It’s been brewing since may. Back at Dover, a new player emerged as a contender, pretty much out of nowhere. It was Alex Bowman coming from a dead last starting spot through the field with Martin Truex Jr. to the top five. The two drivers quickly went to first and second on the track, with Bowman actually finding his way around the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion for the lead.
Bowman finished second on that day — his second runner-up finish in a row. It was the first real glimmer of hope for the 88 team, showing legitimate speed for the first time since Bowman’s sub day for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016 at Phoenix.
But could they back it up? That question was answered just five days later in Kansas. Bowman registered another second place finish, but led 63 laps in the process. Brad Keselowski made the pass on Bowman for the win, but the speed that crew chief Greg Ives produced didn’t go unnoticed.
After a couple of pedestrian days at Michigan and Charlotte, the No. 88 unloaded in Chicago with big speed. Bowman hung with Kevin Harvick on the 10 and 15 lap averaged during practice.
As the sun began to set in the Windy City, Bowman came alive.
The fifth year driver out of Arizona, who recently lost a key partner in Nationwide Insurance, found himself in the lead in the final stage, taking the point from Harvick, who dominated the first two stages. As Alex Bowman extended his lead, a look back through the top ten offered encouragement for the Chevrolet camp — specifically Hendrick Motorsports.
William Byron and Jimmie Johnson led laps during the day with Bowman, while Chase Elliott fought back from two laps down to contend inside the top five.
Even more encouraging was the performance of Kyle Larson, who chased down Alex Bowman for the race lead with under ten to go, only to see Bowman fight back and regain the lead, eventually taking the win.
It was a battle between bowties for the win — when is the last time that you could legitimately say that?
Perhaps equally as eye-opening was the performance of the Toyota camp, which really didn’t have a contender inside the top five all day. Kyle Busch battled problem after problem, while Martin Truex Jr. was nothing more than a fringe top ten car.
David Smith’s speed rankings at The Athletic place Bowman as the second fastest driver on the circuit on the 1.5 mile venues. Imagine uttering that statement a season ago.
Hendrick’s resurgence is coming at a great time, too. Now at the midway point of the season, the playoff push is about to ramp up. With four cars now sitting in the top 16, suddenly Hendrick looks good to lock up four spots in the playoffs. Even more encouraging for HMS is the speed of Johnson and Byron, who could use a win down the stretch to lock themselves into the playoffs.
If they’re able to advance to NASCAR’s postseason, Hendrick’s speed on old pavement might just come back into the equation in November — on the high side at Homestead Miami Speedway.
Last season it was tough to imagine another player for the title other than the ‘big three’ of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. Now the race for the 2019 title seems wide open.