Alex Bowman had a new nose for the finish line Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.
Driving the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet—a sleeker version of the Camaro with a new front fascia—Bowman ran away with the final stage of the Auto Club 400 at the two-mile track in the Inland Empire.
In picking up his second career victory and his first at Fontana, Bowman led five times for 110 of the 200 laps in the third NASCAR Cup event of the season. He grabbed the top spot on Lap 133, gave it up briefly during a cycle of green-flag pit stops midway through the final run and regained it for the final time on Lap 167 when Brad Keselowski gave up the lead to come to pit road.
After Ryan Blaney—running second at the time—was forced to pit with three laps left because of a corded right rear tire, Bowman crossed the finish line 8.904 seconds ahead of runner-up Kyle Busch, who made a solid run forward from his 17th starting position.
"How about that, California?” an exultant Bowman shouted after exiting his car. “I grew up quarter-midget racing maybe 20 minutes from here in Pomona Valley. Went there every week, met a lot of great friends and I know a lot of you guys were here. I promised my buddy Aaron that we would get matching '88' tattoos if I won, and I think I have to go get a tattoo now, but that will be a good time.
"It's been a lot of fun. Thanks to (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and all the guys. He made great calls all day. We were up front when it counted."
Bowman looks for better things to come after winning at Fontana—the antithesis of the aftermath of his first career victory at Chicagoland Speedway in June of last year.
"The first one, it was a really enjoyable experience and then we sucked for six months,” Bowman said. “We started this year so strong. I feel like I have a lot on my side that is much better. My life is a lot more organized than it was back then. Greg and all the guys are just on point.
"We've unloaded the last two weeks - I don't think we've had to make a change in the race car from how it came off the truck. That makes my job a heck of a lot easier. I'm just so proud of this team. We put a lot of effort into this new car, and it's obviously worked out really well."
Blaney led 54 laps, handily winning Stage 2 after finishing second to Bowman in Stage 1. But after Bowman pulled out to a five-second lead in the closing laps, Blaney came to pit road on Lap 197 to change the shredded tire and finished 19th, one lap down.
Busch inherited the second position after Blaney’s issue and finished 1.013 seconds ahead of brother Kurt Busch, who rallied from a pit road snafu (missing his stall under the first caution on Lap 63) to run third.
Kyle Busch was pleased with his team’s effort, but he leaves Fontana still searching for the speed that carried him to the championship last year.
“Yeah, we have a lot of work to do,” Busch acknowledged. “Guys did a great job here, though, just trying to work on it and trying to make everything that we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. The Interstate Batteries Camry wasn't a second-place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here—we tried to get some points.
“Guys are doing all they can, I know, and all everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing Development). So I appreciate all the hard work. We've just got to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don't know what we're missing here, but, obviously, it's a little bit of something here or there, maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas. But overall, good car today.”
Chase Elliott came home fourth and Keselowski fifth. Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola, Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones completed the top 10.
Johnson, who is retiring from full-time Cup racing at the end of the season, led three times for 10 laps but faded in the final run to finish seventh. Pole winner Clint Bowyer pounded the Turn 2 wall with a flat tire on Lap 93, the result of a valve stem cut during a green-flag pit stop four laps earlier.
Martin Truex Jr. started last (38th) after his car failed pre-qualifying inspection three times, but the 2017 series champion drove through the field to the second position. A green-flag pit stop on Lap 160, however, proved his undoing.
Truex’s rear tire changer developed a cramp in his arm, and Truex never recovered from the resulting slow stop. He finished 14th.
Tyler Reddick was the top-finishing Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender with an 11th-place run. Ross Chastain came home 17th in his second race as a substitute for injured Ryan Newman.