KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Alex Bowman quite literally had his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in his sights, ticking off the laps in his No. 88 Chevrolet at the front of the pack at Kansas Speedway.
Too bad Brad Keselowski was in his rearview mirror.
The 26-year-old Bowman was passed by the former series champion with seven laps to go, then had nothing left for Keselowski during a green-white-checkered finish Saturday night. That left Bowman to rue his third consecutive second-place finish, the best yet most disappointing stretch of his young career.
“Wish we were standing here with three wins in a row and things could have gone different and that could be the case,” Bowman said afterward, “but we’ll keep digging next week.”
Hendrick Motorsports bet big on Bowman when it chose him to replace the hugely popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. upon Earnhardt’s retirement. Bowman had done well filling in for Earnhardt while he was sidelined by concussions, so his relatively modest success in the Xfinity Series didn’t give anyone pause.
Stardom seemed all but certain when he qualified on the pole for last year’s Daytona 500.
But starting first and finishing first are two entirely different things, and the latter has been hard to achieve. Bowman has made 129 career starts in NASCAR’s top series and has finished at least one time in every position but the one that matters the most.
“You finish second three weeks in a row, you’re going to win a race,” said Keselowski, who knows something about working one’s way through the ranks. “He’s got a lot to be proud of. He’s doing all the right things. They have the speed and all those things, and that’s certainly impressive.”
If nothing else, the near-misses the past few weeks have been valuable learning opportunities.
Bowman had the dominant car for long stretches on Saturday night, leading three times for 63 laps and often pulling away from the field. But the track changed considerably as the night wore on and the temperatures cooled, and Keselowski and third-place finisher Erik Jones slowly made up ground.
Bowman was racing side by side with Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott with 22 laps to go when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. swung by and passed both of them. Bowman showed his confidence and mettle by passing him back to take second, and Stenhouse quickly fell off the pace of the leaders.
Bowman was still leading when Keselowski pulled even with seven laps to go. And when the two of them hit lapped traffic, it was the more experienced Keselowski who knifed his way to the front.
“Just made some bad decision and never really should have given the 2 car a chance at it,” Bowman said. “Just made some bad calls there through lap traffic and got tied off, had to lift, and then the 2 car was able to drive around us.”
From behind the windshield, Keselowski didn’t see Bowman make any big mistakes.
“I had a little run in Turn 1, he moved down to cover it and when he did he was just slightly out of balance and I was able to pounce,” he said. “It feels a little like watching a football game and watching a corner versus wide receiver and watching them work each other. Just trying to get him off of balance and cut and go the other direction and get away from him, and that’s what we were able to do.”
It was nevertheless a strong run not only for Bowman but all of Hendrick Motorsports, which has struggled to reach victory lane this season. Elliott has the team’s last four victories going back 30 races, including its only win this season at Talladega.
He wound up fourth despite all kinds of trouble — Elliott’s car twice failed inspection Saturday, resulting in the loss of his car chief and forcing him to start from the back. Jimmie Johnson managed to finish sixth despite never challenging for the top five until the final few laps.
“It’s great to be racing a teammate for the lead. I think that’s signs of progress,” Elliott said of his side-by-side session with Bowman down the stretch. “Hate to give it away to somebody else, he and I were pacing it there at the end. But it happens. We’ll just work harder.”
That was the same sentiment that Bowman offered after another second-place run.
“Really proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. Our race cars are so much better than what we started the year with,” he said. “Keep digging next week and try to get in the All-Star race, go win the All-Star and then go try to win the 600.”