Alex Bowman’s win on Sunday might be an example of what’s yet to come.
I’m not talking about whether Bowman is primed to reel off multiple race victories this year, although that seems plausible.
What truly stands out in early March is Chevrolet’s sudden return to relevancy.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note we are only three races into the season. The first race, the Daytona 500, is never really indicative of what the majority of the year will look like. Even then, Chevrolet had a subpar performance.
But let’s look at the past two races, starting with the most recent event at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, on Sunday.
Bowman dominated the weekend in a way we had not seen from him before. His No. 88 car was fastest in both practice sessions, qualified third and led 110 of 200 laps. That performance came one week after being laps away from fighting for the win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, chasing down Ryan Blaney in the closing laps before a late caution changed the complexion of the running order.
The key to note is that Bowman isn’t the lone Chevrolet in the hunt. At Las Vegas, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott seemed to be the fastest long-run car on the track, then backed it up at Auto Club with a fourth-place finish.
Jimmie Johnson, another bullet from the Hendrick stable, was fifth and seventh at Vegas and Auto Club respectively. Though he’s unquestionably one of the best drivers to ever wheel a stock car, Johnson, a record-tying seven-time champion and 83-time winner, has been largely irrelevant the past two seasons, winless since June 2017 at Dover.
"This team is going in the right direction,“ Johnson said. ”I know in my heart what I am capable of and what this team is capable of. It's just taken a little bit to get the right people in the right places, and rebuild and get this Ally Chevy exactly where it needs to be.“
And no, the recent string of success isn’t just tied to Hendrick Motorsports.
Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 1 car for Chip Ganassi Racing, came home third, giving Chevrolet three of the top five finishers.
“I feel like the Chevys had a really good balance when it came to speed and long-run speed,” Busch said. “It looked like the Toyotas were just bogged down early in a run when they were wide-open. That’s why they qualified poorly.”
This is all wonderful for Chevrolet. But do we really know that this turnaround is for real this time?
Things looked great for Bowman and the bowties last year when he drove the No. 88 car to his first career win at Chicagoland Speedway in June. But that turned out to be a false alarm.
“The first (win) was a real enjoyable experience and then we sucked for six months,” Bowman said. “We started this year so strong. I feel like I've got a lot on my side that I'm doing better. My life has gotten a lot more organized than it was then. (Crew chief) Greg (Ives) and the guys are just on point.
“We've unloaded the last two weeks and I don't think we have had to make a change to the race car from the way it came off the truck. That makes my job a lot easier.”
All signs point to a great start for the manufacturer and Bowman, likely thanks in large part to Chevrolet switching to the Camaro ZL1 1LE for some more aerodynamic advantages than its ZL1 predecessor. But the Cup Series is still in the midst of its “West Coast Swing,” a stretch of three weeks that consists of races at Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, which is up next.
Cars for this portion of the season are constructed over a month in advance of the scheduled events because teams are traveling back and forth to North Carolina, or having their different cars hauled out to the West Coast for a quick switch.
Ford has picked up where it left off last year with success from its Team Penske drivers, namely Joey Logano and Blaney. Toyota has looked off for some reason through the first two races at intermediate tracks this season. But once those teams get back to their race shops and can apply their new-found knowledge from what they learned out west to their future vehicles, there is a good chance Chevrolet can lose its apparent advantage.
Chevrolet dominated the sport for the better part of three decades. Between 1993 and 2016, Chevrolet drivers won 17 of the 24 NASCAR Cup Series championships. But since Johnson’s seventh title in 2016, Chevy has won none.
It’s far too soon to determine whether that drought will end this year, or even if they can win another race in 2020.
But signs are looking pretty good for Chevrolet through three races.