After showcasing a ton of speed at Las Vegas, Alex Bowman struck gold Sunday afternoon as he found himself celebrating in victory lane at Auto Club Speedway.
“We’ve been so good to start this season,” Bowman said. “We started the season very poorly really over the last two years, and it just means the world to show up at the racetrack and have the first run on the racetrack really be almost perfect and just be able to really fine-tune the race car. Greg Ives has made the right calls. So, we’ve got to go win a bunch more, but man, it feels good to have one this early.”
It was Bowman’s second win of his NASCAR Cup Series career. The Arizona native led 110 laps in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to cruise toward victory.
Before the field took the green flag, Auto Club Speedway commemorated seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson as he led the field in a five-wide salute during the pace laps in what could be his final start at the two-mile oval.
As the field formed back to double-file formation, it was Clint Bowyer leading the way, with Johnson starting second as the green flag waved.
Johnson was looking for the race lead early on but would fall back as teammate Bowman would inherit the runner-up spot behind leader Bowyer.
Bowman would also take a lunge at Bowyer but would be unable to capitalize, resulting in Kurt Busch and Johnson swiftly passing the No. 88. The three of them would spar back and forth for the second position, with Bowman holding off the two Chevrolets.
Bowyer’s early lead would be short-lived as Bowman’s No. 88 would take the top spot, with teammate Johnson immediately following behind in second as Bowyer gradually began to fade.
Ryan Blaney slowly marched his way forward and by the halfway point of Stage 1, he was up to the second position.
Pit stops would ensue on Lap 27 as Martin Truex Jr. would ignite the cycle. By the end of it, Bowman would be the leader.
Kyle Larson would find trouble after Denny Hamlin gave the No. 42 a push into Turn 1, putting the McDonald’s Chevrolet into the outside wall. It would put Larson two laps down.
Bowman would remain unchallenged after the cycle and would win Stage 1.
Blaney, Johnson, Aric Almirola, Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Matt DiBenedetto, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Busch would round out the top 10.
It initially looked as though Kurt Busch was the first one off after everybody came down pit lane. However, the No. 1 missed his pit stall, putting him toward the back. As a result, it transferred the lead over to Johnson.
Johnson took the lead on the restart but Blaney and Bowman would make it three-wide on the seven-time champ, allowing Blaney’s No. 12 to take first place.
The two Hendrick Motorsports cars would put up a fight against the Team Penske car, but Blaney would fend off the duo and pull away.
Christopher Bell suffered mechanical issues during the green flag run, knocking the No. 95 Toyota out of the race.
Pole-sitter Bowyer had a left front tire go down on Lap 93, bringing out a yellow shortly after pit stops.
Blaney would be in charge of the restart, and while he was able to pull away, his other competitors were duking it out. Bowman and Keselowski made aggressive moves around Logano and William Byron to gain some track position, and Elliott would march his way towards the Top 5.
Blaney’s lead would remain unchallenged as he would cruise on to win Stage 2.
Bowman, Johnson, Keselowski, Truex, Elliott, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Erik Jones, and Kevin Harvick rounded out the Top 10 for stage points.
Johnson was the leader at the beginning of the stage but was quickly hounded by Bowman as he passed the No. 48 off of Turn 2. Blaney and Truex were in hot pursuit, making it four wide among the leaders.
Truex would briefly hold the lead, but Bowman would fight back. The two would swap back and forth, but Truex would fend off Bowman. But as the laps wound down, Bowman would reclaim the lead over the No. 19 and would pull a gap over the opposition.
Another pit cycle would begin as everyone came in for some fresh rubber and fuel.
Frontrunner Truex had issues during his stop, as the pit gun would malfunction when tending to the right rear tire, costing him valuable track position.
Bowman and Blaney would be the leaders after the cycle, giving themselves plenty of distance between the fourth through sixth place drivers of Johnson, Elliott, and Kurt Busch.
The three Chevrolets would battle for the fourth position, with Elliott edging out Kurt Busch for the spot while Johnson’s car began to fade. Truex’s day would continue to go downward when he slapped the Turn 4 wall trying to overtake Hamlin, allowing Keselowski to overtake the No. 19.
Near the closing stages of the race, Blaney would have to come down pit lane due to a corded tire with only three laps to go, giving up a second-place run at the time.
For Bowman, redemption was sweet as he crossed the line to secure the win. It provided a statement as he showcased his muscle around the California track.
“You know, we started this year so strong,” Bowman said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot on my side that I’m doing better. My life is kind of a lot more organized than it was back then, and Greg and all the guys, they’re just on point. We’ve unloaded the last two weeks, I don’t think we’ve had to make a change in the race car from how it came off the truck. That makes my job a heck of a lot easier. I’m just so proud of this team, Hendrick Motorsports, Hendrick horsepower under the hood, the whole shop back home. They work their butts off. We put a lot of effort into this new car, and it’s obviously working well.”
There were 16 lead changes among eight different drivers and only three cautions for 13 laps.
Blaney retains the points lead by 11, over Logano.
- Alex Bowman – 110 laps led, Stage 1 Winner
- Kyle Busch
- Kurt Busch
- Chase Elliott
- Brad Keselowski – six laps led
- Denny Hamlin
- Jimmie Johnson – ten laps led
- Aric Almirola
- Kevin Harvick
- Erik Jones
- Tyler Reddick
- Joey Logano
- Matt DiBenedetto
- Martin Truex Jr. – three laps led
- William Byron – one lap led
- Chris Buescher
- Ross Chastain
- Cole Custer – one lap down
- Ryan Blaney – one lap down, 54 laps led, Stage 2 winner
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – one lap down, 6 laps led
- Kyle Larson – one lap down
- Michael McDowell – one lap down
- Clint Bowyer – one lap down, ten laps led
- Austin Dillon – one lap down
- John Hunter Nemechek – one lap down
- Ty Dillon – one lap down
- Bubba Wallace – two laps down
- Daniel Suarez – two laps down
- Corey Lajoie – three laps down
- Ryan Preece – three laps down
- JJ Yeley – three laps down
- Brennan Poole – five laps down
- Joey Gase – seven laps down
- Garrett Smithley – seven laps down
- Quin Houff – eight laps down
- Reed Sorenson – nine laps down
- Timmy Hill – 16 laps down
- Christopher Bell – OUT