Alex Bowman returns to the home track that helped launch his career

Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service Friday, Mar 06 340
Alex Bowman returns to the home track that helped launch his career NK Photography Photo

Alex Bowman kept the memory of his 2016 performance at Phoenix Raceway fresh in his mind—until he claimed his first NASCAR Cup Series victory at Chicagoland Speedway last year.

He was tantalizingly close to winning nearly three years earlier in the race that first broadcast his talent. Subbing for injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car he would later claim as his own ride, Bowman won the pole for the fall race at Phoenix and led 194 laps before late contact with Matt Kenseth’s Toyota dropped him to sixth at the finish.

That race nevertheless was an important pivot point in the career of the Tucson, Ariz., driver, who had made his first 71 Cup starts in equipment incapable of running up front.

There were some other races that we ran really strong at the end of that year, but none as strong as that,” Bowman said on Friday before opening practice at Phoenix. “I feel like that definitely opened the door and was a big help.

“It’s also a race that I thought about every single day for the next two years of my life until we won Chicago. I still think about it a ton, but probably not as much as I did before we won. I think it was a big part of it, for sure.”

Coming off last week’s victory at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.), Bowman still has unfinished business at the one-mile speedway he considers his home track. He’ll get a chance to remedy the situation in Sunday’s FanShield 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“I probably want to win here more than anywhere else we go, just being from close by,” Bowman said. “I think that’s something that’s always been on my mind. I think winning (at other tracks) helped relieve that a little bit, but it’s still there for sure.”

Bowman continued to show speed at Phoenix, where he was 12th fastest in Friday’s opening practice and fourth on the speed chart after a late mock qualifying run in the final session.

RYAN NEWMAN MAKES FIRST RACE TRACK APPEARANCE SINCE DAYTONA WRECK

Even before Ryan Newman visited Phoenix Raceway on Friday, he surprised his fellow Ford drivers at a team-building session at Arizona State University’s football stadium.

Ryan Blaney, who was a central figure in the Daytona 500 wreck that sent Newman flying into the path of Corey LaJoie’s car, was especially happy to see Newman looking fit and healthy after injuries that kept the Roush Fenway Racing driver in the hospital for two anxious nights.

“We had no idea that he was going to show up,” Blaney said. “We were having dinner and he walked in. That was great. That was the first time I’ve seen Ryan personally (since the accident)… I think the first time a lot of us had seen Ryan. That was really cool to see. We sat and talked, the whole Ford group, for an hour, hour-and-a-half once he got there. We talked about a lot of stuff.

“It was nice to see him. He’s full Ryan Newman caliber and it is great to see. It was cool to hear some of the process that he went through and some of the doctors that worked on him. They were very extensive with him and he has been passing everything with flying colors, which is unheard of and great to hear.”

Though the timetable for Newman’s return to racing remains unclear, subject to medical clearances, the driver of the No. 6 Ford provided a one-word answer when asked how he was feeling.

“Lucky,” Newman asserted on Friday morning at the one-mile track. “It’s great to be alive,” Newman said. “If you’re looking at my (wrecked) car, it’s a miracle.”

Newman came to Phoenix as both a cheerleader and observer.

“I’m here just spectating,” he said. “Just having fun. I’m really just here to support the 6 team. Stay integrated with what I can do with the team. Have some fun, obviously. That’s really what it’s all about. I want to see (substitute driver) Ross (Chastain) do well, but I’d rather be in Ross’s seat.

“I just want to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can for our sponsors and for myself to have a good weekend.”

Though sidelined from racing, Newman is using the trip to Phoenix not only to observe his own team in action but also that of teammate Chris Buescher.

“I get a chance now to watch not just the 6 but the 17 and how they work and the teamwork that goes into that,” Newman said. “That’s equally as important to me to have an opportunity to see them and watch them perform when I’m not in the race car.

“I feel like I should be able to take advantage of this crazy opportunity.”

HARRISON BURTON KNOCKS CHIP OFF HIS OWN SHOULDER WITH FIRST WIN

When Harrison Burton stepped up in class to the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year, there was talk the 19-year-old driver hadn’t earned the opportunity to drive some of the best equipment available at Joe Gibbs Racing.

After all, Burton had just spent a winless 2019 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series season at Kyle Busch Motorsports, whose Toyotas are consistently among the best trucks in the garage.

Burton heard the talk, and the chip on his shoulder to start the Xfinity season was about the size of a fire log.

The biggest one in my career,” Burton acknowledged. “I’ve never gone a year where I didn’t win. I won last year, right, but in an ARCA car. I’ve never, I don’t think in my life – well yeah, in K&N my first season I didn’t win, but I won late model races, I won a lot that year. I won races that kind of made me still know I could do it and be confident in myself. At the time, that was probably the roughest year, but last year was probably the roughest I’ve had in my entire career.”

After finishing second in the season opener at Daytona and fifth at Las Vegas, Burton got a breakthrough victory last Saturday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in his first start at the abrasive two-mile track.

“There’s a huge chip on your shoulder to come out and be better, win races and prove to yourself and others you can do it,” Burton said. “I always believed in myself that I could do it, but it’s hard to say that when you’ve not won yet. Getting that win… now it was only a season (last year), but it felt like forever for me. Getting that win definitely made me feel a lot better.”

The win at Fontana vaulted Burton into the series lead, and he’ll have a chance to extend his streak of top-five finishes in Saturday’s LS Tractor 200 at Phoenix (4 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).