From Start and Park to Cup Series Winners, Bowman & McDowell’s Rise in NASCAR

AP Images

In a sport traditionally dominated by natives from the Southeast, the 1990s established a youth movement, packed with young stars from the Golden State. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ernie Irvan, and Kyle Larson all evolved from their California roots to host dominant runs in NASCAR.

The West Coast growth expanded in the 2000s as Las Vegas produced Kurt and Kyle Busch. Now, the state of Arizona is one of only four states to be represented by multiple drivers in the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs.

“I’ve known Michael [McDowell] for quite a while, he’s a really good dude,” Tucson’s, Alex Bowman said. “I think it’s cool that he won the Daytona 500. It’s so cool to see somebody that’s kind of been through similar things to me in their career -at a similar point to where I was at one point in their career – have success.”

Tucson native, Alex Bowman, became the first Arizona-born driver to win in the Cup Series with his victory at Chicagoland Speedway in June of 2019. To begin 2021, Glendale’s Michael McDowell joined Bowman on the list of Arizonans to visit victory lane with a historic win in NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500.

It has been a tedious journey for both drivers to reach victory lane at NASCAR’s highest level. While some drivers have the opportunity to ascend through the NASCAR ranks with solid sponsorship and development teams, both McDowell and Bowman have fought and grinded through the hardships to be one of only 40 individuals with the opportunity compete in stock car racing’s highest level.

“I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with [Alex] and appreciate his journey too of driving for underfunded teams, and Tommy Baldwin, and losing his ride last minute and then getting an opportunity to fill-in,” McDowell said. “So, him being successful I felt like was a really neat story, but also an eye-opener to a lot of the owners that just because you’re driving a car that doesn’t run up front every weekend doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability.”

While both drivers have found success in the Cup Series, they found vastly different paths to reach victory lane.

Now 36 years old, McDowell began his career racing go-karts at the Phoenix Kart Racing Association track in Glendale, across the street from what is now Six Flags Hurricane Harbor. McDowell earned multiple International Karting championships and even has a win at Phoenix Raceway on the former road course in the 2004 Pro Star Mazda Series, en route to claiming the season championship.

McDowell would eventually receive an invite to the world of stock car racing and earn his Cup Series debut in 2008 with Michael Waltrip Racing. Over the next eight years, McDowell would drive for nine different teams, fail to qualify for 24 races and only finish in the top ten twice over that period.

Success would commence for the Glendale native in his following season with NASCAR’s version of the minor leagues. McDowell became the first Arizona-born driver to win in any of NASCAR’s national touring series in 2016 at Road America in the Xfinity Series. It wasn’t until 2017 that McDowell acquired his first full-time season in the Cup Series with Leavine Family Racing and even scored a top-five finish. McDowell joined Bob Jenkins and Front Row Motorsports in 2018 and has compiled four top fives and 12 top tens alongside his Daytona 500 victory with the small team.

“Honestly, I think [Michael is] probably one of the best speedway drivers in the Series right now,” Bowman said. “I think he’s consistently upfront at superspeedways and he has been for a long time.”

While McDowell began road racing in the 1990s, Bowman birthed his racing career on the Arizona dirt ovals in the 2000s. Bowman would race at the local Tucson dirt track while making trips to legendary Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix, and in other parts of the west coast. The Ironwood Ridge High School student would march up in the national ranks, winning the USAC National Focus Midget Champion in 2008 and the USAC National Midget Rookie of the Year award in 2009.

A live threatening crash in a dirt midget at Las Vegas would change the direction of Bowman’s racing career as he left for North Carolina to pursue a stock car career. 

While McDowell worked to gain footing in the Cup Series, Bowman made his name know in the Xfinity Series, running all but one race of the 2013 minor league season for Robby Benton, which earned Bowman a full-time ride in the Cup Series in 2014 with BK Racing at the age of 21. Much like McDowell, though, Bowman raced with subpar equipment and low funding. Both drivers typically started the race and forfeited early in the event to save wear and tear on the car and collect the purse to start the race.

Bowman trudged on, earning and losing rides in the Cup and Xfinity Series until there was no more room for him. The Tucson native had no team to race for in 2016 but found sponsorship to run select races with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Xfinity Series team. Then, on July 14, Hendrick Motorsports announced Earnhardt Jr. would step away from his Cup Series car due to concussion symptoms. Bowman was selected alongside Jeff Gordon to fill in for Earnhardt Jr. for the remainder of the year. Bowman competed in ten races, earning both a pole and a near-victory at Phoenix Raceway.

After Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement at the conclusion of the 2017 season, Bowman was hand-picked to take the reins of the No.88 and was later moved to the No. 48 team following Jimmie Johnson’s retirement at the conclusion of 2020. With Hendrick Motorsports, Bowman has earned five career wins, 22 top fives, and three poles, handily earning the title of the most successful NASCAR driver from Arizona.

Bowman is now 28 years old and drives for a team that won seven championships from 2006 to 2016. The Tucson native has hit his stride in 2021 and has earned more accolades in every season since joining HMS.

“[Alex has] a great opportunity this year with those Hendrick cars being so fast,” McDowell said. “Obviously, he’s got two wins and a really good spot to contend for the championship this year.”

Even with two entirely different paths in different disciplines of racing, somehow Arizona was the proving ground of two NASCAR winners with an opportunity to win a championship in 2021. While they trekked up the ranks at different times and with different stories, they both found a way to go from the bottom tier of NASCAR to victory lane and formed a friendship along the way.

“I think the one thing about Michael is that he’s super nice off the racetrack and away from the racetrack but on the racetrack, he’s extremely aggressive and one of the hardest guys to race,” Bowman said. “That’s just his racing style, so that’s just part of it.”

Even though they race for two different teams and neither are picked as favorites to battle in the Championship 4 in the title race at Phoenix Raceway in November, Bowman knows there is one goal in mind for both of the Arizona drivers.

“Representing Arizona in the Playoffs, it’s awesome. Hopefully, we can win a championship at home.”

The second race of the Round 16 arrives on Saturday, September 11, at Richmond Raceway. With two races left till elimination, Bowman sits tied on the elimination cutline and McDowell has fallen 20 points below the cutline after both drivers found trouble at Darlington. Learn more about Arizona’s two NASCAR Playoff drivers and their road to a NASCAR Championship here.

Arizona native, Devon Henry, joined the Sports360AZ crew in 2018 after graduating from Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Devon has avidly partaken in coverage of the Arizona high school sports scene since 2013 and has covered NASCAR and INDYCAR at Phoenix Raceway since 2017. Devon is also a play-by-play announcer, calling over a dozen different sports and hundreds of events.