driving for HMS, Bowman has a best finish of 12th in this race last year.
“We ran pretty well here in the fall of last year; we tried to bring a new car with some new ideas, and it just hasn’t worked,” he said. “I think across the board as a company we’re all fighting very similar things. We had two pretty poor practices and didn’t really find anything that the race car liked, so that’s always frustrating, but obviously, my team’s working really hard to make it better. Hopefully, we’ll find something.”
Bowman said short tracks have been the “poorest package” for Hendrick all year, and Richmond was going to be the hardest place for them in the playoffs. The biggest fight in practice was being free in the corner and not being able to get the car to turn without making it “super tight” in the center.
“You unload, and your car’s doing three different things throughout the corner and you’ve got to pick one to try to work one, and then it starts doing the two other things worse, and tire wear is really aggressive — even on new tires, I feel like we’re really low grip here,” Bowman responded when asked what’s hard about Richmond.
“It’s a tough racetrack, and obviously the practices are within an hour of each other, so I think that makes it tough as well to really make a big change and make the race car better.”
Bowman wasn’t the worst of the HMS cars, with William Byron qualifying 25th. Jimmie Johnson qualified 10th and said while one of the team cars can find something from time to time, it has consistently been a struggle.
“I could tell in our debrief after practice that I probably had a better day than my three teammates did,” said Johnson. “But honestly, we did a have a solid car. I would say that there’s a couple that are definitely faster than us, but our practice session did a lot smoother than theirs did.”
Chase Elliott was the best qualifying Hendrick car in third, but he wasn’t jumping for joy afterward. Elliott said he hopes his car is good, but his team is cautious about being too positive.
“We qualified second here a couple of years ago and ran really bad in the race,” he said. “So, I tend to not get excited over qualifying efforts at this place. Hopefully, our car drives good, and we can keep the back tires on it and stay turning and trying to have good execution on pit road. If the car drives good and we don’t mess up, and I don’t mess up, and we have good pit stops, we’ll have a shot at it.”
“I feel like we were all in a similar boat,” Elliott continued. “Just trying to keep the back tires on the back is a struggle here, and that shows up in drive-off and then also getting in the corner. It’s a challenge. This place has been tough. It’s been a challenge for us.
“I feel like this has been one of (the 9 team’s) poorest racetracks since I’ve been in Cup, probably. So yeah, we’ve worked really hard at it to try to get better — and we’ve worked really hard at it before to get it better and thought we were better and weren’t. So, we’ll get our report card (Saturday) night.”
Without a doubt, Bowman needs a passing grade. The worst of the Hendrick drivers in the playoff standings, Bowman needs points, and he’s not optimistic he’s good enough to get stage points Saturday night. Plus, since his win at Chicago in late June, Bowman has had just two top-10 finishes.
“Yes and no,” he said of that being surprising. “We got really aggressive with some things, and then I think Darlington and Indy were probably both going to be solid top-10 runs and just crashed late in both of them. I think Kentucky was going to be really good, we popped a right front.
“There were definitely good runs sprinkled throughout there and also some tracks that we struggled with. That’s just part of the makeup of the year, and things just didn’t go our way there for a while.”
A Hendrick driver has not won at Richmond since 2008 (Johnson).