Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Hard to get more obvious than this one. After finishing in every possible final position in a NASCAR Cup Series race from second through 43rd prior to this weekend (yes, he raced in the top series when 43-car fields were allowed and actually had that many entrants), Alex Bowman finally got it done with his first ever victory at the sport’s top level.
Bowman and the Hendrick Motorsports team have had an interesting season already that could be split into three parts:
- An uninspiring start, with zero top-10 finishes in the first nine races.
- The “knocking on the door” middle section, where Bowman finished second in three consecutive races (Talladega, Dover and Kansas), then came in seventh right after that at Charlotte.
- The “win kind of out of nowhere” current run, with Bowman winning after three double-digit results in a row.
That makes it hard to predict if he’s building up to something more, but it hardly matters at the moment. A clearly relieved Bowman has thrown off the stigma of never winning and locked himself into the playoffs to boot. Plus he really earned this victory, giving up the lead to a hungry Kyle Larson late before rallying to reclaim the top position and holding on until the checkered flag.
It was also a great day for Jimmie Johnson, who led 10 laps and was running up where you would have expected him to be prior to 2018 for a big chunk of the race before winding up fourth. It’s way too early to start any “Seven-Time is back” talk, because it was only Johnson’s second top-five finish in his last 40 races. But it was the first time in forever that the No. 48 Chevrolet conjured up some glimpses of its past glories, and that has to have the team feeling good as the calendar flips to July.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
If seeing two Chevy drivers battling for a win felt a little strange, that’s because it hasn’t happened in any non-Talladega race for more than two years. The last such 1-2 finish between two Chevrolets was at the 2017 FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan, when Larson beat Chase Elliott by just a tad under a second.
When Elliott (11th) is the worst-running Hendrick car and still almost cracks the top 10 (and he was much better than that earlier in the race), that’s a heck of a day. Plus Larson looked like himself again, and even Austin Dillon (10th) was racier than usual. It’s hard to remember the last race with this many positives up and down the Chevy camp.
It won’t mean much if the teams can’t capitalize on it, especially since the Cup Series doesn’t return to Chicagoland until next season. Still, as performances to build on go, this was exactly what Chevrolet has been seeking for a long time.
Where… were the other key players in the end?
Pole sitter Dillon acquitted himself just fine. He only led nine laps, but then again he led nine laps. Dillon never had a top-10 result at Chicagoland prior to Sunday, so it’s hard to imagine his team not being pleased with the way they ran. Maybe it was his haircut.
It was a much different story for defending race winner Kyle Busch, who suffered through one bad break after another. His No. 18 made contact with the wall, other cars and even filled up with smoke during the final stage. Rowdy ended the day in a very uncharacteristic 22nd place, but it was kind of a miracle it wasn’t even worse.
Martin Truex Jr. won the two editions of this race prior to Busch, and he had his moments this time out too. However, he never looked to have a fast enough car to challenge for a win (not that any other Toyota driver did either), and his ninth-place effort felt about right for what he had.
When… was the moment of truth?
There was a period of a few laps late in the race when it appeared Bowman might not seal the deal. He got tangled up with cars at the tail end of the lead lap several times, first getting delayed by Paul Menard and later by Chris Buescher. An argument can be made that those cars could have given him room to run his preferred line — though this writer would reject it, as they were battling to stay on the lead lap — but Bowman’s three-second lead disintegrated quickly once he was held up.
Larson not only caught Bowman but passed him, and with the laps winding down, the “oh no, not again” feeling was palpable even while watching the race on TV. This time was different, though, as Bowman was able to stay right on the tail of the No. 42 car, going low to get a side draft off Larson and making just the slightest contact as he took the lead back.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 1, 2019
Larson said after the race that he wished that maybe he tried something different once he was out front, but noted that his car didn’t seem to like clean air as much as some others. It might not have mattered anyway, because Bowman showed both skill and determination to pull off the race-winning move, and simply wasn’t going to be denied on this particular day.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
It’s the end of an era… kind of. NASCAR pays its traditional Fourth of July weekend trip to Daytona to race under the lights, but it’s a tradition that will change next season when the Brickyard takes over that spot on the schedule. Instead, the second Daytona race will serve as the 2020 Cup Series cutoff race, which could be amazing or a disaster and probably nothing in-between.
If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how NBC treats the Coke Zero Sugar 400 this year and whether the broadcast uses its impending move to fire up some retrospectives of great holiday weekend memories from Daytona over the years. With 60 years of history connecting this particular race to Independence Day — including nearly three decades where it was run on July 4 proper, regardless of what day of the week that happened to be — this is a bigger shakeup than many might imagine.
As far as on-track storylines go, it’s also worth noting that the summer Daytona race has recently served as a way for drivers to sneak away with a win when they aren’t racking them up elsewhere, as was the case with Erik Jones in 2018 and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. the year before that. If there is another first-time 2019 winner following on the heels of Bowman, that would be a pretty nice-sized shuffling of the playoff picture in just two weeks.
When… was the last non-Talladega race that had no Toyotas in the top five?
Even though Toyotas are at a numerical disadvantage against both of the other manufacturers in the Cup Series each week, the fact that some of them are wheeled by the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers means it isn’t that often that they all fail to finish in the top five. If you throw out Talladega (the exception to every rule, because plate/tapered spacer racing), the last time it happened was at the Charlotte ROVAL last fall —and as you might recall, Truex would certainly have ended up there had he and Johnson not wrecked each other battling for the win.
If we narrow it down to just short and intermediate tracks, the 2018 Southern 500 and the 2017 spring Texas race are the only two times the top-running Toyota finished outside the top five in the past two seasons. We’re talking about a once a season occurrence, so don’t expect the next such off day for the Toyotas until 2020.