For the first time in writing this column, I get to analyze a week where my favorite driver picked up a victory.
Frequent readers of the column will have long ago picked up that my fandom lies with Alex Bowman and has ever since Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired from full-time racing in 2017. His win at Richmond was perhaps the most surprising of his trio of Cup Series victories since moving to Hendrick Motorsports fulltime in 2018. It has never been a good track for him, having no better finish than 12th until last season’s playoff race there. He’s admitted in multiple interviews that he drives many short tracks “wrong.”
So, even though he ran well most of the day, I never expected Bowman to end up in victory lane at the end of the race. That’s part of what made it all the more special. Seeing your favorite driver win is always special, but not all of us get to be fans of your Jimmie Johnsons, Kevin Harvicks, or Jeff Gordons who end up winning multiple times a season every year.
By the time I was old enough to start following NASCAR on a weekly basis in 2007, Earnhardt Jr. had already won 17 of his 26 Cup Series wins and all but two of his 24 Xfinity Series wins. The first time I got to watch my favorite driver win a race live was the 2008 Budweiser Shootout, his first competitive event in the No. 88. And after that, by mostly inadvertent choice or circumstance, I would only see the live finish of an Earnhardt Jr. victory four more times. I feel like I saw just as many of the close calls that ended without a trip to victory lane live than I did the wins.
Once I shifted my fandom to Bowman when he replaced Earnhardt Jr., I knew if I were going to go all-in on being a fan, I wasn’t going to miss a finish of a victory if there would ever be one for the new driver, and I’m glad that I haven’t.
Whether watching the end of his first career win in 2019 at Chicago on my phone in the break room of my summer job, catching the whole race at Auto Club Speedway in California just days before all hell broke loose across the world on the last day of February 2020 or racing home from my current job this past Sunday to make it in time to watch the final stretch of the race, I’ve seen each of the three as Bowman crossed the line to claim victory.
But this one may have been the nicest, not only because it was unexpected, but because it had to make my consistent backing of him – despite a start to the season most people wouldn’t have looked twice at within this fantasy content sphere – look good after all.
The moral of my tales here is that, regardless of how insignificant the events of a race or any other sporting event are to what happens in my actual day-to-day life, it’s always a joy as a sports fan to celebrate victory. And it can come around much less often than we think.
That doesn’t just have to apply to sports either. Even if you don’t think your life is perfect or you’re not where you want to be yet, don’t forego enjoying the good moments that come around. What’s life without having a little fun and finding a good reason to put a smile on your face?
While Bowman and his fans had smiles on their faces after the race, Denny Hamlin once again did not as he let another dominating performance end without a win. It’s obvious that the No. 11 team will win one very soon, though. I’ll make him an honorable mention “buy” candidate, but he’s such an obvious top driver in any fantasy format that I can’t make my predictions for the upcoming races at Talladega and Kansas that easy.
Matt DiBenedetto: I’m pleased to see the No. 21 team making strides after a nightmare start to 2021. And despite the absolute chaos that is Talladega, more often than not Matt DiBenedetto finds himself near the front at races like that. If you’ll recall, the 21 car was a trioval away from winning the series’ most recent trip there. If he’s going to break through and win in the Cup Series, his best chance of happening is this weekend.
Christopher Bell: Joe Gibbs Racing’s newest driver has shown he is here to stay and compete in his first season with the No. 20 team. Sure, there have been some bad days; the crash at the Bristol dirt race left him with a 34th place, which followed a 20th place run the week prior at Atlanta. Outside of that duo, the four races surrounding those have all been top-10 finishes for Christopher Bell. At 10th in the overall points standings and locked into the playoffs with his early-season win, Bell could be a long-term success to keep an eye on.
Kurt Busch: Many of us were high on the older Busch brother after a lightning-fast start to 2021. But things haven’t gone as well the last few weeks for the No. 1 team. Since a run of two top-10 finishes in a row and a competitive run at Las Vegas the week following that ended him up in 19th place, his average finish has been 20.8.
Kurt Busch had no top 10 and a best finish of 13th in that five-race stretch and hasn’t shown nearly as much speed. We know that Chip Ganassi Racing isn’t in the upper echelon of Cup teams; seeing Ross Chastain’s performance in the No. 42 this year has shown that. But maybe even the veteran poise of Busch won’t be enough to help this team in the next few races.
Michael McDowell: I don’t believe anyone is taking Michael McDowell seriously as a week-in, week-out fantasy candidate anymore this far removed from his trio of season-opening top-10 finishes. But if you are, it’s probably about time to quit it.
This may be a bad time to put him on the sell list heading into Talladega, but I’ll choose to believe he used up his superspeedway luck for the year in Daytona. An average finish of 21.5 in the six races since that good run to start 2021, combined with the consistently abysmal runs of teammate Anthony Alfredo’s 38 car, shows that Front Row Motorsports may just barely have enough to hang on and keep McDowell with even the slightest chance to advance when playoff time comes around.