The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season had been headlined by the success of Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske as the pair of teams combined to win 15 of the first 16 races.
Aside from one abnormality of Chase Elliott winning at Talladega – an always unpredictable superspeedway – it was the same five drivers and two teams visiting victory lane.
Stewart-Haas Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, and even Hendrick Motorsports – despite Elliott’s win – have been eluded by much of any success. Drivers like Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson were and are still without wins this season.
It just didn’t look like they had the speed to overcome the top teams right now.
Sunday, however, showed something that we haven’t seen for quite some time in the NASCAR world.
Alex Bowman’s No. 88 the flagship that shows Hendrick Motorsports’ Progress
Alex Bowman visited victory lane for the first time in his five-season cup series career, leading 88 laps at Chicagoland and making a statement that he and his HMS team are on their way to returning to vintage form.
Bowman’s win is the first non-Elliott victory since Kasey Kahne won at Indianapolis in 2017 in the middle of the season.
In that time, Elliott has gone to victory lane four times, but no other HMS driver – including seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson – won a race.
It was also the first time since the 2015 spring race at Phoenix – Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last win – that the No. 88 has been in victory lane.
Sunday night showed promise that HMS just hasn’t seen.
Johnson ran near or right around the lead all day at Chicagoland. He led 10 laps and solidified a fourth place finish. William Byron was running in fifth as late as lap 213 (55 to go) before finishing eighth.
Even Elliott was contending for the race lead despite being two-laps down at one point during the first stage. If it wasn’t for an issue on pit road with the air hose, the Georgia native wouldn’t have fallen from P2 to P18 to begin the final stage.
Although, Elliott still finished P11.
All four cars were strong all day on a 1.5 mile track, proving that despite the team’s and manufacturer’s struggles over the past year and a half, progress is being made.
Bowman is the driver that is carrying a massive amount of it.
Less than a month ago, he was under a spotlight for his string of second-place finishes.
The attention was deserving, of course, but if we’re looking at picking a driver to win a race from Hendrick Motorsports, regardless of the track, the favorite has been Elliott.
Now that Bowman has the monkey off his back, this could open the door for the rest of the team to sustain this success and make a strong run as the playoffs approach.
The win came at a great time for Bowman, too.
With Nationwide recently announcing they would be pulling their sponsorship from the team, the question has been floating around on if Bowman would still be in the 88 car.
Rick Hendrick confirmed that he had no plans of taking him out.
Alex Bowman said he is not worried about being in the 88 next year (whenever a sponsor leaves, it leads to questions). Rick Hendrick has told him he is going to be in the car and he is confident he will be in it. #nascar @NASCARONFOX
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) July 1, 2019
With the confident backing of Hendrick, and the first victory out of the way, look for the No. 88 to lead the charge as Hendrick Motorsports tries to return to its old self.