Arizona racers return to roots at Phoenix International Raceway

Michael McDowell drives the No. 95 Chevrolet for Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing. (Photo by Zach Catanzareti via Creative Commons )

PHOENIX – Michael McDowell, who was born in Phoenix and raised in Glendale, recently learned that he now owns a little piece of NASCAR racing history.

When McDowell, 31, won the Xfinity Series Road America in Plymouth, Wisconsin earlier this season, it was the first time that an Arizona-born driver had won a race in one of NASCAR’s top three levels – Sprint Cup, Xfinity or the Camping World Truck Series.

“I didn’t know that,” said McDowell, who learned about it during an interview. “I figured J.J. Yeley or someone had won one down the road. It’s kind of funny. It’s kind of an interesting fact.”

Sunday, McDowell will be trying to add a Sprint Cup victory to his resumé at the Cam-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. But another Arizona native might have the better opportunity to break through Sunday.

Alex Bowman, 23, who grew up in Tucson, will be filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet during the Cam-Am 500, the semifinal race in the Chase for the Cup, NASCAR’s version of a playoff.

The Hendrick No. 88 won the race a year ago with Earnhardt Jr. at the wheel.

Racing in the Desert

Bowman and McDowell took different roads to NASCAR’s highest levels, but both started in Arizona.

Bowman said he “fell in love with the dirt stuff” in Arizona. He spent a lot of time watching Super Late Model races at Tucson Raceway Park.

He did not catch the closed-wheel racing bug until later. Bowman’s career path is similar to NASCAR drivers Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Larson who cut their teeth in open-wheel sprint cars on the dirt.

“I ran a lot of midget stuff, a lot of open-wheel stuff, but I never really went stock cars out there,” Bowman said. “But I definitely had a lot of fun growing up at the short track and obviously going out to the NASCAR races at PIR.”

Growing up on the short tracks gave him an affinity for certain race tracks, including Manzanita Speedway, a short-track dirt circuit in southwest Phoenix that is now closed.

“Manzanita is one of the coolest dirt tracks in the country, in my opinion, and growing up watching short track races at Tucson Raceway Park was always really cool,” Bowman said.

Bowman reached the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 with BK Racing before switching to Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2015. He expected to be back with Baldwin in 2016, however he learned via Twitter that he had been released.

“It was totally awkward more than anything,” Bowman said. “Just finding out on Twitter was really strange, and I didn’t see it coming at all. I understand the sports a business, so Tommy had to do what’s best for his team. You can’t really argue with a business decision.”

Tucson native Alex Bowman is driving for Hendrick Motorsports, filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by Zach Catanzareti via Creative Commons)

Tucson native Alex Bowman is driving for Hendrick Motorsports, filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by Zach Catanzareti via Creative Commons )

But when he was let go at Baldwin Racing, he took a job at Hendrick Motorsports as a simulator driver to help test setups at tracks coming up on the schedule for Hendrick drivers.

It turned out to be stroke of good fortune when his phone rang on July 14.

“I was at work on Thursday afternoon and I got a phone call from Greg Ives (crew chief of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 car) that he needed me to come fill in for the weekend,” Bowman said.

He would be subbing for Earnhardt Jr., who was diagnosed with a concussion. Bowman and retired driver Jeff Gordon agreed to fill in until Earnhardt Jr. is cleared to return to the car, which won’t happen until next season.

Bowman was tabbed to drive eight of the final 12 Sprint Cup races for Hendrick. Sharing an assignment with Gordon has given Bowman an opportunity to pick the future Hall of Famer’s brain about driving.

“Jeff has so much experience and has a really interesting view on a lot of things,” Bowman said. “It’s been great to learn from him. It’s been a great time just listening and observing and learning everything I can from him.”

A different path

McDowell, who broke into what is now the Sprint Cup Series in 2008 with Michael Waltrip Racing, took a different route than Bowman, but it has led to the same place — NASCAR’s highest level.

“I started racing BMX bikes out at Black Canyon (Raceway) and from there I started racing Go Karts at the North Phoenix race track, PKRA (Phoenix Kart Racing Association), when I was 8-years old, and it kind of evolved from there,” McDowell said.

In NASCAR, he bounced from team to team before landing with Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing in 2014. He will be driving their No. 95 Chevrolet Sunday.

McDowell drove the Road America race in August and hopes his victory there in the Xfinity Series inspires the next generation of Arizona drivers.

“There are a lot of great drivers and there are a lot of young aspiring drivers that are running out to the local Go Kart track there,” he said.

Both Arizona-born drivers said they are looking forward to racing at PIR in front of Arizona racing fans.

“It’s fun to come back home,” McDowell said. “It’s fun to have more fans and family in the stands.”

Bowman, who also will drive in Saturday’s Xfinity race at PIR, agreed.

“I’m ready to get to Phoenix, and we have two chances to win that weekend,” he said. “So it should be pretty good.”