Alex Bowman Broke His Back and Still Wants to Make the NASCAR Playoffs

A few months ago, Alex Bowman was leading the NASCAR Cup Series championship. Then he broke his back, sidelining him for weeks and plummeting his position in the standings.

Now, Bowman has to win a race to make the series’ playoffs and compete for the title—and he only has two races left to do it. It’s a tale of not just how difficult the year has been for him, but also how cutthroat NASCAR’s modern playoff format can be.

“For me, 2023 has been the toughest year mentally of my life,” Bowman told Road & Track. “You know, we start the year off great. We’re leading points. All of a sudden, we get hit with a points penalty. Then that points penalty goes away. We’re back leading points. Then we get hit with another points penalty. We’re still good in points, though. Then I break my back.

“It seemed like we couldn’t do anything wrong really before I broke my back, and since then, we can’t do anything right. It’s hard.”

When Bowman got his second penalty in early April, he was leading the series in both points and average finishing position at 7.1. The penalty took away 60 points, sliding him from first to seventh in the Cup standings. By the time he broke his back in late April, he was ninth in the points—still well in the safe zone to make NASCAR’s 16-driver playoffs.

Bowman at the Coca-Cola 600.

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Bowman missed three points-paying races, returning for NASCAR’s longest race in May: the Coca-Cola 600. His back hurt for five days afterward.

“That was a rough one,” Bowman said. “But lately, post-race, it’s gotten a lot better. I’ve gotten to a point where by Monday morning, I feel pretty good.”

The modern Cup format is “win and you’re in,” where full-time drivers who win a race in the regular season automatically qualify for the playoffs. (If there are more than 16 winners, the “automatic” part goes away.) Open slots are filled by points, and drivers without a win have to compete to stay above the “cut line” in the standings as the playoffs approach.

That means drivers who sit out for medical reasons, like Bowman, face a more forgiving path to the playoffs (and championship) if they win a race. But there’s a catch: Every time a new driver wins, the cut line moves down. It’s an ever-shifting goalpost.

Bowman entered the Coca-Cola 600 17th in the standings, just a handful of points below the cut line. He had a chance to make the playoffs on points then, but bad luck—wrecks that weren’t his fault, wrecks that were, mechanical failures—slowly put that out of reach.

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“Lately, it looks like we suck,” Bowman said. “Even when we have good days, something always happens. Chicago, we were getting really fast. We got spun out, then had a mechanical failure. Atlanta, I spun it out. Pocono, we ran really well all day. Got crashed.

“When it’s my fault, I’m pretty hard on myself. I think everybody around me knows that. There are a lot of ups and downs, and I think that’s something everybody goes through in the sport. It’s probably easier to tell with me than with others. I’m probably the worst person at hiding their feelings of anybody I’ve ever met. But that’s just me, and that’s part of what we do.”

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Bowman hasn’t missed the Cup playoffs since he went full-time with his team, Hendrick Motorsports, five years ago. He knows things are difficult right now, and he knows he’s being hard on himself. But between his tumultuous bobble in and out of the playoffs—and how harsh people are online—it’s tough not to be.

“I think there are definitely some times I could be a little more positive than I am,” Bowman said. “I’m working on that. But I think that’s just the nature of racing, right? You can be really, really, really good, and have a really good team, and not win a race all year. It’s so hard.

“Then with how the world is today with social media, it’s crazy. The things people say, the stuff that you inevitably read—I’m bad at not reading it. When you have a bad week, it’s tough. But I’ve got a really good support system around me, and I’m obviously surrounded by a lot of great people at Hendrick Motorsports. That’s just part of the game.”

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Bowman (left) with teammate Chase Eliott.

Sean Gardner//Getty Images

Bowman currently sits 20th in the Cup Series standings. He’s tied with his teammate Chase Elliott, who also missed races due to medical leave this year. Both are 80 points below the cut line, and both have to win to make the playoffs. Without the points penalty, Bowman would be just 20 points out. Without the bad luck, he’d likely be in.

But Bowman’s taking this week by week—and he still has two weeks left.

“We’re running well on Sundays and having fast race cars, and while the stat sheet may not say that, it’s definitely the reality,” Bowman said. “We’re plenty capable of a race team, and we have really smart people. It’s just not gone our way.

“Any week you go to the racetrack with [Hendrick], I feel like you have a shot at winning. We’ll get over it and try to make it happen this week.”

Headshot of Alanis King

Contributing Editor

Alanis King is a writer, editor, video presenter, and podcaster who’s usually talking about cars and motorsports. Her book about Formula One, “Racing with Rich Energy,” is out now.

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