Alex Bowman off to fast start as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement

NASCAR


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Alex Bowman hopes he can convince Rick Hendrick to pay off his Corvette.

If Bowman can do that, he can prove that Sunday was more than just a one-day feel-good moment.

Bowman was among those who made statements on the first major on-track day at Daytona International Speedway as he won the pole for the 2018 Daytona 500.

He wasn’t the only one with big smiles amid questions. Hendrick Motorsports proved its new car-manufacturing philosophy can be successful, with all four of its drivers in the top 10. Brad Keselowski proved he could win at Daytona in February by capturing the preseason Clash. And NASCAR showed its hand on a couple of judgment calls in that 75-lap race.

It was just one day at Daytona International Speedway, and restrictor-plate events are unique animals.

But everyone seeks signs on the first weekend at Daytona for what to expect, not only for Daytona 500 week, but for the year.

Let’s start with Bowman. The 24-year-old Hendrick driver has a lot of questions swirling around him as far as how he will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr., both in popularity and results.

He appeared relaxed after winning the pole, joking with his crew chief and car owner. What does it mean for Atlanta in two weeks? No one knows. Chase Elliott won back-to-back Daytona 500 poles and made the playoffs both years.

“Everybody worked so hard this winter,” Bowman said. “I just got to hold the steering wheel.”

Bowman and team owner Rick Hendrick were so relaxed Sunday that they talked about a potential match race of their Corvettes. Hendrick, the car dealer, obviously has access to plenty of Corvettes, while Bowman has one.

“You win a race this year and I’m going to pay your car off,” Hendrick said.

Hendrick could smile because all of his cars were fast, with Bowman first, Jimmie Johnson third, William Byron fifth and Elliott 10th.

Last year, it was difficult for Hendrick Motorsports to find consistent results across its stable. Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt no longer are there, replaced by Byron and Bowman.

But that’s not all the change at Hendrick, where in the past the crew chiefs could dictate their cars being built in a specific way. Hendrick has revamped its car-manufacturing process, making the car build more consistent among all four vehicles.

“We want to live together, we want to be in one area, we want to have the best guys setting up the plate, building all the cars the same, working in the wind tunnel and sharing. … It’s kind of tearing down the walls of one team versus the other team,” Hendrick said.

“So you [media] guys won’t have to ask me, why is the 48 car [of Johnson] getting all the good stuff and the 9 car [of Elliott] is not — and the sponsors won’t, either, because they’re all the same.”

Speaking of teammates working together, Keselowski and Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano were 1-2-3 for several laps late in the exhibition Clash, until Blaney tried to make a move. Logano finished second to Keselowski, while Blaney ended up fourth.

Prior to the race, Keselowski tweeted: “I believe that we will win.”

“I feel like I kind of choked them away [in the past],” Keselowski said following his first victory at Daytona in a February race. “I finally got one I didn’t choke away. That’s good. I’m just hoping that I can repeat this in seven days [in the 500].”

Keselowski also predicted there would be plenty of wrecks, which didn’t happen. Drivers appeared to lack total confidence in the cars, so they didn’t make many daring moves.

The one main crash didn’t occur until the final lap, and NASCAR allowed the leaders to race to the finish while the crash continued in Turn 3.

“One of the factors involved in that is where does the accident take place, is it kind of towards the back, are there cars still coming towards that — and in this case, there were no more cars coming towards the accident scene,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said.

“We were kind of gauging is there anybody up in the air and how hard are the hits. Even though we held the caution, we were able to release the safety cars prior to getting to the checkered flag. It kind of all worked for us [to finish under green]. It won’t always be that way.”

O’Donnell said the call was consistent in making every effort to finish races under the green.

The other NASCAR judgment call came when NASCAR called Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for passing below the yellow line, requiring a pass-through penalty. After the race, Stenhouse said drivers typically don’t like NASCAR’s calls but that he would take a look at the video, where it appeared Kyle Busch gave him little room to maneuver.

He later tweeted:

Typically, drivers forced below the yellow line can come back in their same spot but can’t advance. NASCAR said it was a clear call of passing below the yellow line.

“Did it set precedent for the weekend?” O’Donnell said. “It probably does. But it was a clear call. And we felt we had to make it when he advanced his position.”

Some didn’t see it as clearly. The debate will continue.





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