CHICAGO (AP) — Alex Bowman spent his 30th birthday in an Iowa hospital after breaking his back in a short-track accident. Feeling as if he had let everyone down, it was a tough moment.

That was just last year, and it seemed like a long time ago Sunday night.

Bowman is a NASCAR Cup Series winner once again after he held off Tyler Reddick in a shortened Grant Park 165 on a rainy street course in downtown Chicago. It was his first victory since March 2022 in Las Vegas, stopping an 80-race drought.

“There’s a lot of emotions that go away with this because of how hard that has been,” Bowman said.

With his eighth career Cup Series win, Bowman became the last of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers to secure a playoff spot. He is the 12th Cup driver to win this year, leaving four remaining slots in the playoffs with six races left in the regular season.

It also was the first Cup win for Blake Harris, who took over as Bowman’s crew chief before the 2023 season.

Bowman has 11 top-10 finishes this year, but his winless drought had ramped up speculation about his future at Hendrick. That all seemed to go away this weekend.

“I understand why people want to talk. … It’s a tough business,” said NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, a Hendrick executive. “When you’re at Hendrick Motorsports, you do expect, especially when the other three have won, to be in that same category, and it hasn’t been happening. Hopefully this dispels a lot of the rumors.”

Bowman’s contract with Hendrick runs through the 2026 season. He made it clear that he felt the speculation about his future was overblown, but he definitely heard the talk.

“I think you need to win races whenever you’re at HMS,” he said. “But certainly nobody has made me feel like I’m on the hot seat. There’s never been a single conversation with a single person that has questioned anything to do with that at all. It’s all been, what do you need, how can we help you, how can we support the team.”

Bowman is in his seventh full season at Hendrick. He got his first Cup Series victory at Chicagoland Speedway in 2019. The Arizona native won again at Fontana in 2020, and then earned a career-best four wins during a breakout performance in 2021.

But everything changed after he won at Las Vegas in March 2022. That same year, he was sidelined for five races after he sustained a concussion in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway. Then he had the back injury last year that kept him out for three points races and the All-Star festivities.

“The concussion and then to straight away go break my back after recovering from that and then to just tremendously struggle through last year and kind of lose our way a little bit, it was really difficult,” he said.

Coming into Chicago, there was no sign that Bowman’s drought was about to end. He had an engine issue at New Hampshire that ended his day on the 144th of 305 laps. He finished 14th at Nashville Superspeedway last weekend.

“I think the speed has been there,” Harris said. “We talked, we had an engine failure at Loudon and we had an engine failure here last year at Chicago. As we talk through those things, he’s like, man, right as we’re in this point battle, and I’m like, we’re one race away from that not mattering.”

That one race was Sunday, and now Bowman and Harris can take a closer look at what they might do in the playoffs.

“I think race car drivers, they come up and they have accidents and sometimes you have injuries,” Gordon said, “and you find out how tough you are mentally and physically and how bad you want to do it. Alex has been through a few significant injuries, and he’s come back I feel like stronger each time.”

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