Alex Bowman times it perfectly and wins NASCAR’s Beautiful Mess known as the Chicago Street Race

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 07: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Grant Park 165 at Chicago Street Course on July 07, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

It was Alex Bowman’s time, both literally and figuratively. In a race on an afternoon that can be best described as a beautiful mess, Bowman got past one of the best road course racers in motorsports then held off a hard charging Tyler Reddick to win on the streets of Chicago Sunday night.

It was his first win in 80 races, and the first since he missed several races due to injury last season.

“Man, I broke my back, had a brain injury, and we’ve kind of sucked ever since,” Bowman said. “You start to second-guess if you’re ever going to get a chance to win a race again.”

A decision to leave Bowman out after leaders ahead of him pitted, Bowman on damp weather tires score the win and lock himself into NASCAR’s Playoffs.

A strategic decision to leave Bowman out on damp weather tires after leaders ahead of him pitted clinched the win and locked him into NASCAR’s Playoffs. The pivotal moment came during what turned out to be the final round of pit stops. Christopher Bell, who led 14 laps on a day that saw two stoppages for rain, pitted from the lead on lap 43. He dragged the rest of the lead group in to make a switch to slicks from the damp weather tires as the rain had stopped and the track was drying.

The top 12 remaining, led by journeyman driver Joey Hand and followed by Bowman, elected to stay out on the damp weather tires in what was becoming a race against time. Due to changes in the rules, NASCAR had already announced that due to darkness, no matter how many laps had been run at 8:20 local time, the following lap would be the white one, and there would be no attempt at an overtime finish.

Hand, a winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, was leading when Bowman charged past for the lead on lap 51 with less than 15 minutes left on the clock. He was still holding onto the lead when Josh Berry spun in Turn 1, hitting the tire barriers and stopping on track. It brought out the race’s fifth and final caution. NASCAR had already mandated single-file restarts, and Bell took the green with just over 4 minutes remaining. Reddick, who had pitted for slicks when Bell did, was noticeably faster and, after getting past Hand, was reeling in Bowman when the clock expired.

Bowman took the white flag and Reddick tried to charge forward but brushed the wall in Turn 4, slowing just enough to allow Bowman to win by 2.8 seconds. Ty Gibbs, who led the most laps on the day (17), was third with Hand and McDowell rounding out the top five.

“We were catching Alex by a large margin there, and — I don’t know, that puzzles me,” Reddick said. “I clearly just screwed up. Trying to stay in the dry groove and I had more than enough of dry groove, as I’m seeing right behind you. I cut the wheel a little too hard.

“Just not focused enough, I guess. I knew I was going to get to him. I knew the earlier I could get to him the more options I was going to have. It was going to get a little bit more slick off line beyond Turn 8.”

Like last year, rain played havoc, and did so again Sunday and several of the favorites saw their races end early.

In the lead-up to Sunday’s second Chicago Street Course race, the weather had been the sort that could make even the sternest Chamber of Commerce types crack a smile. Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity race enjoyed the bliss of clear blue skies, with just a few fluffy clouds lazing about. But come Sunday, all hell broke loose.

The morning started off promising, with the sun shining bright. However, just as the drivers were being introduced, ominous clouds began their stealthy invasion. By the time engines roared to life, the sky was spitting rain, prompting NASCAR to postpone the roll-off from pit road for the pace laps. But it wasn’t just raindrops causing the delay; no, it was a gang of protesters scaling the Turn 4 fence. While officials sorted out the intrusion, NASCAR cleverly used the hiatus to allow teams opting for wet-weather tires to switch without penalty. As the race began under a sprinkle rather than a downpour, drivers navigated cautiously.

The racing was eventually able to take flight until three laps before then end of Stage 1 when Corey LaJoie pirouetted, necessitating a caution that ultimately closed the stage under yellow, with Shane van Gisbergen leading and snagging his inaugural NASCAR Cup series Stage win.

Post-pit stops, the race resumed, but the rain soon intensified. Unfortunately for van Gisbergen, a nudge from Chase Briscoe spun him out, ending his hopes for victory in a dramatic crash that brought out another caution.

VIDEO: Shane van Gisbergen ‘gutted’ after being taken out early at Chicago

Sadly, just as the field was contained under that caution, the heavens opened up fully, forcing NASCAR to park everyone on pit road and halt proceedings. It was a scene reminiscent of last year’s rain-soaked debacle that had canceled much of the weekend’s festivities, evoking memories of the soggy aftermath of Woodstock ’69.

Yet, in a twist of fate last year, that Sunday saw a miraculous clearing that allowed the race to resume, with van Gisbergen eventually seizing victory as the sun set.

This go-around Ironically, after a picture-perfect week, race day itself was a near washout.

Sunday after a false alarm that had drivers return to their respective cars and refire the engines, another heavy batch rolled through, and NASCAR was forced to call off the redo. Cars were covered again this time with the drivers safely cocooned inside. It took another 90 minutes or so before the rains eased; covers were taken off, engines roared to life, and the field rolled onto the track once more.

Not long after the restart pole sitter Kyle Larson, a perennial road course favorite, saw his hopes for a win and his day come to an end on lap 34. While racing for second Larson charged towards Turn 6 nearly getting into the back of Gibbs. Larson’s brakes locked up and his Chevy shot nose first into the tire barriers. He tried to reverse out and make it back to the pits, but with heavy damage to the No. 5 and no steering was forced to park.

VIDEO: Kyle Larson ‘bummed’ after crash ends his Chicago hopes

The chaotic race finally made it to the end of Stage 2 on lap 45, making it an official race and NASCAR began telling crews how much longer they would race.

Bell, who looked to be the car to beat in the closing stages, saw his charge back towards the front on the slick tires fail when he got together with Martin Truex Jr. who had bounced off the wall and into Bell on lap 55, just three laps before the clock ran out. Bell was scored with a DNF.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., won of several drivers who spend time in the Turn 6 tire barrier, was sixth, a relatively unscathed Todd Gilliland was seventh. William Byron, Kyle Busch, and Ryan Blaney completed the top 10.

NASCAR heads to Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania next Sunday. Denny Hamlin is the defending winner.

NASCAR has already committed to returning to the Windy City next season. Here’s hoping that the third time will indeed be a charm, and both halves of the Chicago race weekend will be in harmony under blue skies. Because after all, racing is best enjoyed when you’re not soaking wet. Though Alex Bowman didn’t seem to mind Sunday night.

“Last one we won; we didn’t really get to celebrate,” he said. “We’re going to drink so much damn bourbon tonight; it’s going to be a bad deal. I’m probably going to wake up naked on the bathroom floor again. That’s just part of this deal sometimes.”

RACE RESULTS

Photos: NASCAR at the Chicago Street Course Sunday July 7, 2024

Greg Engle