Alex Bowman set for NASCAR return at grueling Coca-Cola 600

AP file photo by John Raoux / Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman, who missed three NASCAR Cup Series points races due to injury, is back this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600.

CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR drivers have long considered the Coca-Cola 600 the most grueling race on the Cup Series schedule.

It's expected to be even more challenging this time for Alex Bowman, who will be racing for the first time since fracturing a vertebra last month at a sprint car race in West Burlington, Iowa, as part of Hendrick Motorsports' teammate Kyle Larson's new series.

Bowman said even twisting the wrong way can be painful. Now he faces the challenge of 600 miles via 400 laps on the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"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 going to have to deal with. ... At the end of a six-hour race, I'm probably not going to feel my best."

The Coca-Cola 600 is scheduled for Sunday evening, but with rain in the forecast, it could become a Memorial Day event, with the second-tier Xfinity Series race, which was scheduled for Saturday, already pushed to the Monday holiday.

Bowman missed three Cup Series 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 has run this season, he has run well.

He had the best average finish of any driver before getting injured, 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 postseason if he gets there.

"If we can just go back to how we were running, I know we can do it," Bowman said.

Doctors determined Bowman, 30, 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 drove 200 pain-free practice laps Tuesday at North Wilkesboro Speedway before being cleared by NASCAR to return, and that has given him confidence he can complete 600 miles.

Team Penske driver Joey Logano, the reigning Cup Series champion, said it probably won't be an easy ride for Bowman given the bumpy surface on the 1.5-mile oval at Charlotte.

"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 and going really fast, and it takes a few laps to get used to it again."

Said Bowman: "It's going to hurt. I don't know how much it's going to hurt."

He wants to return to sprint car racing at some point but joked "it's probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time."

William Byron, another Hendrick driver, will start in pole position after qualifying was washed out Saturday. He got the top spot in the lineup as the current leader in projected points for the Cup Series playoffs, and he won the most recent points race May 14 at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway. That was his third victory of the season.

"It's certainly nice to get the pit selection," the 25-year-old Charlotte native 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."

Larson is the favorite to win after last weekend's dominant victory at the NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro. Larson is a 21-5 favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook, ahead of Byron and Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., who started this month with back-to-back wins. Hamlin won last year's Coca-Cola 600, the latest crown jewel victory for the 42-year-old driver with three Daytona 500 triumphs and three more at the Southern 500.

As for Larson, since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2021, he has excelled on 1.5-mile tracks with a series-best five wins, five runner-up finishes and 11 top-five results 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," said Larson, the 2021 Cup Series champ. "I'm confident that we can keep it up throughout the summer and into the postseason."

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 cars 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."