It took 133 Monster Energy Cup Series races and over three hours longer than expected on Sunday, but Alex Bowman is finally a Cup Series race winner. After leading 88 laps, he held off Kyle Larson in a late battle to take his first career victory.
In a surprisingly impressive qualifying effort, the Richard Childress Racing duo of Austin Dillon and Daniel Hemric placed first and third, respectively, with former RCR driver Kevin Harvick sandwiched between them. William Byron (engine change), Corey LaJoie (transmission change), and Matt Tifft (failed pre-race inspection) started at the rear.
Dillon led the first seven laps before Jimmie Johnson took the lead; it was Johnson’s first laps led since the Gander RV 400 at Dover International Speedway in May (coincidentally, the race was also marred by rain). Johnson remained in front until lightning struck the track on lap 12, prompting NASCAR to suspend the race until the storms cleared; at the time, Johnson led Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Dillon, and Kyle Larson.
After a delay that lasted over three hours, the weather subsided and enabled the race to resume later in the afternoon. During the ensuing caution, Johnson stayed out while others like Harvick, Blaney, and Larson pitted; Darrell Wallace Jr. suffered a speeding penalty on his stop, while Chase Elliott pitted twice to add more fuel.
The race resumed on lap 16 with Johnson leading, but Dillon retook the position two laps later. Harvick became the leader on lap 20 as Dillon started to fall, dropping out of the top five.
On lap 50, green flag pit stops began and continued to the end of the stage, during which Hemric was penalised for an uncontrolled tyre. Ty Dillon had his car serviced on two occasions to fix a left rear issue before going to the garage. As the leaders pitted, first place shuffled between various drivers including Larson, Daniel Suárez, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Michael McDowell, and Denny Hamlin.
As the first stage neared its conclusion, many drivers began experiencing tyre failures, including Harvick, Blaney, and Kyle Busch that forced them to pit. On lap 78, with two laps before the stage’s end, Clint Bowyer‘s tyre went down and sent him into a spin to bring out the caution. Hamlin won the stage, followed by Brad Keselowski, McDowell, Johnson, Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr., Harvick, Byron, Bowman, and Kurt Busch.
Stage #2 began on lap 86 with Harvick and Larson on the front row, but the latter quickly fell back without help from behind as Harvick, pushed by Johnson pulled ahead.
Ten laps after the green flag, Bowyer’s tyre woes continued as his right-rear failed and he had to pit again. At the front, Byron took the lead from Harvick on the inside.
Trouble to Quin Houff‘s car on lap 103 led to the caution. Hamlin, who left pit road in fourth, received an uncontrolled tyre penalty. After the leaders pitted, Byron remained in front, though Johnson once again pushed Harvick past his Hendrick Motorsports team-mate on their line at the lap 108 restart. Meanwhile, Byron dropped to the back of the top ten.
As Harvick led, the Hendrick drivers of Johnson, Elliott, Byron, and Bowman battled among one another and fellow Chevrolet driver Kyle Larson. On lap 137, Hamlin bumped Suárez from behind, causing smoke to emit from the latter.
Elliott eventually moved to second and sought to pass Harvick, but failed to do so as the latter took the stage win. Behind Elliott were Larson, Bowman, Johnson, Truex, Byron, Kurt and Kyle Busch, and Aric Almirola.
Over the radio, Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers commented, “The (Hendrick) cars have some serious motor this week. It’s crazy.”
Elliott sank to nineteenth after his stop when the car was dropped onto the air gun hose, while Hamlin was penalised for having too many crewmen over the wall. As such, Harvick and Larson paced the grid to the start of Stage #3 on lap 167, with the latter taking the lead on the inside.
After two laps of racing, Kyle Busch bumped with Joey Logano, leading to a flat left-side tyre for Busch that forced him to pit. At the front, Bowman took the lead on lap 171. While Harvick was running third, he hit the wall to produce a yellow flag. Bowman stayed out and maintained his lead with a push from Johnson on the lap 177 restart.
With 50 laps to go, the field began the final series of green-flag stops. Bowman did so on lap 219, cycling the lead to Blaney, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Harvick also spending time at the front until they pitted. By the end of the stops, Bowman led Larson.
As the laps continued to wind down, Bowman and Larson, who finished second in the previous year’s Chicagoland race after a dramatic battle with Kyle Busch, fought for the lead as the margin between the two fluctuated. On lap 260, Larson briefly passed Bowman but lost the position again; he could not catch Bowman as he stormed off to his maiden Cup victory. His Hendrick team-mates also enjoyed strong finishes: Johnson finished fifth, while Byron and Elliott finished eighth and eleventh, respectively.
“Everyone can stop giving me crap, we finally did it,” Bowman said in a post-race interview with NBCSN.
“I can’t believe it. You know how it is. We were in the same boat, just had a different set of circumstances,” he added in Victory Lane while talking to NBCSN’s Parker Kligerman. Kligerman and Bowman had both spent much of their early Cup careers in poor equipment, with the latter racing for the now-defunct BK Racing and part-time Tommy Baldwin Racing before joining the Hendrick organisation in 2016; after serving as a substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr. that year, he moved up to Earnhardt’s #88 full-time in 2018. “I can’t believe it. So thankful that I got the opportunity.”