LAS VEGAS — It wasn’t easy at times, but Alex Bowman and his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 team used the mantra of “survive and advance” to avoid an early exit in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Now that he’s made it to the Round of 12, Bowman’s goal is to recapture the speed he had earlier in the year to advance into the third round for the first time in his young career.
Bowman won at Auto Club Speedway in March, two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports across the globe and turned the season on its head. Since then, he hasn’t yet been able to recapture the magic that led to his second career victory.
Despite a 26-race drought, Bowman isn’t worried about his playoff chances. If anything, his belief in what his team is capable of is stronger than ever, considering he’s had top-five speed in recent weeks.
“I think we’re in a good place, for sure,” Bowman told reporters in advance of the South Point 400 at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway. “Darlington went really well for us. Richmond, we knew going in was probably our weak point of the playoffs. Then Bristol was going to be a solid top-five night until we had that tire issue. The last couple of weeks, I think we’ve been really strong. Darlington, we had an issue on pit road that cost us a top five, but I think we still finished sixth. We’re in a good spot. We’re going to tracks now that are notoriously really good for us compared to where we’ve been the last couple weeks.
“I’m really confident,” Bowman noted. “I think Greg (Ives, crew chief) and the guys are working really well together, and we should be really good.”
While Hendrick Motorsports has lacked pace compared to teams such as Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing at certain points of the year, Bowman feels Hendrick’s mile-and-a-half program is in a position where his team can contend at the front going forward, much like they did early in the season.
“I think we’re always trying to find more speed and more power. Our engine shop works really hard to constantly try to find whatever they can find,” said Bowman. “I think we definitely fell off through the summer, and we looked in all areas to just try to improve every area. Engines were definitely one. I hope we have enough speed. I think at Darlington and Bristol, we definitely showed we have enough speed. Going to a place like Las Vegas, you look at how we were in the spring there — if we can go and do that again and finish it off this time, that’d be great. But it’s really hard to say.
“Not having any practice and just going to so many different race tracks to start the playoffs, I’m not quite sure how our 1.5-mile program is going to stack up, but I’m really confident in it and think we’ll be really good.”
Knowing that races at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL remain in the second playoff round, Bowman also pointed out that this weekend’s race at Las Vegas is an important race to win because of the uncertainty of those two “wild card” events.
“Vegas is probably your best shot at controlling your own destiny over the next three races,” he said. “Talladega, we all know there’s nowhere to hide — anything can happen and we’ve seen how those races can go. The ROVAL is obviously a wild card, but we’ve run really well there in the past. The HMS road course program is really, really good. I’m not the best road course racer, but we have some good finishes there and I think that comes from some really great race cars.
“It’s hard to say how Sunday will go, but I think it’s definitely a really important race for us.”
That being said, even if he doesn’t win Sunday’s race in Sin City, Bowman still believes his team can make it to the Round of 8 on points based on their level of performance.
“I think we can point our way in,” said Bowman, who enters round two as the seventh seed in the standings with a four-point cushion. “It sure would be nice to go win Vegas, but we’re above the cutline right now. I think we finished seventh in points the last round.
“We’re closer than I want to be, but at the same time, I think we have every opportunity to point our way in if we just have a good, solid round and execute every week. We just can’t beat ourselves.”
The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs continue Sunday at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway. Live coverage of the South Point 400 begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, the Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.