TULSA, Okla. – It didn’t fully heal the remaining scars, but Jake Swanson’s runner-up finish during York Plumbing Qualifying Night Wednesday at the Chili Bowl Nationals at least exorcized a few demons for Alex Bowman.
One year ago inside the SageNet Center, Bowman could only watch as all three of his Chili Bowl entries – for himself, Swanson, and C.J. Leary – encountered problem after problem, flips included, all week long.
It was a miserable week that saw all three Alex Bowman Racing cars miss the championship feature come Saturday night. Swanson came the closest, finishing 16th in his B-main, but Bowman couldn’t get past his D-main that afternoon and Leary finished in an I-main after a disastrous prelim night effort.
This time around, Swanson found his way to the front and stayed in contention all night long, leading a lap during the Wednesday night main event and ultimately finishing as the runner-up behind winner Corey Day.
It was enough to lock Swanson into his second career championship feature at the Chili Bowl Nationals, as well as his first time making the Saturday finale in one of Bowman’s midgets.
While he wanted to win outright on Wednesday, Swanson admitted that “the big picture” was on his mind at various moments. He also tipped his cap to Day, who he believed was a bit better at the end.
“I felt like Corey was a little bit better on the short runs and he could hit [the cushion] pretty hard,” Swanson noted. “I felt like I could minimize mistakes and that my momentum and consistency enabled me to run him back down at times, but otherwise, we were equal. It would’ve taken him making two or three mistakes in a row for me to be able to pull something off to slide him.
“This is one of those places where you’re okay with running second compared to anywhere else … because (finishing) top two is the goal to lock in to Saturday,” he added. “I’m thankful we did that tonight and thankful for my race team. I appreciate these guys working so hard. We’re all stoked right now.”
For a brief moment, Bowman thought his team’s Chili Bowl experience this year was going to go the same way as it did last January, after Kevin Thomas Jr. had heavy contact with a spun race car in his heat race Tuesday that could have easily ruined his entire week.
However, a stroke of good fortune allowed Bowman and company to get Thomas back into the fray, ultimately allowing Thomas to finish eighth in the Tuesday night prelim and setting the USAC veteran up in a B-Feature for Saturday’s alphabet soup program at Tulsa Expo Raceway.
“We got lucky in a sense,” Bowman recalled following Wednesday night’s Chili Bowl preliminary program. “Kevin (Thomas) hit that parked (race) car wide open, but he hit it with only the frame, so it bent that bad … but everything else was OK and we were able to continue through the qualifier and salvage a night with a bent race car. I think Kevin was a lot better than eighth (Tuesday) night, but this already is way better than having two different cars flying through the air in one night like we did last year (laughter).
“If we can get through one more night with C.J. (Leary) and I – and the two of us are always really close and put a lot of pressure on one another – then we should be OK,” Bowman continued. “(Thursday) is probably the highest stress situation for me, but I’m excited for it. It’s my first year making all the calls, and I’m having fun with it, even if being the crew chief is difficult.”
Swanson was quick to note that just having one of ABR’s four entries locked into the Saturday finale is “a big deal” after how the team ended the 2023 Chili Bowl.
“Alex works so hard, man,” said Swanson. “He built four beautiful race cars this year. They’re the most beautiful race cars in the building and I’m so thankful to get to drive one of them. I felt so bad for him the last couple years, but especially last year. We wrecked everything.
“It’s off on the right foot this time, though, and that’s a relief for all of us.”
Though this year is Bowman’s first time fully managing his team’s Chili Bowl effort, the Arizona native admitted that the extra effort comes with a level of satisfaction despite the added stress.
“I don’t envy Blake (Hahn) or any of the other guys who do this (crew chief and drive their own race cars), but even as stressful as it is, I’m finding out that it’s also very rewarding too,” he noted. “There’s been a couple of years that I didn’t drive in this building, and I just … came out and had fun. Jason McDougal’s crew chiefed for me in the past … Mickey Myers has been a big part of our program … but this is the first year where I’m truly making all the calls and it’s like, ‘You’re the captain now, Alex.’
“It’s stressful. That stress alone takes all the FOMO (fear of missing out on driving) away,” Bowman added with a chuckle. “It’s been fun learning this week; it’s hard to get everything right when you have the three other guys on the team that I have – where the different heights and builds between everyone make that a challenge – but it’s been fun to figure things out.”
Asked if he sees a potential Golden Driller trophy in the cards for his team this weekend, Bowman admitted that he’s unsure if his team is ready to be considered a “power team” inside the Expo.
But, regardless, the Hendrick Motorsports driver knows that a Chili Bowl win would be monumental if it did happen on Saturday night.
“[Winning] would mean a lot,” Bowman admitted. “I’m not quite sure that we’re at that level yet, but we’re gaining on it and just to be in the conversation (with the frontrunners) as a team means a lot too.
“We’re going to keep doing the best we can. That’s all you can do here in Tulsa.”
At least for the moment, Bowman’s best is already leaps and bounds ahead of when he left last January.