FONTANA, Calif. – A week after feeling like he would have made a run at Ryan Blaney for the win in Las Vegas, Alex Bowman left no doubt at Auto Club Speedway.
In a dominating performance in the Auto Club 400, Bowman led five times for 110 laps and won for the second time in his NASCAR Cup Series career. He did so by nearly nine seconds on Kyle Busch, who took the runner-up spot after Blaney had to pit with three laps to go for a vibration.
“We’ve unloaded the last two weeks, I don’t think we’ve had a change in the race car from how it came off the truck. That makes my job a heck of a lot easier. I’m just so proud of this team, Hendrick Motorsports, Hendrick horsepower under the hood, the whole shop back home. They work their butts off. We put a lot of effort into this new car, and it’s obviously working well.”
Alex Bowman waves the checkered flag after winning the Auto Club 400. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
Bowman finished 13th in the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas after he and Blaney pitted when the caution came out with six laps to go. As the fastest car on the track, Bowman lamented, “Damn it; we had him,” over the radio when the caution came out and changed the complexion of the race.
Sunday, Bowman started third and led 44 of the first 60 laps on his way to winning the first stage. With Blaney pacing the field for much of the second stage, leading 50 of its 60 laps, Bowman stayed steady inside the top five.
The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team then took back control of the race off of the restart to start the final stage. Bowman cycled back to the top spot for the final time with 34 laps to go after green flag pit stops and kept extending his lead over Blaney throughout the run to the checkered flag.
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“The first (win), that was a really enjoyable experience, and then we sucked for six months,” said Bowman. “We started this year so strong; I feel like I’ve got a lot on my side that I’m doing better. My life is kind of a lot more organized than it was back then, and Greg (Ives, crew chief) and all the guys, they’re just on point."
A second-place finish for Busch was welcome after his steady progression all afternoon. Busch started 17th and didn’t make much noise inside the top five until the final stage.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Busch. “Guys did a great job here though with just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second-place car, but thankfully we got a good finish with trying to get some points.”
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Kurt Busch finished third, rebounding after he missed his pit stall at the end of Stage 1. Chase Elliott finished fourth, and Brad Keselowski was fifth.
Blaney was 8.7 seconds behind Bowman when he complained about a vibration, which turned out to be a corded tire. After pitting with three laps to go, Blaney, who won the second stage, finished a lap down in 19th position.
Pole-sitter Clint Bowyer led the first 10 laps but was never again a factor. Bowyer ran between 10th and 20th for much of the afternoon and finished 23rd off the lead lap following a flat left front tire on lap 94.
Despite back-to-back disappointing finishes, Blaney continues to lead the points standings as the series heads to Phoenix Raceway.
Anyone know a tattoo shop near @ACSupdates? @AlexBowman88 | @TeamHendrickpic.twitter.com/ftqY5gtN37
Six-time Fontana champion Jimmie Johnson finished seventh after running near the front for most of his final race as a full-time driver at the NASCAR track closest to his native El Cajon, California, about 100 miles away. His winless streak is at a career-worst 98 races, but he showed impressive pace before his Hendrick teammate took charge of the race.
“Our team is going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “We just faded too much at the end. I thought I was going to blow a tire, but we salvaged a top 10 out of it. It’s a huge thing for us out here in California. There’s been great vibes the whole weekend.”
The pace car and Jimmie Johnson lead the field in a five-wide salute before the start of Sunday's Auto Club 400. Johnson was racing for the final time as a full-time Cup driver at his hometown track. (Photo: Kirby Lee, TODAY Sports)
Johnson started on the front row at the track where he has won more than any other driver, starting with his first career Cup win in 2002.
The weekend featured several tributes to the seven-time series champion, including a five-wide salute during the warmup laps. Johnson’s wife and daughters waved the green flag to start the race.
“It was super special for me,” Johnson said. ‘I’m just grateful to the track.”
The family of @JimmieJohnson waves the green flag to start today’s race at @ACSupdates!
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Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin finished sixth after starting at the back when he changed a shock absorber before the start. Hamlin then put Kyle Larson into the wall during the first stage with a bump from behind, and Larson needed significant repairs.
The crew chiefs of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Preece were ejected after NASCAR found illegal body modifications on the cars, which had to drop to the rear on the pace laps.
The Cup Series runs next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway in a key stop because the track is also the site of the series’ championship race Nov. 8.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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