NASCAR Barometer:  Alex Bowman Wins Wet and Wild Chicago Street Race

NASCAR Barometer: Alex Bowman Wins Wet and Wild Chicago Street Race

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Rain helped to produce another thrilling street course race Sunday at Chicago, and Alex Bowman was the one who kept his car out of the barriers and first in line to claim his first victory since Las Vegas in 2022. The race was full of tricky driving conditions and tough pit decisions as the track moved from damp to wet and back again for the finish. In the end, the race was shortened to a timed event and Bowman was out front in the final minutes as several faster cars behind pitted for slick tires. As the track dried, those contenders sped up and were catching the No. 48 as the time limit approached. However, it was Bowman who refused to make a mistake in the final run to the finish to claim the all-important victory that puts him into the championship playoffs.

With no more road course races until the playoffs, the march to the conclusion of the regular season continues with a stop at Pocono Raceway this week. Six races remain before the knockout rounds begin, but only four playoff positions remain to be claimed through race wins. Time is rapidly running out for drivers to clinch their spot and Chris Buescher sits on the bubble. Buescher holds 45-point lead over Bubba Wallace in 17th but another first-time 2024 victor would change all of that. Denny Hamlin won at Pocono last year, and there is still everything to play for.

UPGRADE

Alex Bowman -  Bowman pulled off an improbable win at Chicago to claim his spot in the championship playoffs. He started the day inside the top 10 and after making the call to stay on wet tires to the finish, he led the last eight laps while being chased to the line by those who made the switch to slick tires. In the end, Bowman made no mistakes and held enough of a gap to make it to the line first, ending his winless streak that stretched back to 2022. He now joins his Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the playoff field and can shift his focus to preparation for that championship battle. Bowman won at Pocono in 2021 and finished 24th in last year's stop at the track, and Sunday's return to Victory Lane could be the breakthrough he needed to get back to winning more frequently following a long journey back from injury.

Ty Gibbs - The Chicago race weekend was a success all around for Gibbs and the No. 54 team. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver put his car on the front row in qualifying and then jumped to the lead at the start. Despite not claiming a stage win, Gibbs held his car among the contenders all afternoon and added stage points in the first segment. He kept his nose clean throughout the wet and dry conditions to finish third for his fifth top-five finish of the season leading 17 laps in total. Gibbs now leaves the Chicago race weekend second in points among drivers yet to win a 2024 race. With the regular season winding down, he and the team will be feeling the pressure to get to Victory Lane and firm up a playoff spot, though. His best Pocono finish was fifth last season, which could suggest another chance for him to score that first series win this coming weekend. 

Tyler Reddick - Reddick continued to demonstrate why he should be a top consideration on road courses again last week. He qualified fourth to start and then claimed stage points in the first segment. He was one of the cars to switch to slick tires late in the running and was charging down Bowman for the lead in the final laps. Unfortunately, contact with the inside wall ended his charge and gave Bowman the gap he needed to take the victory. Visibly dejected on pit road after the race, Reddick shouldered the blame for not seizing the opportunity, but his second--place finish is still a good result. It was his eighth top-five of the season, which is joint most in the series along with Kyle Larson. With one season victory, Reddick feels like he should have more, though. He has three top-10s from six Pocono starts and finished second in the last two races at the track.

Michael McDowell - Many expected McDowell to have a good race at Chicago, and that is what he delivered, too. He initially impressed by qualifying third. He went on to score stage points in the first segment and avoid the chaos that affected much of the field on the wet and drying track. HIs fifth-place finish was his second top-five of the season, both of which came on road courses. He has six top-10s so far this season and will need to win to be part of the playoffs. His best remaining chance to do that is likely going to be the return visit to Daytona in August, but there will be two road course visits in the playoffs that could offer him the chance for one last victory with Front Row Motorsports before making the switch to Spire Motorsports next season. He may not be a bad option at Pocono, though. His best results at that track have come more recently, including a sixth-place finish in 2022.

Shane van Gisbergen - One year after powering to his first win in his series debut, Shane van Gisbergen returned to muscle his way to the front again to win the first stage of Sunday's wet visit to Chicago. He qualified inside the top five and was one of the fastest cars in the race's early laps. The Supercars ace won Saturday's Xfinity Series race at the track, too. It was his fourth start of the season and his first career stage victory after his debut victory last season. However, just after the start of the second stage, Chase Briscoe lost control and hit the No. 16 from behind. The contact sent SVG into the outside wall and out of the race. While he showed the speed and skill to win again, circumstances didn't align and the potential was not fulfilled. However, he is scheduled to make two more Cup Series starts yet this season, and the next likely chance for a win will likely come at Watkins Glen.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Larson - Larson was one of the favorites to take Sunday's win, and he started the weekend on the right foot by putting his car on pole. While he wasn't able to convert that starting spot into the race lead, he did finish in the top 10 to grab stage points in the first segment. Things went south after that when he locked his tires and slid hard into the turn 6 wall, though. After getting the car restarted, Larson found that the damage was too much to continue and his race was over. He was just the second car to exit the race, and the 39th-place result was his second outside of the top 30 from the last four races. The No. 5's speed remains among the best in the series, though. He and the team will need to ensure they keep that speed but eliminate the mistakes that have caused the poor finishes as the playoffs approach.

Christopher Bell - What was shaping up to be a great day for Bell went south in the closing laps Sunday at Chicago. Bell qualified in the top 10 and was running second at the end of the first stage. He held himself in contention throughout the race, and was put in an ideal position on slick tires as the racing line dried in the final laps. He was closing quickly on the lead and making up places on track when contact among a pack of cars jostling for position turned him into the wall and out of the race just a lap shy of the finish. Prior to the contact things were shaping up to have him race for the win. Instead, he was forced to retire the car. Bell still has three wins this season and is focused on playoff preparation, though. At Pocono, he has three top-10s from six series starts. He finished fourth and sixth in the last two races there.

Martin Truex Jr. - Also caught up in the contact that ruined Bell's charge to the lead was teammate Truex. The former series champion spent most of the day in the pack but did grab some stage points in the second segment. While trying to squeeze out a top finish from his track position at that point, Truex was part of the four-way bumping and banging and damage also dropped him from the top 10. The 33rd-place finish was the second in a row worse than 20th. It also marked his second consecutive road course result outside of the top 25. Worse, Truex is still searching for a 2024 victory in his last full-time season in the series. He missed out on the playoffs due to a lack of wins in the past and won't want to suffer the same fate in his last try. Truex is a two-time Pocono winner, though. He led 20 laps and finished third last year and the pressure to win is only growing.

Denny Hamlin - Hamlin's car seemed more like a pinball than a racecar Sunday at Chicago. The championship contender seemed to attract contact and endured several run ins with the walls, tire barriers, and other competitors. The conditions on track were challenging, and Hamlin couldn't steer himself clear of trouble. Hamlin ended the day in 30th position after all the issues, which extended his current run of poor form. Sunday's result was his fourth finish from the last five races outside of the top 20. There is still plenty of time for he and the team to turn things around before the playoffs, and Sunday's race shouldn't be considered representative of his chances going forward. However, fantasy players may be wise to be a bit cautious until evidence of a turnaround is presented. Hamlin is a seven-time Pocono winner, which means that turnaround could only be a few days away.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - Stenhouse's name isn't one that would typically be associated with top road course finishes, but that is exactly what he delivered Sunday. His sixth-place finish was his fifth top-10 of the season and third from the last four races. Despite qualifying 33rd and bein involved in several moments throughout the race, Stenhouse was one of the drivers to take advantage of other pitting for slick tires to stay on course and push his wet-weather rubber to the finish. As a result, Stenhouse consolidated a spot in the top 10 and added stage points from the second segment to his total for the day. Stenhouse seems to have cured the issues that were holding him back earlier in the year and top finishes are coming more frequently. That confidence could be a boost this week when he returns to Pocono, too. He scored his best Pocono finish of seventh last season.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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