Some drivers are simply solid: They're good for a win or two a year, finish in the top 15 week in and week out and make the playoffs for their sponsors. They might not be the most aggressive or flashy; they just get the job done.
Alex Bowman is a solid driver. Now it's time to see if he can be more than that.
Bowman had a solid 2020 season. He won at Fontana early on, but the first half of his year was inconsistent. He earned a playoff berth and finished the regular season 12th in points but looked a little lackluster.
But the second half of the season told a different story. Based on the first half, Bowman might have been an easy pick to exit the playoffs early — but that didn't happen. Bowman scored eight top-10 finishes in the 10-race postseason stretch, good enough to carry him into the last eight drivers standing. He didn't make the Championship Four, but that's okay. His sixth-place finish in points was his career best, improving on a 12th-place 2019.
For the last three seasons, Bowman and crew chief Greg Ives, a Hendrick Motorsports veteran who calls a smart, conservative race, have looked like they might be on the verge of something. The last 12 weeks of 2020 certainly suggested that Bowman and Ives were capable of another step. Nine of Bowman's 15 top-10 finishes came in the final 12 races; in that span, Bowman's average finish was 8.3. Those are championship-caliber numbers.
Bowman also drives championship-caliber equipment. Teammate Chase Elliott is the defending champion, and Bowman's new ride has quite the history. Hendrick Motorsports turns out good cars and dependable engines, with nine total titles in the 21st century to date.
There's some pressure to perform in the No. 48 car. Bowman came to Hendrick full time in 2018 after Dale Earnhardt Jr. called it quits. Earnhardt is now in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. This year, three years later, Bowman takes over the ride of another certain Hall of Famer, the now-retired Jimmie Johnson, as the driver of choice of sponsor Ally Financial. Full-time sponsors are a rarity these days, but Bowman found one in Ally.
He's also under pressure due to the fact that 2021 is the final year of his contract with Hendrick Motorsports after signing a one-year extension. HMS has a couple of youngsters in the pipeline, so Bowman needs to perform. Solid may not be enough a few months down the road.
If Bowman can open the season like he closed the last one, that's more than solid. If he can keep it up, putting up another six or seven top 10s and doubling his top-5 total, he'll be a hot commodity and possibly a title contender.
But there's no shortage of obstacles. The first is Bowman's track record. Teammate Elliott led 25 races in a championship year; Bowman led little more than half that (13). To get better, he needs more diversity on his resume; only one of his career top-5 finishes is on a short track (Bristol, 2018). The driver has shown that he's capable, but he hasn't put all the pieces together for a whole year. The good news on that front is that he'll be only 27 when the season starts, so he has both time and room to grow.
The other big thing in Bowman's way is the caliber of the competition. A look at the top 10 in points last year shows no fewer than seven series champions, including new champ Elliott. Twelve drivers in addition to Bowman also won at least one race. Bowman's numbers didn't stack up against theirs until the playoffs. He's a good enough driver with a good enough team and good enough equipment to have another top-10 year; whether he can achieve more than that is the bigger question.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 33/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)