Observations: NASCAR Cup at Chicagoland

Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch lead a pack of cars during the Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Sunday’s Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway might be remembered as the turning point in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

Sure, much will be written about first-time winner Alex Bowman, but he wasn’t the only refreshing element of the race. That distinction also belongs to Hendrick Motorsports on the whole and especially its drivers, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick, who each took turns leading in a season dominated by two organizations — Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske.

Meanwhile, the race was another victory for the sanctioning body as its high-downforce, low-horsepower package delivered an exciting show — albeit for different reasons than previous races this season.

Some observations from the Camping World 400 can be found below.

PERSEVERANCE PAYS OFF FOR ALEX BOWMAN

This isn’t the place to thoroughly dive into an Alex Bowman career retrospective, but that will come later.

But to call his ascension to a Hendrick Motorsports Cup Series winner anything other than unlikely would have been an optimistic take. The system just doesn’t reward a guy like Bowman, no matter how talented we all know him to be.

Sure, Ryan Preece and Daniel Hemric are recent blue-collar success stories, but both enjoyed the backing of sponsorship or a team owner who believed in them — and even then that only netted them mid-field Cup Series rides.

Bowman proved himself a winner in ARCA with Venturini Motorsports and Cunningham Motorsports during an era when winning in that division really meant something.

But like so many other NASCAR hopefuls, the funding stretched thin upon reaching the national touring level, and Bowman was relegated to racing for such nondescript teams as RAB Racing, BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.

He was miserable.

And at his lowest, he discovered via Twitter that he was fired from TBR just weeks prior to the 2016 Cup Series season. He was also responsible for some of these outcomes. As talented as he may be, Bowman has also needed to do some growing up.

In his K&N days, he was a noted practical jokester, which is fine for a teenager, but tales of immaturity persisted into his 20s.

At the time of his TBR firing, Bowman had nothing on his schedule but a handful of Xfinity Series starts for JR Motorsports. In an unlikely twist of fate, Bowman was selected as one of the replacements for Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he was sidelined during the second half of that season with a concussion.

He nearly won the penultimate race of the season that year at Phoenix.

So, when Earnhardt revealed that 2017 would be his last season, he also advocated for Bowman to replace him. That meant pitching the idea to team owner Rick Hendrick and getting Nationwide Insurance on board.

Bowman made it on his talent, but it also took every little underlying thread going his way, when all it would have taken is for Hendrick or a sponsor to have wanted someone else in the No. 88 instead.

And now he has rewarded that faith with a win, and a well-timed one at that, considering Bowman is currently in need of additional sponsorship support with Nationwide’s impending departure.

Bowman has one hell of a backstory, but it looks to be merely the prologue for what comes next.

NASCAR RISKED SAFETY AT START

The race did not start under the most comfortable of circumstances.

In fact, NASCAR race control risked the safety of both fans and participants by waiting until the last possible minute to halt the proceedings due to an impending thunderstorm that had already wrecked portions of the upper Midwest earlier in the morning.

With a national television audience already tuned in, NASCAR felt compelled to start the race despite flashes of lightning in the distance — and even completed 11 laps before throwing the yellow flag.

It was a reckless act, especially given that a fan had been struck by lightning and killed under similar circumstances in 2012 at Pocono Raceway when NASCAR waited until a storm had descended upon the facility to throw a race-ending caution — despite online pleas from meteorologists to stop the race much sooner.

On Twitter, NASCAR vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said it is the league’s policy to continue forward until storms are within 8 miles.

But we have all heard the adage that if you’re close enough to see lightning, you’re close enough to be struck by it.

We all know weather is largely unpredictable. By throwing the green flag and running the first 11 laps, O’Donnell’s actions indicated a hope that the storm would break apart or shift directions, something that has certainly happened in the past.

But it very well could have formed pop-up clouds capable of producing lightning. All the while, NASCAR was essentially encouraging fans (and requiring spotters) to remain on what amounted to a conductor.

Track officials commonly say they want to provide enough time for fans to get back to their cars and not just take cover under the stands. NASCAR waited so long to clear the grandstands that fans only had time to do to the latter. The 42-year-old man killed in Pocono in 2012 was struck en route to his car because he wasn’t given enough time to make it.

Once the storm did arrive at Chicagoland, it was as advertised: powerful winds ripping racetrack signage off the building, pulling the awnings off numerous motor homes and sending lightning strikes all around the facility.

These are elements that could have harmed or killed a fan who wasn’t properly protected.

Would that have been worth the first 11 laps of Sunday’s race?


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