Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers, and more.
Prior to this weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, rookie Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota Camry for BK Racing, sat down with David for an exclusive, extended interview. What follows is an edited transcript of their chat.
David Smith: So you’re not just a rookie. You’re the youngest driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, after sort of a meteoric rise — you were in the ARCA Series less than two years ago. Has there been a moment, in either Cup or in the NASCAR Nationwide Series last year, which served as a “Welcome to the Big Leagues” moment?
Alex Bowman: There have been three of them. They’ve all been in the past couple of weeks. After the driver’s meeting at Darlington, Jimmie Johnson came up to me and said ‘I don’t know how half the time you don’t wreck the thing, because it’s bad.’ My crew chief was with me — that’s not what he wanted to hear — but it was cool of Jimmie to say that. Tony Stewart said kind of the same thing last week (at Richmond) in the driver’s meeting and after driver intros, Jeff Gordon said I was doing well, which was really cool because he was one of my childhood heroes. I think Tony Stewart saying anybody is doing a good job means a lot because he doesn’t go out of his way to do that — he’s doing his own thing and is grumpy half of the time — so that was cool.
What about from a competition standpoint? Have you seen anything on the track this year or last that made your jaw drop?
I feel like I’m used to a lot of it after racing against Kyle Busch in the Nationwide Series. He is so good. But those guys (i.e. Johnson, Gordon) give the perfect feedback to get their cars exactly the way they want them. If you listen to Jimmie on the radio at the end of the race, he doesn’t say much. He knows he’s got what he’s got. Chad (Knaus, crew chief) has tuned on the car and Jimmie adapts to the car and drives the heck out of it. It’s cool to see how they give feedback and get the car where they need it so quickly.
How do you feel you are doing with providing feedback?
I’ve always done my best to give good feedback and really break down the corners, but this year I’ve been focused more on trying to get the race car to where I know I can race it. Last year I was really good at getting the race car to go really fast. I didn’t know, or have much help, on how to turn that into long-run speed. A lot of times if I went out in the beginning of a run, and it wasn’t fast, I was told to just bring it in and they’d make changes. This year we roll off of the truck for a 30-lap run in practice and stay out there. We know we’re not going to have a perfect race car, but at places like Richmond, Darlington and Martinsville, where there’s a big tire falloff, we felt like we had a chance if we just kept the car raceable on long runs. At Richmond and Martinsville we were pretty good with that.
So that might be the answer to my next question, but have you encountered a situation yet where you felt you were lacking in a particular aspect of the sport? Perhaps something you wished you had spent more time developing in a lower series?
That came last year. Getting raw speed out of a car, especially on long runs. In ARCA you don’t get long runs because there are cautions all the time. It’s the same in the K&N Series. You get in the Cup car and have 120-lap, 130-lap runs sometimes. A fast long-run car is what wins races.
Let’s touch on your development. You’ve driven in the ARCA Series, where you won races. You were the Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and you also competed in USAC open-wheel cars. Those are the three foremost series in terms of driver cultivation. Which do you feel trained you best for the current-day Cup Series?
I feel like it’s split half and half between a USAC car and ARCA. As far as driving a race car, I feel like driving a Midget – they’re never perfect, always twitchy, you’re always driving the heck out of it and you’re never settled down into the racetrack – helps when going into these Cup cars. The Cup cars make so much downforce now, they’re so fast and the tires are giving up so much this year. They’re never perfect. You’re sideways most of the day and I feel like the USAC cars really helped me prepare for that.
When I ran ARCA, I had Paul Andrews as a crew chief. He won a Cup championship as a crew chief (in 1992, with Alan Kulwicki) and he’s really good. I learned a lot from him on just how to approach a weekend. ARCA helped just because I was with Paul.
You say Paul taught you how to approach a race weekend. In what way?
Pretty much every way possible. I’ve never met someone that works harder than him. He’ll stay at the shop until 3 am, go to sleep in his motorhome, which is parked behind the shop, and go back to work the next morning. In terms of work ethic and explaining the race cars, he taught me so much about what the cars do and what changes do for the car. We did a lot – I don’t think anyone really knows what we went through in ARCA. We had two full-time employees and it was a really limited deal to win as many races as we did (four times across 19 starts during the 2012 season), and it might not have looked like it, but it was. From Paul, learning what I learned about the cars and learning how to give feedback and help break down what the car was doing really helped.
Did You Notice? ...Moving past the racism, NASCAR meddling and rookie mistakes
What were your goals at the beginning of the season, and how have they changed after the first quarter of the year?
My goal coming into the season was to run in the top 30. That’s a little better than where they ran last year. I felt like coming into this year they made progress. And we’ve raced there for the exception of Vegas and Texas. We’ve had some dumb stuff happen. We had a battery fall out, spindles break without hitting anything – random stuff like that. But we know we can race there. The worst track position we had at Richmond was 29th or 30th, so I feel like we’re making more progress. I’m still keeping my goal at top 30 every weekend, but at some point I’d like to move it top 25 every weekend.
On the Rookie of the Year side of things, my goal is to finish third. We’d be a lot closer to that without the wreck at Martinsville and the battery falling out at Bristol. It’s going to be tough. I’ve got to beat Cole Whitt and Justin Allgaier and a lot of other solid rookies this year.
In addition to you being a rookie, your crew chief, Dave Winston, is a rookie crew chief. How would you rate the dual learning process?
If no one had told me he was a rookie, I’d never have believed it. He is really, really good. The first thing I did when I first started talking with BK Racing was talk to Paul Andrews about Dave. He knows him, they’ve worked together and he said Dave was really good. And it’s true. He’s good about planning stuff out. It’s funny – you can tell he hasn’t been on the radio much. Whenever he tries to talk over the radio, it’s the shortest, most-rushed bit of speech you’ve ever heard in your life. It’s the one thing that does make him seem like a rookie. But he does a great job. It’s a lot of fun working with him. I’ve never had a driver-crew chief relationship like the one I have with Dave.
What's been the biggest hurdle this year, and what is needed to clear it?
Learning this race car. Learning how they race. In the Nationwide cars, if you were turning really well in practice, you were going to be too loose in the race. You’d get it to turn, then you’d tighten it up and you’d be good. In these cars, I haven’t figured how to get it in practice to where it starts the race well. At Texas we were turning okay in the center during practice and then we started the race and we were plowing tight. I need to do a little better job of finding where I need to end practice to start the race, but we’re getting there. Richmond was a step in the right direction. We’re getting better.