By Dustin Albino

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Alex Bowman has seen the highs and lows of a NASCAR season. It‘s easy to forget that at one point in 2023, he led the regular season championship standings. 

In fact, Bowman led the standings after the completion of three races. He was the only driver to have top 10 finishes through the first month of the season. The No. 48 team was hitting its stride early, with six top 10s in the first seven races. 

Then that consistency went away. 

The No. 48 team went three straight races outside of the top 10 beginning at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race. Ahead of the race weekend at Dover Motor Speedway, Bowman was injured in a sprint car accident at 34 Raceway, suffering a fractured vertebra. He ended up missing three Cup Series races — and the All-Star Race — before returning to action in NASCAR‘s longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600. 

Hendrick Motorsports was fast at Charlotte, but Bowman finished 12th. He had good runs at Nashville Superspeedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway go awry with incidents in each race. Even last week at Michigan International Speedway, he thought he had among the best cars in the field but was caught up in an incident on a restart. That resulted in his 13th straight finish outside the top 10, dating back to early April at Richmond Raceway. 

In recent years, Bowman has honed in on his road racing skills. He entered the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course 44 points below the elimination line. He said on Saturday, however, he thought he would have to win one of the final three races of the regular season to battle for the championship. Two of the three races were on road courses, which he has zero wins at. 

Bowman laid down the fifth best lap in practice and qualified ninth. It was the first time the No. 48 car made the final round of qualifying since COTA. In a race that saw the final 77 laps completed under the green flag, Bowman was among the top 10 for the duration of the race. He finished eighth in the first two stages, and made a late charge to round out the top five, over 18 seconds behind race winner Michael McDowell. 

The result was needed. 

“Everyone is like, ‘Man, you‘ve sucked for months,‘” Bowman said after the race. “It‘s really like we finish [expletive], but we run well. It‘s nice to get a good finish. It‘s been a really [expletive] summer, so I‘m glad to get a good finish for our team and we will keep digging.”

Throughout the summer, Bowman‘s primary concern has been contending at short tracks. That area has been a struggle point for HMS, with none of its cars finishing inside the top 10 at Richmond last month. Just one cracked the top 10 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway four weeks ago. 

“Other than [the short tracks], we‘ve been strong,” Bowman said. “Results have been tough. We will keep fighting.”

Even with the top five finish, McDowell‘s win puts a hindrance on the No. 48 team’s chances making the postseason. Bowman lost 36 points to the elimination line, now 80 points below Bubba Wallace who has dropped to the bubble. 

With races at Watkins Glen International and Daytona International Speedway remaining before the playoffs begin, Bowman is now going to have to win one of the final two races to make the postseason for a sixth straight season.  In six starts at Watkins Glen, he has an average of 21.2 with three finishes of 14th. He finished a career-best fifth at Daytona in this year‘s Great American Race.

“I‘ve struggled there for a long time,” Bowman said of Watkins Glen. “At the same time, I feel like we‘ve struggled here. I‘ll have a car capable, I‘ve just got to go do my homework and do my job.”

With Chase Elliott finishing second at Indianapolis, Bowman is tied for 19th in the championship standings. 

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