CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR drivers have long considered the Coca-Cola 600 the most grueling race on the schedule.
It’s expected to be even more challenging Sunday for Alex Bowman, who’ll be racing for the first time since fracturing his vertebra last month at a sprint car race in Hendrick Motorsports’ teammate Kyle Larson’s new racing series in West Burlington, Iowa.
Bowman said even twisting the wrong way can be painful.
“There’s some some discomfort here and there, and there are things that I do that don’t feel good,” Bowman said. “But that’s just part of it, and stuff I’m gonna have to deal with. ... At the end of a six-hour race I’m probably not going to feel my best.”
Bowman missed three Cup points races while sidelined, leaving him five points out of the 16th and final playoff qualifying position with 13 races remaining in the regular season.
When he’s run, he’s run well.
He had the best average race finish of any driver before the accident and despite missing three races and being docked 60 points earlier this season by NASCAR he's still confident he can make some noise in the playoffs.
“If we can just go back to how we were running, I know we can do it,” Bowman said.
Doctors determined Bowman didn't need surgery because of the location of the fracture. Instead he spent time resting with limited exercise and said he has been told it's all about pain tolerance moving forward.
He climbed back into a car last week and drove 200 pain-free practice laps at North Wilkesboro before being cleared by NASCAR to return. That has given him confidence he can complete 600 miles.
Joey Logano said it probably won't be an easy ride for Bowman given the bumpy track at Charlotte Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile oval.
“It's got to be hard,” Logano said. “But Alex is a professional and he's been racing his whole life and he's a good driver. I'm sure it's going to feel a little weird at first because you're getting in (a car) and going really fast and it takes a few laps to get used to it again.”
“It’s going to hurt. I don’t know how much it’s gonna hurt,” Bowman said.
At some point Bowman wants to return to sprint car racing, but joked “it's probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time.”
BYRON ON THE POLE
Cup points leader William Byron will start on the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday.
“It’s certainly nice to get the pit selection,” Byron said. “Really the track position is not that big of a deal for a long race like this, but the pit stall selection is huge going into the race.”
NASCAR is still looking into how a derogatory message was broadcast on the radio channel of Bubba Wallace’s race team during last weekend’s All-Star race. Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black driver in the Cup series, had just finished Sunday’s race at North Wilkesboro Speedway when a person not on the 23XI Racing team said over the radio, “Go back to where you came from” and then added another non-racial expletive.
Denny Hamlin, co-owner of the 23XI Racing, said his team is looking into what happened as well, and how to fix the issue.
“I know the team internally talked about it — about what they wanted to do to prevent it," Hamlin said. "I haven’t heard what the exact fix is for that.”
Logano is the only Ford driver to win a race this season, attributing that shortfall to the failure to maximize NASCAR-approved adjustments to the front end of their racecars this past offseason.
“We're starting a little bit behind,” Logano said. “It doesn't mean we can't win races. It just means we need to be perfect.”
Logano said the good news is the season is only half over, and there's plenty of time to improve.
“It doesn't mean that when the playoffs come around we aren't going to be in the hunt," Logano said. "We have a little time before the playoffs start and that doesn't mean we can't win a championship. Until that time we have to be perfect."
Chris Buescher returns to the Coca-Cola 600, site of a dramatic crash a year ago in which his No. 17 Ford flipped four-and-a-half times before landing on its hood. Rescue workers worked feverishly, but carefully to flip the car back over on its wheels with Buescher still inside.
Buescher thanked responders for their quick actions afterward, saying it was an awful feeling being stuck in the car with the blood rushing to his head.
ODDS AND ENDS
Larson is the favorite to win the Coca-Cola 600 following last week's dominating victory at the All-Star race at North Wilkesboro. Larson is a 21-5 favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook, ahead of Byron, the defending race champion Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2021, the 30-year-old Larson has excelled on 1.5-mile tracks with a series-best five wins, five runner-up finishes and 11 top fives in 18 starts. Larson has led three times as many laps as any other driver during that period on 1.5-mile tracks.
“I’ve been super happy with the team and the race cars that we bring to the track,” Larson said. "I’m confident that we can keep it up throughout the summer and into the postseason.”