Sunday, July 2, 2023

CUP: Tangle with Hamlin hands Alex Bowman’s first DNF of the year

PHOTO: Michael Reaves, Getty Images

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Alex Bowman picked up the 7th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Grant Park 220 at the Chicago Street Course when his #48 Ally Chevrolet fell out with a blown engine after 40 of 78 laps.

The finish, which came in Bowman’s 271st series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup Series race since June 26, 2022 at Nashville, 37 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 24th for the #48, the 716th for engine issues, and the 841st for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 34th for the #48, the 1,136th from the engine, and the 1,896th for Chevrolet.

It's been a year of adversity for Bowman, who after the recent wins by Martin Truex, Jr. and Ryan Blaney is now looking to turn around a winless streak of more than one full season. This year, which saw his team penalized 60 points for a windshield support brace at Richmond, has also seen him suffer an injury in a sprint car crash, sidelining him from three races. What it has not seen is him fail to finish a race, one year after racking up six DNFs. 

Kyle Busch's car buried in the tire barrier. He'd
recover to finish in 5th.

The Chicago region held special significance to Bowman as in 2019, he scored his first of seven Cup victories in the 19th and most recent race at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway. But he’d yet to score a win on a road course. Bowman enjoyed an uneventful beginning to the weekend on Saturday, ranking 27th in practice, then improving to 13th in qualifying with a lap of 88.376mph (89.617 seconds). 

Securing the 37th and final starting spot was Justin Haley, who during practice glanced his #31 Benesch Law Chevrolet off the tire barriers in Turn 4. Haley’s incident happened just an instant before 36th-place Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. caught the inside wall entering Turn 8, sending his #47 Mariano’s / SunnyD Chevrolet hard into the outside wall and destroying the right-rear suspension. Neither Stenhouse nor Haley participated in qualifying, and both would be sent to the back for a backup car and unapproved adjustments, respectively. Joining Haley for unapproved adjustments were both William Byron, who damaged a toe link on his #24 Valvoline Chevrolet after it glanced off the wall with the right-rear, and Austin Cindric, whose #2 Discount Tire Ford pinballed between the barriers at Turn 4, damaging both the left-rear and left-front.

Two more drivers were sent to backup cars after wrecks in qualifying, each deflected by clipping one barrier and striking another nearly head-on. Chase Elliott claimed 26th in his #9 Hooters Chevrolet, but crashed in Turn 8, leaving his car stopped in the middle of the track with heavy nose damage. Kevin Harvick took 35th in his #4 Gearwrench Ford, which glanced off the inside Turn 1 wall and slammed the outside wall just past the tire barriers. While both wrecks were hard enough to move the concrete barriers at the impact point, both drivers walked away without injury.

Blaney with the hood up after his early crash.

After record-setting rains finally subsided late Sunday afternoon, NASCAR specified the last eight rivers in line would be Ross Chastain, Todd Gilliland, Chase Elliott, Austin Cindric, Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., and last-place Justin Haley. When the green flag dropped, Haley was last across the stripe, 25.531 seconds back of the lead and nearly one full second back of Stenhouse. NASCAR then immediately penalized Ty Dillon, whose #77 Chicago White Sox Chevrolet was docked for passing another car in Turn 11 before reaching the stripe. Running 33rd at the time, Dillon pleaded his case while NASCAR was about to wave the black flag with white cross. In the meantime, Aric Almirola spun his #10 Smithfield Ford, followed shortly by Erik Jones going straight at a corner, his #43 Draiver Chevrolet bumping Brad Keselowski’s #6 Elk Grove Village Ford and blocking Noah Gragson’s #42 Wendy’s Chevrolet. All these drivers continued, putting Almirola to last at the start of Lap 2 behind Keselowski and Jones. 

On Lap 3, Almirola was still 5.504 seconds back of 36th-place Keselowski and 58.469 back of the lead. Moments later, Kyle Busch lost control of his #8 3CHI Chevrolet as he raced Chase Briscoe and plowed nearly head-on into a tire barrier. This jammed the car under the barrier clear to the windshield, sticking Busch’s car fast. The ensuing caution dropped Busch to last on Lap 4, though his car was pulled free in time for him to continue without losing a lap. Busch continued with surprisingly little damage, so his crew elected to wait to look at his right-front fender. That is, until they discovered his hood pins had come loose. After starting Lap 5 at 124.058 seconds back of 35th-place Almirola, Busch made his pit stop and took the Lap 6 restart 38.590 seconds behind Keselowski. By Lap 11, the gap had hardly changed, remaining at 38.071 seconds.

On Lap 13, Noah Gragson was just a few spots ahead in 34th when he struck the tire barrier in Turn 6, pinning his own car under the tires. After spinning his tires in futility, Gragson was also freed, though he lost a lap in the process, and he pitted for four tires and pulling out the fenders. The crew also had to replace the hood pins, the same issue as Busch. Gragson returned to the race with minor damage to the right-front of his hood, and cleared the “Crash Clock” on Lap 17. The next time by, Ryan Blaney had his own misadventure in Turn 6, missing the tires and slamming the concrete with the right-front of his #12 Menards Dutch Boy Ford. “Right-front’s killed,” he said on the radio as he came to pit road, where the crew lifted the hood. Blaney lost a lap in the pits, and as Christopher Bell won Stage 1 on Lap 21, Blaney took last from Gragson. 

Bowman's stalled car after the hood was raised.

Blaney returned to the track between two and three laps down. He remained in last place until Lap 29, when Gragson jammed his car under the tires in Turn 6 for a second time, and in nearly the same position. He made it to pit road for more tape on the nose of his #42, which dropped him back to 35th and one spot ahead of Blaney. Gragson met minimum speed on Lap 35, and on Lap 42 would become the first driver to get the Lucky Dog. This was as a result of the caution that ultimately led to Bowman’s last-place finish.

Heading into Turn 11, polesitter Denny Hamlin lost control of his #11 Yahoo Toyota and slid into Bowman’s Chevrolet, sending Bowman rear-first into the outside wall. As Bowman pulled forward, trying to get turned, his car stalled just before pit entrance, forcing NASCAR to throw the caution. Bowman made a pit stop under the ensuing yellow, where the crew looked under the hood, checking on an engine issue. Losing two laps in the process, Bowman remained 35th ahead of Blaney as he returned to the track, only to stall on the right side of the track at Turn 5. Bowman had lost oil pressure, and telltale wisps of smoke came from both exhaust pipes and from under the hood. With the caution out once more, Bowman climbed from the car, and the #48 took last on Lap 45. The next time by, the tow truck pulled the car backwards into an opening in the outside wall, where it remained for much of the rest of the race.

The 36th spot went to Austin Dillon, who was running 2nd behind Justin Haley when coming off Turn 11, he smacked the wall with the right-front corner of his #3 Get Bioethanol Chevrolet. With the right-front suspension destroyed, Dillon made it down the pit straight, then backed up onto the exit of pit road. He climbed out in his pit stall before the #3 went behind the wall into the paddock. Ty Dillon made it five laps more before suspension issues stopped his #77. Stenhouse’s #47 took 34th after contact from a spinning Bubba Wallace sent him sliding into a tire barrier, forcing the race into overtime. Ryan Blaney rounded out the Bottom Five, still one lap down at the checkered flag.

Shane Van Gisbergen with debut win after late-race battle with Justin Haley

Sunday’s race was won by Shane Van Gisbergen, New Zealand’s three-time Australian Supercars Champion, in what was his first Cup Series start in Trackhouse Racing’s “Project 91” entry. Throughout the weekend, Van Gisbergen had won opening practice, came within seconds of claiming the pole, and then charged into the Top 5 in the final laps of the race. His closest battle was with Justin Haley, who led 23 laps after starting last in the race. It was the second-straight win for Trackhouse Racing, and the first by an “open” team since the Charter system was introduced.

It was the first time a driver won his first Cup race since February 22, 1963, when Johnny Rutherford won his 100-mile qualifying race at Daytona (then classified as a full points-paying race). 

His #91 Enhance Health Chevrolet scored the first Cup win for the #91 since May 16, 1953, when Tim Flock won at Hickory (Flock scored all 16 of the #91’s previous Cup wins). 

And it was the first win for a Cup Series “road ringer” – a part-time driver specifically entered to run a road race – since Mark Donohue won at Riverside in Roger Penske’s AMC Matador on January 21, 1973. In this, NASCAR’s 75th anniversary, these moments were 50, 60, and 70 years ago.

*This was the first last-place finish of 2023 for Hendrick Motorsports.

37) #48-Alex Bowman / 40 laps / engine
36) #3-Austin Dillon / 62 laps / crash
35) #77-Ty Dillon / 67 laps / suspension
34) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 77 laps / running
33) #12-Ryan Blaney / 77 laps / running

1st) Spire Motorsports (4)
2nd) Penske Racing (3)
3rd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Legacy Motor Club, Live Fast Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing (2)
4th) Hendrick Motorsports, Kaulig Racing, Richard Childress Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (11)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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