If there was one team mighty happy to head West, it was probably Hendrick Motorsports. Alex Bowman’s statement-making victory last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway led the best full-team showing for the organization of the year. He led 110 of the 200 laps en route to his second career win.
Chase Elliott (fourth) and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson (seventh) also had top 10 efforts in California and the team’s youngest member, 22-year-old William Byron, earned his first top 20 of the season with a 15th-place finish.
The victory propelled Bowman to a career best early season position in the standings. He’s now in third place, 12 points behind leader Ryan Blaney. Johnson, who is competing in his final fulltime season, is fifth in the driver standings, only 16 points behind Blaney. Elliott is a single-point behind Johnson in sixth place. And Byron has climbed back into 20th in the standings.
The positive momentum seems likely to continue on the final stop of NASCAR’s western swing, the one-mile Phoenix Raceway site of this week’s FanShield 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, leads the team with four wins and three poles on the Phoenix oval. His 15 top fives and 21 top 10s – including three runner-up finishes are marks second only to the track’s all-time best Kevin Harvick. Johnson’s driver rating 105.2 is second best in the field this week (to Harvick’s 110.5) as is his average finish (10.3). Johnson was eighth in this race last year.
Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has an impressive four top-10 finishes in eight starts. Twice he finished top five, including a career best effort of runner-up in the 2017 Playoff race. He was 14th in this race last year.
Tucson-native Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, won the pole position for the 2016 Playoff race – filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. His sixth-place finish and 194 laps led in that race are a personal high at his home state track. He’s had a rough last few outings, getting collected in crashes in two of the last three races. He took a DNF in this race last year, finishing 35th after being in an accident.
Byron, the youngest of the team and driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has one top-10 finish in four previous starts at Phoenix – earning a ninth place in the 2018 Playoff race. His 15 laps led in his very first NASCAR Cup Series try on the desert mile are his only laps out front to date.
“I think it’s really important just to not be embarrassed like we were last time there,’’ Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives said about Phoenix. “We kind of had a stranglehold on that place for a while, winning with Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and then almost winning with Alex and having a lot of confidence going to that track and then to kind of fall flat on your face is not a really good feeling, especially when I know it’s his hometown.
“I know we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to run well there, and I don’t care if it’s the championship race or not, I want to win at any place we go and not be embarrassed.’’