A year ago, everyone was asking what happened to Hendrick Motorsports. Organizations go through swells and wanes, but often once the results begin to slip, it is difficult to recapture momentum. With Jeff Gordon well gone, Dale Earnhardt Jr. a memory and the recent departure of Jimmie Johnson, that left Chase Elliott as the heir apparent. Until Rick Hendrick risked hiring Kyle Larson. The gamble worked, not only by producing a championship, but because the rising tide elevated everyone.
That is not to say Alex Bowman or William Byron rode the coattails of the No. 5 and 9 teams, but when an organization begins to win, everyone gets excited – and everyone steps up their game. A rising tide lifts all the ships in a harbor.
Bowman has always had big shoes to fill. When Rick Hendrick had him substitute for Earnhardt in 2016, he was practically unknown. Stints with BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin had not garnered much attention and Bowman seemed destined to fill the role of supporting cast in the Cup Series. He scored three top-10s for Hendrick that year in 10 races – which was his real first taste of success.
Still, many were caught by surprise when HMS tapped him to fill the No. 88 fulltime. Changing teams to the No. 48 in 2021 kept the focus on him with a sponsorship that had been made a household name by Johnson. Bowman had only two wins to his credit when he joined a team that had 83.
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There was no room for excuses in 2021. Bowman got off to a slow start with only three top-10s in his first eight races. Four of these were outside the top 20, but three of those were caused by crash damage.
It was a huge relief to the driver to win Round 9 of 2022 at Richmond Raceway, but that did not correct his course. Bowman crashed the following week at Talladega Superspeedway and finished outside the top 15 in his next two starts.
For Bowman, 2021 was an all-or-nothing season. He won a second race at Dover International Speedway in May and then rattled off seven top-10s in the next nine weeks. Four of his next five races were outside the top-15.
Three regular season wins gave him enough playoff bonus points to stay in contention for the title through the Round of 12, but another Talladega accident put him too far behind the cutline to advance to the next cycle. Another accident at Texas Motor Speedway made certain the seesaw wouldn't stop.
When he got to Martinsville Speedway [https://www.nbcsportsedge.com/edge/article/statistically-speaking/analyzing-martinsville-speedway] for the penultimate race of the season, Bowman was just as hungry as at the start of the year. When Denny Hamlin opened the door, Bowman shouldered his way through and earned a fourth win of 2021.
The wins were great and Bowman had the best overall results of his career. Four victories tripled his win count. Eight top-fives and 16 top-10s were also highwater marks, but Bowman had the opportunity to finish so much better. His lack of consistency and early accidents contributed to a 14th-place rank in the points – his worst in three years. He was also well off the pace of Larson and Elliott. Even the less experienced Byron outperformed him.
Bowman’s seesaw season left his 2021 promise unfulfilled, but he accomplished something many drivers struggle to achieve. Bowman learned how to win last year. If he can eliminate the poor results in 2022, he could challenge his teammates and the Joe Gibbs Racing juggernauts.
Three Best Tracks *
Charlotte road (6.0 in 4 attempts)
Atlanta (16.0 in 7)
Kansas (17.5 in 13)
Three Worst Tracks *
Kentucky (25.6 in 13)
Michigan (24.7 in 12)
Texas (24.5 in 12)
Victories: Richmond 1, Dover 1, Pocono 1, Martinsville 2
Top-fives: 8 (.222)
Top-10s: 16 (.444)
Top-15s: 20 (.556)
Top-20s: 26 (.722)
2021 Finishes at or above rank = 17 (47.2%)
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