Alex Bowman and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team picked up where they left off before an unexpected racing hiatus with a strong run at Darlington Raceway.
Bowman was one of the stronger cars at the beginning of the day in the Real Heroes 400. Starting second, Bowman kept pace with poles-sitter Brad Keselowski through the first run to the competition caution, and then took the lead for the first time on lap 45.
Ultimately, Bowman was the runner-up Sunday afternoon with 41 laps led. With Kevin Harvick grabbing the checkered flag, Bowman was over two seconds behind at the finish.
“It was great to be back,” he said. “Obviously, a little different, but felt really good to get back in the car. We were really strong on short runs right off the bat, just got tight as the runs went on. Freed it up quite a bit during the first two-thirds of the race, got the car pretty good, then I kind of leaned on the wall a little bit and hurt us there at the end.
“Just a little bit off. I felt like I didn’t do a great job of knowing what I needed to be able to beat the 4 [Kevin Harvick] there on long runs at the end. I feel like if I could have gotten in front of him on the short run, I could have held him off with clean air. But I didn’t really know. I could get the car free right on the wall or get it tight by turning down off the wall a little bit.
“I didn’t really know which direction to go on the last change. I have to do a better job there, but really happy with everybody at Hendrick Motorsports, ChevyGoods.com, and NOCO. To come off a mini offseason, have four cars that were strong, have a good day like that, it means a lot. Can’t wait to get back here on Wednesday.”
On the final restart with 34 laps to go, Bowman would have preferred not to have been on the inside of Harvick. Even still, he put up a good fight for about a lap before Harvick pulled away and never looked back.
“I feel like watching it back, I could have been really aggressive and cut the corner into one a little bit and maybe cleared him,” said Bowman. “I was already pretty aggressive with that. Maybe I could have acted like I was going to clear myself and got him to lift. If he doesn’t lift, we both crash. In (Turns) 3 and 4, I got loose under him. He did a good job of getting on my door, taking some side force away.
“That’s tough. You’re racing one of the best in the business at one of the most technical, hard racetracks we go to. Just to have the opportunity to race him hard and clean like that was a lot of fun.”
Sunday afternoon, Bowman was never far from the top of the leaderboard, and neither were his teammates before unfortunate circumstances bit Jimmie Johnson and William Byron. Entering Darlington, which was just the fifth race of the season, Bowman had a win (Fontana) and had already led over 100 laps on the year.
“I felt great the way we started the season,” said Bowman. “Unloading in Las Vegas, I think we saw our race cars were going to be really strong. To continue that after we got shut down and firing everything back up, to continue the strength that we had means a lot. I think it was an interesting time period, right? Guys couldn’t really be in their shops developing new stuff. You weren’t allowed to be in the wind tunnel, simulators, all that stuff. Everybody is still at home working on their notebooks, trying to piece together what they can do to make their race cars better.
“In a sense, it didn’t really give people maybe the complete opportunity to catch up, but it at least gave them some opportunity. I think for everybody at HMS to stay on top of things, improve our race cars, I think we didn’t just come back with what we had in Vegas and Fontana, I think we came back with something better. We need to keep working on it because everybody around us is constantly getting better, as well.”