Since 2018 at Hendrick Motorsports, Chase Elliott has led the way with 11 NASCAR Cup Series victories. The reigning champion and the sport's Most Popular Driver can make it easy to take up all the bandwidth within this four-car program.
Alex Bowman knows that feeling of being overlooked.
Bowman, after his late-race steal on Sunday at Richmond Raceway, now has three victories over the same time span. That's more than Hendrick's Kyle Larson, William Byron or the seven-time champion he replaced at the No. 48 car this season, Jimmie Johnson.
In fact, only eight drivers have more victories than Bowman in the past three-plus seasons, six of them Cup Series champions. It's a respectable effort from a one-time test driver who inherited Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s former ride, a No. 88 Chevrolet that had all of one top-5 finish the year before he took the reins.
Bowman's reward for building that program up, finishing a career-best sixth in the standings in 2020? Inheriting Johnson's No. 48 and Ally sponsorship, a number that hadn't visited victory lane since June 2017. It felt like a demotion of sorts as Hendrick refused to extend Bowman's contract past 2021, stopping short of a long-term commitment unlike his trio of teammates. Even Larson, coming off a racial slur that cost him a ride at Chip Ganassi Racing, got a multi-year deal.
So as the forgotten man, it's no surprise Bowman "snuck" into victory lane after spending much of the final stage at Richmond a half-lap behind the leaders, fighting back after an uncontrolled tire penalty. Taking advantage of a late-race caution, the perfect restart and some short-run speed was enough to scratch out an advantage over Denny Hamlin.
"When we drove away," Bowman said, "I was like 'Oh my gosh, what's happening?'"
Spoken like a driver still in awe of his own success. The self-described "awkward" driver within the Hendrick group is public about his struggles with anxiety; he doesn't have a stereotypical racer's ego. Instead of swagger, Bowman has heart, paying tribute in victory lane to crew member Rowdy Harrell and wife Blakley killed in a car crash this past offseason.
"Rowdy was that big, outgoing personality that really kept the group pumped up in any situation, really held us together," Bowman said. "He was always happy, no matter the circumstance."
So, what's holding Hendrick up here? Elliott may be Mr. Popular, a champion in his own right and a once-a-generation type of talent. But he's also the only driver on the team without a win this season.
Bowman's performance should put him in position for an extension. Hendrick GM Jeff Andrews says they're "in the middle" of contract negotiations yet it's puzzling what more this 27-year-old needs to do to prove himself, especially with sponsor Ally signed through 2023.
Green: Joe Gibbs Racing. Yes, Kyle Busch's struggles are still a concern. But the team had four cars inside the top eight at Richmond. Denny Hamlin's 4.2 average finish through nine races is a record-setting pace.
Yellow: Matt DiBenedetto. After a disastrous start to 2021, a ninth at Richmond was Matty D's first top 10 of the year. While he and Aric Almirola dug the deepest holes among 2020 playoff drivers, the Wood Brothers Racing veteran (39 points below the postseason cutline) has a better chance to shovel his way out.
Red: Ryan Preece. The wheels have fallen off at this JTG-Daugherty Racing car with four runs of 25th or worse the past five races. Falling out of playoff contention makes it a tough sell to keep this unchartered team afloat for all 36 races without proper sponsorship.
Speeding Ticket: Jeremy Bullins. The crew chief for Brad Keselowski, known for unconventional gambles, kept the 2020 Richmond winner out on old tires during the end of the second stage. The thought was they'd keep an extra, fresh set of Goodyears for the final laps in case there were a rash of Richmond cautions.
Problem is, the yellows never came in a roll of the dice that seemed unnecessary in hindsight. Joined by Ryan Blaney's team, the gamble paid off for neither one: Denny Hamlin came round and lapped them both on fresh tires. Falling off the lead lap, it took Keselowski's potential top-5 car right out of contention (he wound up 14th).
We'll go outside the NASCAR world this week with a hat tip from "Frontstretch" dirt writer Bryan Keith. BAPS Motor Speedway in Pennsylvania is getting creative in how to bring fans to the stands as capacity limits slowly increase with the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So many questions. Can you take him on a plane? How did he get trained? Who looks at an alligator and is instantly calmed?