Go West Young Man: Alex Bowman wins in California

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 01: Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Cincinnati Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 01, 2020 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

West is the best, at least for Alex Bowman.  Bowman was the class of the field Sunday winning the NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 in Fontana Calif., to score his second career Cup series, win the first coming at Chicago last June.

Bowman, a Tucson Ariz. native, led a race high 110 of the 200 laps, won Stage 1 and crossed the line 8.9 seconds ahead of second place Kyle Busch.

While those stats may seem like it was an easy day for the Hendrick Motorsports driver, it was anything but.

Bowman had to fight off several challenges, particularly on restarts, and manage tire wear.  After his final green flag stop on lap 161, the crew reported that his right front tire was showing cords. With the longest green flag run prior to that of 34 laps, Bowman had to save enough of his tires to make it the final 39 laps.  He did just that to score the win.

“(Crew chief Greg Ives) said save it, so I saved some to use some there,” Bowman said.  “Promised my buddy Aaron we would all get matching 88 tattoos if we won, and I think I have to go get a tattoo now, but that’ll be a good time.  It’s been a lot of fun.  Thanks to Greg, all the guys.  He made good calls all day and we were up front when it counted.”

Ryan Blaney, who led 54 laps, was Bowman’s biggest challenger in the closing stages.  Blaney had won Stage 2 and had pitted with Bowman on lap 161.  With seven to go however, Blaney reported a vibration and slowed; with three laps to go Blaney was forced to pit to survive the race. He finished 19th one lap down.

“We led a little bit and ran pretty good, we just corded a right rear at the end,” Blaney said. “We lost the lead there at the beginning of the third stage and kind of got swallowed up and the 88 got away and got gone. We needed to be in front of him. It is just the way it goes sometimes.”

Kyle Busch’s second place run was his best finish of the season after finishes outside the top 10 in the first two races.

“We’ve just got to get a little bit better,” Busch said.  “We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here, but obviously it’s a little bit of something here or there, maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas, but overall, good car today.”

Brother Kurt had a yeoman’s day after he overshot his pits at the end of Stage 1 and had to come back in. He re-started 21st and rallied to finished third.  Chase Elliott was fourth, and Brad Keselowski fifth.

“I messed up on a pit cue, but to have a third‑place run right here in Monster Energy’s back yard, this was a solid run for our Chevy,” the elder Busch brother said.

Hamlin secured sixth place by passing Jimmie Johnson on the final lap.  In his final race at Auto Club Speedway, where he won his first Cup race in 2002 and followed up with five more, Johnson led the pace laps as a tribute and saw his wife and daughters wave the green flag for the start. He was competitive early, finished third in Stage 1 and 2, and led 10 laps but was denied the sixth-place finish by Hamlin and had to settle for seventh.

Aric Almirola, Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones rounded out the top 10.

Polesitter Clint Bowyer was a victim of the tire issues losing a right rear tire on lap 94 and bringing out the races only caution outside of stage breaks. He finished 23rd one lap down.

Martin Truex Jr. whose team was penalized and had to miss qualifying and start at the back of the field, ran inside the top five for a time finishing fifth in Stage 2.  He faded at the end and had to settle for 14th.

The JTG Daughtry teams of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Preece were both handed L1 penalties by NASCAR Sunday morning, saw their respective crew chiefs suspended and were also forced to start at the rear. Stenhouse stayed out during a round of green flag stops hoping for a caution that never came and finished 20th one lap down. Preece finished 30th, three laps down.

For Bowman the win secures his spot in NASCAR’s Playoffs in a contract year with Hendrick Motorsports.  The series now heads to Phoenix and Bowman heads back to his home state fresh off his second career Cup win.

“The first one was a real enjoyable experience and then we sucked for six months,” Bowman said. “We started this year so strong. I feel like I’ve got a lot on my side that I’m doing better. My life has gotten a lot more organized than it was then. Greg and the guys are just on point. We’ve unloaded the last two weeks and I don’t think we have had to make a change to the race car from the way it came off the truck. That makes my job a lot easier.”
NASCAR Cup Series Race Results Auto Club 400

Auto Club Speedway

Fontana, California

Sunday, March 1, 2020

1. (3)  Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 200.

2. (17)  Kyle Busch, Toyota, 200.

3. (4)  Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 200.

4. (13)  Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 200.

5. (15)  Brad Keselowski, Ford, 200.

6. (28)  Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 200.

7. (2)  Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 200.

8. (6)  Aric Almirola, Ford, 200.

9. (5)  Kevin Harvick, Ford, 200.

10. (29)  Erik Jones, Toyota, 200.

11. (19)  Tyler Reddick #, Chevrolet, 200.

12. (7)  Joey Logano, Ford, 200.

13. (12)  Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 200.

14. (38)  Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 200.

15. (21)  William Byron, Chevrolet, 200.

16. (11)  Chris Buescher, Ford, 200.

17. (27)  Ross Chastain(i), Ford, 200.

18. (18)  Cole Custer #, Ford, 199.

19. (16)  Ryan Blaney, Ford, 199.

20. (10)  Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Chevrolet, 199.

21. (9)  Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 199.

22. (8)  Michael McDowell, Ford, 199.

23. (1)  Clint Bowyer, Ford, 199.

24. (25)  Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 199.

25. (23)  John Hunter Nemechek #, Ford, 199.

26. (24)  Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 199.

27. (14)  Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet, 198.

28. (31)  Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 198.

29. (26)  Corey LaJoie, Ford, 197.

30. (20)  Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 197.

31. (30)  JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 197.

32. (32)  Brennan Poole #, Chevrolet, 195.

33. (34)  Joey Gase(i), Ford, 193.

34. (36)  Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 193.

35. (35)  Quin Houff #, Chevrolet, 192.

36. (33)  Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 191.

37. (37)  Timmy Hill(i), Toyota, 184.

38. (22)  Christopher Bell #, Toyota, Engine, 80.

Average Speed of Race Winner:  152.753 mph.

Time of Race:  2 Hrs, 37 Mins, 7 Secs. Margin of Victory:  8.904 Seconds.

Caution Flags:  3 for 13 laps.

Lead Changes:  16 among 8 drivers.

Lap Leaders:   C. Bowyer 1-10;A. Bowman 11-29;R. Stenhouse Jr 30-35;A. Bowman 36-63;J. Johnson 64-68;R. Blaney 69-70;J. Johnson 71;R. Blaney 72-91;W. Byron 92;R. Blaney 93-123;J. Johnson 124-127;R. Blaney 128;A. Bowman 129;M. Truex Jr 130-132;A. Bowman 133-160;B. Keselowski 161-166;A. Bowman 167-200.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led):  Alex Bowman 5 times for 110 laps; Ryan Blaney 4 times for 54 laps; Clint Bowyer 1 time for 10 laps; Jimmie Johnson 3 times for 10 laps; Ricky Stenhouse Jr 1 time for 6 laps; Brad Keselowski 1 time for 6 laps; Martin Truex Jr 1 time for 3 laps; William Byron 1 time for 1 lap.

Stage #1 Top Ten: 88,12,48,10,1,2,22,21,9,18

Stage #2 Top Ten: 12,88,48,2,19,9,18,11,20,4

Greg Engle