Alex Bowman’s understated summation of his team’s season so far said so much with so little. “It’s been a lot,” Bowman said, shortly after sealing his first NASCAR Cup Series victory of the year Sunday at Richmond Raceway.
A lot, meaning: His first triumph in the No. 48 Chevrolet that seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson had made famous, putting that car number back in Victory Lane for the first time since 2017; his win that coincided with a big day for his predecessor, who made his IndyCar debut Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama; his contribution to Hendrick Motorsports’ winning efforts this year, joining teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson among the victors and acquitting the team for a measure of its early season inconsistency.
The occurrence that added the most emotional weight is what caused Bowman to break down in interviews shortly after his triumphant burnout. The 27-year-old driver dedicated the victory to former crew member William “Rowdy” Harrell, who died last November in a traffic accident that also claimed the life of his wife, Blakley, on the couple’s honeymoon in Florida.
Nearly five months later, Harrell’s impact on the organization remains strong. Greg Ives, the No. 48 team’s crew chief, called Harrell “the heart and soul of our team” in his tribute. Bowman recalled that Harrell was among those who made him feel comfortable in his first stint with Hendrick Motorsports, when he subbed in for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Harrell’s influence went beyond his eight years of over-the-wall duty with Hendrick Motorsports. Instead it’s a legacy best illustrated by the fond recollections of his former teammates.
“I mean, our group has a lot of personalities, a lot of awkward people, I guess. Greg and myself are a bit awkward,” Bowman said post-race. “We have some normal personalities. Rowdy was that big, outgoing personality that really kept the group pumped up in any situation, really held us all together. He was always happy, no matter what the circumstance was.
“He meant a ton to our race team. He’s probably the first guy when I filled in in the 88 (car) back in the day to really make me feel super welcome, feel like he had my back. He was just a huge part of our team.”
Harrell came to Hendrick Motorsports as a small-town transplant who used his tireless work ethic to earn a walk-on spot with the University of Alabama football team. He won three national championship rings as a non-scholarship standout on the Crimson Tide defense, bucking the notion that a kid from a one-stoplight hometown — Moundville, Alabama, in his case, not far from the Tuscaloosa campus — was somehow less of a prospect.
When Harrell went from big-time college athletics to NASCAR’s big leagues, Hendrick Motorsports did its own scouting report. The feedback from Alabama’s staff was glowing: big motor, strong build, natural leader, punctual, detail-oriented. One other trait carried over from sport to sport — his desire to excel, which in turn pushed those around him to do the same.
“I mean, at this level, motivation is never necessarily needed any more than anywhere else,” Ives said. “All the guys are motivated to win, motivated to do their best, to do their jobs. The offseason added some definitely unneeded motivation in the loss of Rowdy and Blakley. It’s been hard. Every morning we wake up, we’re reminded of the energy that he brought to the team. We just try to bring part of that, that will to never give up.
“I think you saw in Victory Lane how emotional Alex was about it. I think every lap he runs, that’s on his mind, to drive him, to motivate him, to never give up as Rowdy was, give 100%. It’s a special win for us to be able to do that. Yeah, we don’t need the added motivation. We’re already right there, trying to get everything we can. That’s a tribute to Rowdy. Just happy we were able to get it done.”
This year’s edition of the No. 48 team has the former No. 88 team’s pairing of Bowman and Ives as its core. The car was renumbered after Johnson’s retirement from full-time driving, but the No. 88 personnel remained largely intact.
While operationally a different unit, Bowman and Co. still inherited the magnitude of Johnson’s legacy when the torch was passed in the offseason, both with his new car number and sponsorship from Ally, which has thrown its support behind Seven-Time’s successor. Sunday’s victory at Richmond fulfilled at least the first step in that transition, restoring the No. 48 to the ranks of winners for the first time in nearly four years and putting the number back on the postseason grid for the first time since 2018.
The No. 48 Chevy’s awakening for the final green-flag run at Richmond makes Bowman’s return to the playoffs a virtual lock, meaning he can breathe a little easier for next weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway and the balance of the regular season. But the incentive remains high to honor Harrell’s spirit again at Talladega, just a couple of hours away from his rural hometown.
“That would be pretty special. Not really for any reason aside from the fact that it’s Rowdy’s home track,” Bowman said. “Winning means a lot to get our car in Victory Lane, we miss him and Blakley a lot. Going to his home track, we’re able to win there, I know that would mean the world to him. We’re going to try our best to make it happen.”