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      Alex Bowman finishes 18th in Darlington, William Byron clinches spot in NASCAR Playoffs

      ALEX BOWMAN

      Start: 16th
      Finish: 18th
      Standings: 11th 

      Alex Bowman and the No. 88 Axalta Throwback Chevrolet rolled off 16th for the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday afternoon. Shortly after taking the green flag, Bowman was scored in the 14th position and reporting that his Axalta machine was a lot tighter than he would like it to be and that he was on the splitter over the bumps. The team knew that the competition caution was coming up on Lap 35, so Greg Ives, crew chief, and the team began to make their plan. When the caution was shown, Ives called the driver to pit road for four tires, fuel and a track-bar adjustment to help the tight conditions. When the field took the green on Lap 40, Bowman would restart 17th.

      On Lap 65, the 26-year-old driver radioed to the Axalta team that he thought the adjustment was too much. The caution was shown two laps later and the team was scored in the 22nd position. Ives elected to bring the driver down pit road for another four-tire stop and the team made a wedge adjustment. Bowman restarted 21st when the field saw the green flag on Lap 72. Just 20 laps later, the driver radioed to the team that those adjustments from the previous stop helped the handling. At the conclusion of Stage 1, Bowman was scored in the 17th position.

      Under the stage-ending caution, Ives called the Axalta driver to pit road for four tires and fuel. The strategy call for the team allowed Bowman to gain some track position and restart 14th. Shortly after taking the green, Bowman had advanced up to 12th and was quiet on the radio. On Lap 135, the Tucson, Arizona, native relayed to the team that he had made slight contact with the wall but didn’t receive much damage. The caution was shown on Lap 140 and the driver reported that he needed to rotate the center better through the turns. The team visited pit road for four tires, fuel and an adjustment to help the handling. Bowman restarted 15th on Lap 145.

      The caution flag was shown on Lap 157 and the driver was reporting that his Axalta Throwback machine was on the free side and that he lacked rotation and front turn. The Axalta team came down pit road for four tires, fuel and an air pressure adjustment and restarted 18th when the field took the green. With his eyes set forward, Bowman was running 13th with 20 laps to go in Stage 2. On Lap 181, the driver radioed to the team that his car didn’t have any grip and he didn’t have anything to lean on with the back of the car. The sixth caution of the day was shown on Lap 197 for an incident in Turn 1. Stage 2 ended under the yellow and Bowman crossed the line 12th.

      Under the caution, Bowman visited pit road for four tires, fuel, track-bar adjustment and some right-side damage repair. Starting the final segment in 12th, Bowman shot up to eighth on the restart and by Lap 229 he had raced his way up to the fifth position. As competitors headed to pit road, he moved into the fourth spot before making a scheduled green-flag stop on Lap 257 for four tires and fuel. As the field cycled through on Lap 260, Bowman was scored in the ninth position. The seventh caution of the evening was shown on Lap 274 for a multi-vehicle accident on the front stretch. Bowman was able to avoid the incident that happened in front of him and did not receive any damage. The driver relayed to the team that he did slide the tires, so the team elected to pit for four tires and fuel and restarted third.

      On the restart, however, he dropped to eighth and held that position until another cycle of green-flag pit stops. Following his trip to pit road on Lap 320 for tires and fuel, Bowman found himself in seventh, and he maintained his position as the laps wound down until he dropped to eighth with 20 laps to go. Shortly after, the Axalta machine made contact with the wall and cut a right rear tire, forcing the team to make an unscheduled stop on Lap 349. Bowman would bring home an 18th-place finish at the conclusion of the 367-lap event.

      Alex Bowman: “That was definitely a disappointing way to finish that race. We started off too tight and Greg and the Axalta team made really good adjustments on the stops. We were running inside the top 10 for the majority of the race, but we got into the wall and it cut the right rear tire. Not the way we would have liked to have finished that race, but we  definitely unloaded strong on Friday. We will move on from here and come back stronger in Indy.”

      © 2019 Matthew T. Thacker / NKP

      WILLIAM BYRON

      Start: 1st
      Finish: 21st
      Standings: 13th

      Rolling off from the pole position for Sunday’s rain delayed Southern 500, William Byron showed top-five speed for most of the 367-lap race despite having to regain track position throughout Stage 2 from an early issue on pit road. As Byron found himself once again running back within the top five, he was caught up in a late-race incident that relegated the No. 24 Hendrick Autoguard/City Chevrolet Throwback Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to a 21st-place finish. However, Byron was able to collect enough points during Sunday night’s race to lock himself into the playoffs for the first time in his Cup Series career.

      Capturing his fourth NASCAR Cup Series pole award of the 2019 season, Byron became the youngest pole winner at Darlington Raceway. After rain delayed the start of the Southern 500 Sunday night, when the field finally did take the green flag, the 21-year-old driver continued to show the speed that his No. 24 Hendrick Autoguard/City Chevrolet Throwback Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 had. Running second when the competition caution was displayed on Lap 35, Byron came to pit road for four tires, fuel and a round of adjustments to try tightening up his Chevy. Barely getting edged out on pit road for the lead, Byron restarted second and held that position until the caution came back out on Lap 69. Once again coming to pit road for a routine four-tire stop under the yellow, the No. 24 team lost some time after slight issues on the right side during the stop, relinquishing Byron to line up in the ninth position for the ensuing restart. Still fighting a slightly loose Hendrick Autoguard/City Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, Byron slid back to 11th on the restart but maintained the position as Stage 1 came to a close. Once again coming to pit road, Byron got four tires, fuel and minor adjustments before returning to the track, lining up 12th for the start of the second stage.

      As the field went green for Stage 2, Byron continued to hold the 12th position, reporting to the team that is was “hard to pass in traffic.” However, the caution came out on Lap 142, allowing the No. 24 to come down pit road for fresh tires and adjustments to try to help get the rear end to grip better. Picking up two positions on pit road, Byron restarted 10th with just over 50 laps remaining in the second stage. With a great restart, the sophomore driver found himself in the seventh position and trying to continue his march back to the front of the field as the yellow flag was displayed again shortly after. Happy with the last set of adjustments, Byron asked for similar changes when he came to the attention of his Hendrick Autoguard/City Chevrolet team on pit road. After his pit stop, Byron lined up ninth for the remaining 38 laps in Stage 2. Initially falling back as far as 13th, Byron fought through the remaining laps to finish Stage 2 in the eighth position, reporting that this was the best his Chevy had been all race. Crew chief Chad Knaus made the call for further adjustments to keep the No. 24 turning in the corner, along with the call for four tires and fuel during the stage break.

      Once again picking up a couple positions on pit road, Byron lined up fifth for the start of the final stage with 161 laps left in the 367-lap event. After restarting in the bottom lane and slipping back to 10th, Byron was able to fight his way back up to seventh during the longest green-flag run of the race. With the race remaining green, Knaus called his driver down pit road under green on lap 254 for four tires and fuel. As green-flag pit stops continued to cycle through, Byron was scored back within the top five with only 100 laps left in the Southern 500. However, as Byron continued to battle for position within the top five, he was collected in an on-track incident on Lap 276. Sustaining front-end damage to the No. 24 Hendrick Autoguard/City Chevrolet Throwback Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, Knaus called Byron down pit road multiple times to not only fix the damage but also change four tires and top off on fuel. Able to remain on the lead lap, Byron restarted in the 21st position with 86 laps left at Darlington Raceway. Working his way back to the 15th position, Byron radioed that his Chevy was “too loose again.” Going a lap down to the leaders with 46 laps left, Knaus called the No. 24 down pit road under green for four tires, fuel and a round of adjustments. As the final green-flag pit stops cycled through as the laps wound down, Byron found himself just inside the top-20 trying to remain only one lap down to the leaders. With the race going green until the end, Byron couldn’t hold off fresher tries behind him, relegating him to a 21st-place finish when the checkered flag waved.

      Jimmie Johnson led the four-car Hendrick Motorsports contingent to the finish line in 16th place after also being collected in the same late-race incident Byron was involved in. Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott followed close behind, finishing 18th and 19th respectively, with Byron crossing the stripe in the 21st position.

      Hendrick Motorsports