What I Learned Following a NASCAR Team Around for a Weekend

lebanon, tennessee june 25 alex bowman, driver of the 48 ally chevrolet, drives during the nascar cup series ally 400 at nashville superspeedway on june 25, 2023 in lebanon, tennessee photo by logan rielygetty images
The ContenderLogan Riely
lebanon, tennessee june 25 alex bowman, driver of the 48 ally chevrolet, drives during the nascar cup series ally 400 at nashville superspeedway on june 25, 2023 in lebanon, tennessee photo by logan rielygetty images
Logan Riely

It’s late June at Nashville Superspeedway, and I’m in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 hauler. It’s a cramped space—a base camp for an entire NASCAR Cup Series team, built into the back of a semi-truck and stuffed with equipment and food. Inside, everyone squeezes past each other with exchanges of “Excuse me” and “Sorry.”

I’m with Blake Harris, the team’s crew chief, a few hours before race time. He smooths out a white paper towel on the countertop, opens the cabinets, and says he’s making a peanut butter, honey, and pickle sandwich. The rest of the team mocks the pickles, while I resist the urge to join them. Harris tells me honey replaced jelly at some point, and he’s not sure where he got the pickle idea. He thinks he saw a colleague do it once.

brian harris
Blake Harris of Hendrick MotorsportsHendrick Motorsports

Harris says he eats the sandwich for good luck. But as we talk, he realizes it hasn’t been so lucky lately.


“Should I do something different?” he asks me.

“No pickles?” I say.

“No pickles,” he responds.

The season started well for the No. 48 team and its driver, Alex Bowman. They seemed like a shoo-in for the NASCAR playoffs; six races in, they were leading the points and had a series-best average finishing position of 7.0.

Then, in late April, Bowman took a sprint car to 34 Raceway, which he describes as a small dirt track “in the middle of Iowa in a cornfield.” He and another car made contact while racing for second place, and both flipped. Bowman fractured a vertebra, forcing him to miss three points-paying races and plummeting him in the standings.

alex bowman of hendrick motorsports
Hendrick Motorsports

Now he’s in Nashville, a place he says he’s “always struggled,” trying to claw back into a playoff spot. A win would give him one automatically, but those are hard to come by lately.

“For me, 2023 has been the toughest year mentally of my life,” Bowman tells me. “It seemed like we couldn't do anything wrong really before I broke my back, and since then, we can't do anything right. 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.”

a show version of alex bowman's race car parked on broadway
Alex Bowman, Driver of the No. 48Alanis King

There’s also more pressure in Nashville. It’s the Ally 400, which means the No. 48 team’s primary sponsor, Ally Financial, is everywhere. A show version of Bowman’s race car is parked on Broadway, the city’s famous bar district, and behind it is Ole Red, a bar that Ally’s taken over for the weekend. Groups of bachelorette parties stroll past, NASCAR fans and non-fans alike pose with the car, and the bar has live fan events, sponsor banners, and an elevator with Bowman’s face on it inside. Ally flew me out just to see the spectacle.

“We’ve got to go execute,” Bowman tells me. “Lately, it looks like we suck. Even when we have good days, something always happens. We're plenty capable of a race team, and we have really smart people. It's just not gone our way.”

The crash that sidelined Bowman happened on his 30th birthday, and he jokes in Nashville that he knew his back was going to hurt in his 30s—he just didn’t know how soon. He says he was in denial at first, convincing himself the bone he heard snapping was just a pop. He finally went to the hospital when he couldn’t get his fire suit off.

Bowman sat at home recovering for some of his best tracks, returning in May for NASCAR’s longest race: the Coca-Cola 600. His back hurt for five days afterward. It still hurts, he tells me, but the pain usually goes away by Monday morning now.

alex bowman of hendrick motorsports
Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 48Hendrick Motorsports

NASCAR granted Bowman a medical waiver, meaning if he makes the playoffs, he can still compete for this year’s championship. Kyle Busch did it in 2015 and won.

Bowman’s been discussing the wreck and its playoff implications for weeks by the time we get to Nashville, so I don’t pry. But as we’re making small talk, he tells me how bizarre it was to go to a local hospital after wrecking a race car.

“They kept asking for my insurance because I got into a car wreck,” he says. “But it wasn’t that kind of car wreck.”

I ask when—or if—Bowman thinks he’ll do a race like that again. He’s not sure.

The biggest change to the No. 48 team this season was the addition of Harris as crew chief. Bowman spent his first five years at Hendrick Motorsports with Greg Ives, who worked with Dale Earnhardt Jr. before him. They won seven Cup races together.

Harris was a big hire for a powerhouse team; before, he was known for leading underdogs to glory. He worked at Furniture Row Racing for nearly 10 years, during which the team went from longshots to Cup champions. When Hendrick hired Harris, he was in his first year as crew chief for Michael McDowell and Front Row Motorsports—another dark horse that, thanks in part to Harris, became a legitimate contender.

blake harris of hendrick motorsports
Blake Harris of Hendrick MotorsportsHendrick Motorsports

In Nashville, Harris and Bowman’s new relationship comes up a lot.

“Blake is super intense,” Bowman says during a stage appearance. “He does not care if he's going to hurt your feelings when he says something. If it needs to be said, it's getting said.

“I think that's been really good for me. I needed somebody to push me, and honestly, five years ago, I would've been so uncomfortable in that situation. I think now, I want that. I’m a bit uncomfortable with it sometimes, but it makes me a better race-car driver.”

Soon after Harris got the job at Hendrick, he started making his own hires. One was Travis Braden, a driver who’s competed in the ARCA Racing Series and won some of the most famous short-track races in America. At Hendrick, he’s a setup mechanic.

travis braden of hendrick motorsports
Travis Braden of Hendrick MotorsportsHendrick Motorsports

“I have some engineering degrees, but I'm not in any sort of engineering role at the shop,” Braden tells me. “[My colleagues] build the car weeks in advance on the computer. Then it gets assembled in stations, if you will.

“Once the car is fully assembled, myself and one other guy basically measure everything and confirm that it's what it's supposed to be. We're just another set of eyes.”

Right before Christmas last year, Braden and his partner, Jess Ballard, started talking about supplementing his side gigs with a steady job. Ballard had to drop something off at Hendrick, and as she walked in from the parking lot, Braden saw Harris walk out.

“I jumped out,” Braden tells me. “I was like, ‘Hey, like how's it going? Congrats on being hired.’ When I was talking to him, I was like: ‘I should ask if they're hiring.’” Braden had a job a few weeks later.

blake harris of hendrick motorsports
Blake Harris of Hendrick Motorsports.Hendrick Motorsports

Harris spends races on top of the pit box, using a wall of screens to monitor the broadcast, camera angles, pit-road speeds, timing and scoring, and strategy. But first, he has to choose where his box is.

“You choose based on how you qualify,” he tells me. “We qualified 15th. Typically, in my opinion, you want to be on the extremities of pit road. When you're stuffed in the middle, you're going to come out right in the middle of everybody.”

In NASCAR, pit road has segments, where drivers are timed to determine whether they’ve broken the speed limit. Because they don’t have speedometers, they typically use a light system: Go too far into the warning lights, and they have to back off to lower their average speed in that segment.

“When you're [at the] end of pit road, you've already run all your lights,” Harris says. “Alex is in a rhythm. I feel like there's a benefit to that, instead of stopping halfway down and getting back on your lights.”

Harris has to go, but he directs me to his crew.

“Really, down here is where all the guys make the magic happen,” he says. “Everything that happens below the deck is the stuff that's really important.”

I nod.

“I hope your sandwich works,” I say.

“I hope so, too,” he responds.

andrew bridgeforth of hendrick motorsports
Andrew Bridgeforth of Hendrick Motorsports.Hendrick Motorsports

Below deck, rear tire changer Andrew Bridgeforth hovers over rows of wheels that Bowman will use during the race. He and four teammates—another changer, a jack handler, a tire carrier, and a fueler—go over the wall to service the car.

A modern four-tire NASCAR pit stop takes about nine seconds. The front and rear changers run to the far side of the car, loosening the old wheels with a pit gun that spins at 15,000 rpm. The jack handler and tire carrier each hang a new wheel, then the changers tighten them. The jack handler drops the car, the carrier picks up the old wheels, and the crew runs to the other side to do it again. Everything happens in fractions of a second, leaving little room for error.

But first, the crew has to prep equipment. Bridgeforth cleans and lubricates the wheels while his carrier, Scott Riddle, adds bright tape where he prefers to pick them up. That way, he doesn’t have to think about where to put his hands—he just has to grab.

“Any tenth—a fraction of a tenth, a hundredth—is important,” Bridgeforth tells me. “Especially when it comes to dwell time: how long it takes for that lug nut to come off. Every advantage we can have, we're going to take it.”

Last year, the Cup Series moved from five lug nuts per wheel to one. It was a controversial change; people worried it would take some of the magic out of NASCAR pit stops, where the best changers could hit five lugs in about half a second.

But single-lug wheels brought new challenges. With the old stop, a changer could get enough lugs tight—not necessarily all—and be fine. Now, one loose lug means the wheel will fall off. An overly tight one means it may get stuck.

andrew bridgeforth of hendrick motorsports
Andrew Bridgeforth of Hendrick Motorsports.Hendrick Motorsports

“What makes a great changer is what you do in front of the hub,” Bridgeforth tells me. “I might not be the fastest getting to the right rear, but my mechanics—a clean engagement, a good feel for the gun—it's all continuous. If anything goes wrong, you're losing time.

“When mono-lug initially was official, I was discouraged. I’m like, ‘It takes the skill out of the game, and we’re going to have a lot less value.’ But that's not the case at all. An elite stop used to be 12, sometimes 11 seconds. Now, an elite stop is 8 seconds. Your mistakes are that much more glaring.”

Bridgeforth tells me one of the most important parts of his job is composure.

“When I first got moved up to a big boy car, my composure was terrible,” Bridgeforth says. “I was nervous. My heart was in my throat.”

scott riddle of hendrick motorsports
Scott Riddle of Hendrick Motorsports.Hendrick Motorsports

“You’ve got to be loose,” Riddle says, flopping his arms around. Then, the two start trading advice.

“You've got to be confident.”

“You've got to be light.”

“It's like ballroom dancing.”

“Loosey goosey.”

I leave them to it, walking over to pit wall to find the team’s jack handler, Allen Holman. Since the drop of the jack tells Bowman when to leave the pit box, I ask how he times it right.

“The mono-lug, it’s loud,” Holman tells me. “You can hear it when the lug nut stops. You can hear when something's not going right. So a lot of times, I'm listening to the rear [changer] and my eyes go to the front. As long as he's disengaged, I'm dropping it.”

allen holman of hendrick motorsports
Allen Holman of Hendrick Motorsports.Hendrick Motorsports

Like many crew members in modern NASCAR, Holman got recruited from college sports. He played football, then started as a tire carrier before moving to the jack.

“Carrier is a tough job, but you're managing,” Holman says. “You're following to make sure everything's good. There are more ways to separate yourself on the jack. I want to make sure I can lead my team as a jackman and be the best.

“My second year, I started messing with jack. By my third year, they moved me to jack full time. It's a little pressure, but—”

“He was ready!” a teammate yells.

“I was,” Holman says. “I put in hard work, I was prepared for it, and I felt good.”

I circle around to Jacob Conley, the fueler. His position doesn’t get much attention, because to the untrained eye, he just puts a nozzle into a car. In reality, he’s maneuvering 95-pound fuel cans over pit wall and around his teammates—including Bridgeforth, who slides in front of him while changing the rear tires.

jacob conley of hendrick motorsports
Jacob Conley of Hendrick Motorsports.Hendrick Motorsports

“It’s about timing,” Conley tells me. “I’ll plug in and look across at Bridge. As soon as I see him pop up, I know he’s fast around the car and I’ve got to get out [of the way]. He still almost touches me.”

Conley calls himself the “unsung hero” of the crew. The amount of fuel a car needs changes, and if he doesn’t put enough in, the car won’t make it. If he puts too much, he slows the crew down. The difference can be fractions of a second.

“Who was it?” Conley asks, pausing to think. “Dale Jr. in Las Vegas in 2014. He ran out of gas in turn three and lost the race.”

I remember. Brad Keselowski was chasing Earnhardt for the victory on the last lap when Earnhardt’s car did the death wiggle—the universal sign of an empty tank in a NASCAR race. He slowed just enough to give Keselowski the win.

“That's like, two-tenths of a gallon,” Conley says. “An extra half a second of plug-in time.”

When the car needs more than one can, Conley throws the first behind him and gets handed another by Hendrick engine tuner Stephen Raynor. I ask how Conley knows when to stop fueling. He tells me sometimes it’s an internal clock, sometimes he has visual cues, and sometimes Harris directs him with a stopwatch.

“Blake knows how fast the fuel goes in and how much is going in, and he makes whatever equation it is,” Conley says. “He's on the radio, so he'll count, ‘Four, three, two …’ and that cues me up to get my feet right to ride the car out. I'm still plugged in when the car's moving forward, so that's extra time for me.”

“So, Earnhardt,” I say. “How do you balance risk versus reward for that extra half a second?”

“I don't get paid to do that,” Conley responds. “That's Blake.”

alex bowman of hendrick motorsports
Alex Bowman of Hendrick Motorsports.Hendrick Motorsports

I don’t see Bowman until just before the race, when he’s standing by his car with his hands behind his back. NASCAR grids are full of people; not only are drivers talking to their teams and families moments before they get in the car, but they’re also taking photos with friends and fans. I always wonder how they keep focus.

“I feel like our sport is very unique in the sense that you wouldn't be in the NFL locker room two minutes before a game,” Bowman tells me. “Yet we’re crazy busy leading right up to the race, running around and doing different appearances. For me, it's easier to focus throughout the week than it is even on race day.

“But once you get in the car, everything else turns off and you're ready to go.”

Bowman spends the first half of the Ally 400 hovering around the top 15. On lap 146, he restarts 17th on the inside lane of a two-wide field. Up front, Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car doesn’t fully accelerate and scatters the cars behind him.

Ryan Blaney slows to avoid the chaos and backs into Kyle Busch. Both cars slide sideways in sync. Blaney violently slams a concrete wall, while Busch turns across Bowman’s nose. Seconds later, Bowman’s in the pits for repairs.

auto jun 25 nascar cup series ally 400
Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

Bowman’s car doesn’t handle well for the rest of the race, but he holds on to finish 17th. He once again parks on pit road, not victory lane, after the Ally 400.

I stop by Bowman’s car before leaving the track. He’s long gone, likely fielding media questions about the race. All that’s left is his steering wheel, disconnected from the car and sitting face-down on the roof. I see Harris walking my way and toss him a wave, silently wondering what could’ve been if we’d gotten that sandwich right.

Something tells me he is, too.

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