When NASCAR fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired two years ago, his powerhouse team, Hendrick Motorsports, turned the No. 88 Chevrolet over to the relatively unknown driver Alex Bowman.
Bowman went on to win one NASCAR Cup Series race, at Chicagoland Speedway last year, but the Tucson, Ariz., native also has struggled at times.
On Sunday, though, Bowman validated Hendrick’s decision by driving to a dominant victory at the Auto Club 400 in Fontana and thus stole much of the thunder from NASCAR legend, Jimmie Johnson, who was making perhaps his final start at Auto Club Speedway.
Bowman, 26, won by nine seconds over second-place Kyle Busch, who won the race last year. Bowman, who started third, also led 110 of the race’s 200 laps, including the final 35.
Kurt Busch, Kyle’s older brother, finished third and Bowman teammate Chase Elliott was fourth.
“We were up front when it counted,” said Bowman, who raced quarter-midget race cars in Pomona as a youngster. “I don’t think we made a change in the race car from how it came off the truck. That makes my job a heck of a lot easier.”
Indeed, Bowman showed his strength immediately after the teams arrived in Fontana by posting the fastest speeds in both practice sessions Friday on the two-mile oval.
His team, led by crew chief Greg Ives, also made the necessary adjustments for the drastic change in weather over the weekend. While practice was held with temperatures in the low 80s, the race was held under threatening skies in the mid-50s.
It was Bowman’s first Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway in five career starts.
Johnson, another of Bowman’s teammates, was hoping to write a Hollywood ending to his illustrious career at the Fontana track because he plans to retire from full-time racing after this year.
Johnson’s six Cup wins there are a record. The El Cajon native’s first Cup victory came at Auto Club Speedway in 2002.
Among the tributes to Johnson on Sunday was letting his No. 48 Chevrolet lead the field as the other cars lined up five-wide during the pace laps. In addition, his wife Chandra waved the green flag while their daughters stood next to her in the flag stand above the track.
Johnson, 44, qualified second and his car was strong throughout the race. He led 10 laps and often was in the top three until he fell back in the latter half and finished seventh. When he led his first laps, thousands in the grandstands stood and waved as he passed by the start/finish line.
“We just couldn’t adjust this car on the pit stops quite enough” to stay up front, Johnson said. “It was really competitive and racy at the start of a run and then we would fade at the end.
Still, he said “this team is going in the right direction” despite going the last 98 races without a win.
“I want to thank the fans here in California. There have been some great vibes all weekend.”
Bowman said his first Cup victory last year “was a really enjoyable experience” and that he and his team “then sucked for six months.”
In 2020, however, “we started this year so strong,” Bowman said, adding that “I’m doing better” as well. After finishing 24th at the season opener at Daytona, he was in contention to lead at Las Vegas a week ago until an ill-timed pit strategy left him with a 13th-place finish.
As for his future with Hendrick, Bowman was pragmatic. “If somebody doesn’t want you driving their race car, you’re not going to be there driving it,” he said. “Every year is a contract year.
“I’m as motivated as ever, doing everything I can to try to be the best on and off the racetrack as I can be,” Bowman said. “Hendrick Motorsports is where I want to be, where I want to stay for the rest of my career.”
Ryan Blaney of Team Penske also was in contention for most of the race and he led 54 laps. But a tire problem forced him to pit his No. 12 Ford with only three laps left and he finished 19th.
“It’s unfortunate,” Blaney said. “It is just the way it goes sometimes.”