Sometimes racing is as much about timing as it is raw speed. All drivers have their struggles over the course of a long NASCAR Cup Series season, and how they minimize them is as important as putting them in the past and moving on.
The timing wasn’t quite right for Alex Bowman in 2021 — he hit a small slump just as the playoffs were heating up, and it cost him a deeper run than he might have been capable of. Had he made the round of eight, he’d have made the title race on the strength of a win in the penultimate race at Martinsville.
But judging Bowman on his playoff run alone is like judging a steak dinner only on the slightly dry chocolate cake that came afterward. 2021 was a breakout season for Bowman. He was given a vote of confidence by sponsor Ally Financial, who chose Bowman to succeed seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in racing with their colors and Johnson’s No. 48. He rewarded their confidence with four wins; only Cup champion Kyle Larson scored more trophies than Bowman did in the series, and while that playoff slump knocked Bowman to a 14th-place points finish, he had career highs in wins, top 5s and top 10s, and he sat on the pole for the Daytona 500.
It seems like a lifetime ago that Bowman was let go from a lower-tier ride via a Twitter post. Instead of becoming bitter, Bowman grew. He filled in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. after Earnhardt’s season-ending concussion in 2016, and he served as Hendrick Motorsports’ test driver in 2017 without making a single Cup start that season. The patience paid off. Instead of taking a backmarker ride, he stuck it out and was the driver Earnhardt chose to replace him upon his retirement. Since then, Bowman has shown that he belongs at HMS.
His time as a test driver gave Bowman the opportunity to focus on how setups affect the racecars, and he’s turned that into smart, concise communication with crew chief Greg Ives. He’s able to give good detail on the cars, and Ives is able to turn that into winning adjustments and strategies. The pair has grown well together and has won at some of the series’ toughest tracks, taking victories at both Dover and Pocono in 2021 as well as Richmond and Martinsville.
Bowman can certainly be aggressive on track — a skirmish with Denny Hamlin won him the Martinsville playoff race, and he’s earned some ire from others as well. He also needs to cut his DNF total a little; the top points finishers don’t generally have many, and Bowman had five, enough to cost him in the standings.
Bowman is probably the least consistent of the Hendrick stable, though his 16 top 10s in 2021 is an enviable number. Top-10 finishes aren’t as glamorous as wins, but they tell a tale, and champions tend to rack up a lot of them. Bowman will also have to fight his other three Hendrick teammates for supremacy: Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson have won the last two Cup titles, and William Byron set a record with 11 straight top-10 finishes. This four-car team achieved historic balance in 2021, including its first 1-2-3-4 finish in team history, and how they maintain their momentum is a key storyline with the Next Gen’s debut.
This season will be about balance for Bowman. If he can win a couple of races while adding a handful of top 5s and top 10s to his season totals and reducing his DNF number, he’ll be the kind of driver who’s a consistent points threat. Bowman might not dominate like teammate Kyle Larson, but he’s certainly repaying the confidence of his team and sponsors.