Joe Gibbs Racing team-mates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. led a combined 314 of 400 laps in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway, but Alex Bowman led the ten that mattered the most. An excellent restart by Bowman with ten laps remaining proved to be the difference maker as he drove off to his third career NASCAR Cup Series victory and first of the season.
Truex, who won last week at fellow short track Martinsville, started on the pole to begin what was a relatively clean first stage as he and Hamlin swapped the lead throughout the segment. By the end of the stage, the lone caution was a competition yellow, while Hamlin took the stage victory ahead of Truex, Joey Logano, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell, Bowman, Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski, and Kevin Harvick.
The two continued their dominance through the second stage until Ryan Newman spun on lap 142 for the first race-related caution of the day. When the race resumed six laps later, Truex was back in front until the green-flag pit cycle began. Brad Keselowski chose to stay out as long as possible, which granted him the lead before being overtaken by Hamlin. Hamlin, Truex, and Logano once again comprised the top three at the end of the stage ahead of Bowman, Harvick, Matt DiBenedetto, Kyle Busch, Byron, Bell, and Aric Almirola.
Between stages, Bowman suffered a penalty and began the final stage at the back of the lead-lap cars. Hamlin continued to lead for the third stage’s start before initiating a battle with Truex and Logano for the lead.
Truex received a speeding penalty during the final wave of green-flag stops, but remained in the top ten. Hamlin and Logano continued their battle until Harvick wrecked with 20 laps to go. Although Hamlin and Logano comprised the front row for the restart on lap 389, Bowman leaped to the inside to take second from Logano before running side-by-side with Hamlin.
“We just didn’t take off very good there,” Hamlin said after the race. “Definitely was worse when our car took off after restart. The #48 had his tyres pumped up, he was able to take off there, get the lead, build a lead big enough I didn’t have enough time to get back to him.”
Bowman finally cleared Hamlin for the lead on lap 390. Although Hamlin was able to narrow the gap, he could not catch the leader as Bowman stormed off to his third career Cup win and first of the season.
“(The restart) did not go the way I thought it was going to go,” Bowman commented in his post-race press conference. “We were pretty awful on short runs all day. To be honest with you, a caution came out, I was like, ‘Man, we’re going to struggle to get out of here with a top five.’ Felt like we had such an amazing long run car, but really struggled on the short runs.
“We took off. My strong suit all day was being able to get into the corner really deep. I was able to get in deep, aside Denny. I knew I had the preferred lane, could probably clear him. I kind of figured he would get right back to me and be faster than us. When we drove away, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s happening?’ We had some really fast laps there. I was super loose the last couple laps. I did my best to get it back away. We just really improved the race car there, had a lot of grip taken off.”
The victory is Hendrick Motorsports’ first at Richmond since 2008 with Jimmie Johnson. Incidentally, Johnson’s Cup career was spent in HMS’s #48 car that Bowman switched to for the 2021 season, while Johnson made his NTT IndyCar Series début during the day. The #48 last won a Cup race with Johnson at Dover in June 2017, while sponsor Ally Financial visits Victory Lane in a points race for the first time (Johnson won the exhibition 2019 Busch Clash with Ally).
“Yeah, it’s really cool. There’s so many different things going on right now, I almost didn’t even remember that it’s my first win in the #48, getting a #48 back in Victory Lane. It’s really special for a lot of reasons, just to win for Ally, to get the #48 back in Victory Lane. Obviously really emotional, losing Rowdy and Blakley this offseason,” Bowman added. Rowdy Harrell was Bowman’s tyre carrier prior to him and his wife Blakley passing away in a car accident during the winter. “It’s been a lot. Obviously Jimmie making his IndyCar début today, really cool.”