For the first time in his NASCAR career, Alex Bowman has made it to the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Entering Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, Bowman was seventh in points, holding a 22-point advantage over the cutline. Like most of the playoff contenders, he fought through an up and down race. The biggest blow to Bowman’s playoff hopes would have been somebody below the cut line winning the race, or a bad performance from the No. 88 team. But despite the chaotic conditions of the race, Bowman managed the points gap well, ultimately bringing hope an eighth-place finish.
“It means a lot for this race team to make the round of eight,” Bowman said. (It’s) “something that we’ve fallen short of doing the previous two years.
“I think a lot of people slept on us coming into the playoffs a little bit,” Bowman added. “It’s a lot of validation for us to make that round. And when you’re racing champions of the sport to be able to advance, you’re never comfortable, right? And, especially (racing against) Kyle Busch. So, my nerves were getting to me a little bit, but I’m glad we had a solid day.”
Even if Bowman was anxious about the race, he had less to fear from the ROVAL than most of his competitors. His two previous races both resulted in top-five finishes. As much as the ROVAL has become the playground of his teammate, Chase Elliott, Bowman’s playoff runs have hinged more directly on success at the Charlotte road course.
The 2018 season was Bowman’s first full-time year with Hendrick Motorsports. Stepping into a high-profile ride vacated by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bowman was the 16th and final driver to secure a playoff spot. Most people had Bowman pegged for a quick elimination once the playoffs began. But after two races, the No. 88 was 11th in points, five above the cut line heading to the inaugural ROVAL race at the end of the round of 16. In a race where no one knew what to expect, Bowman brought home a third-place finish. That was only the third top five of his entire career at the time, not to mention his first ever on a road course. But as Bowman moved forward to the round of 12, it suggested that he had the skills to back up Earnhardt Jr.’s recommendation.
Unfortunately for Bowman, the round of 12 was a mess. Crashes at Dover and Talladega put the No. 88 in a big points hole from which it was never able to recover. Eliminated at the end of the round, Bowman slogged through the rest of the playoff races only to finish 16th in final points, right where he started at the bottom of the playoff grid.
Last year, Bowman made the playoffs once again, securing a spot with a win at Chicagoland Speedway. However, a poor result at Richmond Raceway erased his points cushion in the round of 16. He went to the ROVAL two points below the cut line, needing to stay out of trouble to keep his title hopes alive. But trouble found Bowman early and often. In the course of one afternoon, he spun through the backstretch chicane, got collected in a stack up following a restart, and drew the ire of Bubba Wallace, who Bowman eventually sent spinning in the entrance of oval turn three. This led to Wallace splashing water in Bowman’s face after the race while Bowman was on pit road talking with track medical staff.
Bowman, by the way, finished second in that race. Despite his clear exhaustion, numerous incidents, and failure to earn a single stage point, he avoided elimination and advanced to the round of 12 again. Too bad that Bowman got collected in another crash at Talladega two weeks later. When the round of 12 was over, he was in a familiar place – below the cut line.
Maybe all that Bowman needed to clear the round of 12 was a schedule change this year that moved the ROVAL to later in the playoffs. A win at Auto Club Speedway all but locked him into the playoffs early, and he built up enough points to get through the round of 16 easily. The real question was if the ROVAL could still be Bowman’s safety blanket when run during the round of 12, especially given the No. 88 team’s struggles in the middle stages of the playoffs. Bowman had a reasonable points cushion before Sunday’s race, but the threat of racing in the rain threw a huge unknown into the equation. Credit Bowman for fighting through the wet conditions, and his own nerves, to continue his deepest playoff run yet.
Going forward, the No. 88’s biggest concern will be a relative lack of playoff points. Of the eight remaining playoff drivers, Bowman is now seventh in points, 18 below the cutoff. Bowman remains one of the steadiest performers in the Cup Series as the postseason continues. He has scored six top 10s in the last eight races with no finishes worse than 16th. But steadiness without the speed to challenge drivers like Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will not be good enough to reach the championship race. As Bowman prepares to take another iconic ride next year, the No. 48, his last playoff run in the No. 88 will be his best, thanks in no small part to another chaotic, but ultimately successful, day at the ROVAL.