Saturday, May 19, 2018

CUP: Alex Bowman scores Hendrick’s first All-Star last-place finish since 1995

Alex Bowman finished last in Saturday’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #88 Axalta Chevrolet was involved in a single-car accident after 68 of 93 laps.

Bowman’s fourth season in the Cup Series has found the 25-year-old from Tucson, Arizona the center of attention. After two difficult seasons driving for underfunded BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, it was Bowman who was tabbed to replace a retiring Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in Hendrick Motorsports’ high-powered #88 Chevrolet. His audition came in 2016, when Earnhardt’s concussion symptoms led to Bowman sharing driving duties with Jeff Gordon. Bowman won his first pole in the car at Phoenix and very nearly took the checkered flag before a late-race tangle with Matt Kenseth.

This year, with Earnhardt retired and Chevrolet introducing the new Camaro ZL1 model, Bowman has been showing steady improvement. He began the year by earning the pole for the Daytona 500, then scored six-straight finishes inside the Top 20 before an opening-lap wreck at Texas. He impressed again the next week at Bristol, finishing a season-best 5th, and two weeks later ran 8th at Talladega. Coming into the All-Star break, Bowman sat 14th in the point standings.

Bowman began the weekend 6th in Friday’s opening practice and secured 3rd on the grid for the Monster Energy Open when qualifying was rained-out. In Stage 1, Aric Almirola appeared headed to a convincing victory until 7 laps to go, when Bowman caught, then passed Almirola’s tightening car in Turn 1. As the rest of the field continued to figure out the new aero package introduced in last summer’s XFINITY race at Indianapolis, Bowman cruised to the stage win, advancing him to the All-Star Race, where he’d start 18th. Bowman would be joined by fellow Open racers Daniel Suarez, A.J. Allmendinger, and fan vote winner Chase Elliott.

Elliott started last in the All-Star main, but was joined at the rear by Jamie McMurray, whose #1 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Boats Chevrolet was sent to the rear due to an engine change. When the race began, McMurray moved past Suarez, who was now locked in a side-by-side battle with Elliott. Suarez fell to last by the end of the first lap, then tried to pick a lane to catch Elliott. On Lap 3, he had caught Elliott just as Kurt Busch lost control in front of him, backing the #41 Monster Energy Ford into the outside wall. Suarez passed Elliott, who checked-up to avoid Busch. Busch fell to last behind the pair, and lost a lap for repairs on pit road before rejoining the pack under caution on Lap 4.

On the Lap 6 restart, Busch managed to work his way past the cars of Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, and Austin Dillon in three laps. But by Lap 10, all three had passed him back, and the wounded #41 Ford began to lose touch with the field again. Busch managed to not lose a second lap before the first stage ended, and he was awarded the Lucky Dog to put him back on the same circuit as the leaders.

At the start of Stage 2, Kurt Busch managed to stay closer to the tail end of the pack, but steadily lost ground under green. By Lap 35, he was 3.7 seconds behind. Busch held the last spot until Lap 45, when A.J. Allmendinger came down pit road. Allmendinger, who won the final stage of the Monster Energy Open, had made a pair of daring moves in his #47 Kroger ClickList Chevrolet, and was making exceptional use of the high lane, charging into the Top Five from 20th in Stage 1. Unfortunately, he smacked the wall off Turn 4, forcing the pit stop and costing him a lap. Like Busch, Allmendinger got the lap back with a Lucky Dog at the end of the stage.

In the caution before Stage 3, Allmendinger made a second pit stop, keeping him in last after Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Ryan Newman took turns briefly holding it. The repairs seemed to help, and when Lap 51, Allmendinger was doing a better job than Busch of keeping up with the field. The next time by, Allmendinger had raced past Clint Bowyer in the high lane, dropping Bowyer’s #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Fan Club Ford to last. On Lap 55, the spot fell to polesitter Matt Kenseth, running Roush-Fenway Racing’s throwback to Mark Martin’s 1998 All-Star winner. Kenseth was still in the spot when the next caution fell on Lap 56.

Bowman played a role in this fourth caution of the night, having made contact with the #95 Dumont Jets Chevrolet of Kasey Kahne. The contact turned Kahne’s #95 hard into the outside wall, wrinkling the right side of his throwback scheme to his 2008 All-Star winner. Kahne made it back to pit road, where he spent three laps under yellow for repairs. Kahne looked like he was certain to finish last until Lap 59, when he rolled down pit road, then stopped at pit exit to let the restarting field pass by for a fourth time. Now running by himself, Kahne was last, but still on the track.

What ended the night for Bowman came on Lap 68, when the #88 was running 10th. Racing Brad Keselowski for 9th off of Turn 2, Bowman lost control and whacked the outside wall, causing heavy damage to the rear clip and right side of his Chevrolet. The crew told him to pull behind the wall, which he did, ending his night under the “Crash Clock” protocol. The wreck forced Stage 3 into overtime, and the lengthy caution allowed Kahne to drop Bowman to last under yellow on Lap 72.

The rest of the Bottom Five was filled by the night’s biggest accident on the ensuing restart. Heading through Turn 4, a four-wide battle went awry when Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. made contact with Martin Truex, Jr.’s #78 5-hour Energy / Bass Pro Shops Toyota. The contact sent Truex up the track directly into the closing pack, collecting seven other drivers. Truex ended up the highest ranked of the four drivers whose damage eliminated them from competition. The other three were Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, and Brad Keselowski. Of the Bottom Five, only Truex and the #2 Discount Tire Ford of Keselowski had not taken turns in last earlier that night. Both led for a combined 20 laps.

*This was Hendrick Motorsports’ first All-Star last-place finish since May 20, 1995, when Ken Schrader’s turn in the #25 Budweiser Chevrolet ended after 32 laps of the Winston Select following a tangle with Jimmy Spencer, Dale Earnhardt, and Terry Labonte. Schrader’s #25 team became the current #88 team when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. joined Hendrick in 2008.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #88 and for Bowman in the All-Star Race.

21) #88-Alex Bowman / 68 laps / crash
20) #2-Brad Keselowski / 74 laps / crash / led 3 laps
19) #14-Clint Bowyer / 74 laps / crash
18) #41-Kurt Busch / 74 laps / crash
17) #78-Martin Truex, Jr. / 76 laps / crash / led 17 laps

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