Alex Bowman returns to the home track that helped launch his career

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - MARCH 06: Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 06, 2020 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Alex Bowman kept the memory of his 2016 performance at Phoenix Raceway fresh in his mind—until he claimed his first NASCAR Cup Series victory at Chicagoland Speedway last year.

He was tantalizingly close to winning nearly three years earlier in the race that first broadcast his talent. Subbing for injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car he would later claim as his own ride, Bowman won the pole for the fall race at Phoenix and led 194 laps before late contact with Matt Kenseth’s Toyota dropped him to sixth at the finish.

That race nevertheless was an important pivot point in the career of the Tucson, Ariz., driver, who had made his first 71 Cup starts in equipment incapable of running up front.

“There were some other races that we ran really strong at the end of that year, but none as strong as that,” Bowman said on Friday before opening practice at Phoenix. “I feel like that definitely opened the door and was a big help.

“It’s also a race that I thought about every single day for the next two years of my life until we won Chicago. I still think about it a ton, but probably not as much as I did before we won. I think it was a big part of it, for sure.”

Coming off last week’s victory at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.), Bowman still has unfinished business at the one-mile speedway he considers his home track. He’ll get a chance to remedy the situation in Sunday’s FanShield 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“I probably want to win here more than anywhere else we go, just being from close by,” Bowman said. “I think that’s something that’s always been on my mind. I think winning (at other tracks) helped relieve that a little bit, but it’s still there for sure.”

Bowman continued to show speed at Phoenix, where he was 12th fastest in Friday’s opening practice and fourth on the speed chart after a late mock qualifying run in the final session.

Greg Engle