AVONDALE, Ariz. -- It's not just the experience of leading 194 laps at Phoenix in 2016 that has Alex Bowman starting fourth Sunday on the 1-mile oval.
It's not just the notebook that Bowman compiled while doing that race with the same Hendrick Motorsports team he's with this weekend at the newly named ISM Raceway.
Bowman just has the confidence to know what he needs at the track just outside of Phoenix, compared to recent races at Atlanta and Las Vegas. He raced in Phoenix during his 10-race substitute role for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016, which positioned him to replace Earnhardt this year.
"Just knowing really what it takes to have a race-winning car [is the difference]," Bowman said. "Here and Michigan were two places that we were really good in 2016, and maybe Charlotte as well, that I can pinpoint and say, 'Hey, I need this, and I know we'll run up front with it.'
"I feel like I can do a little better job here."
The 24-year-old Bowman is from the Tucson area, so this home race is important to him. Plus, as a former midget driver, Bowman knows the Phoenix history of what was the Copper World Classic back in the day.
Beyond wanting to win for sentimental races, there are validation reasons as well. In that 2016 race, he sat on the pole, led all those laps and then saw a potential win slip away after a late crash with Matt Kenseth on a restart.
"We have a notebook of what I liked here and a really good one at that," Bowman said. "We were really fast here before. ... A lot has changed, but at the same time at least we have something to kind of look back on and look at what changes I liked and didn't like throughout practice, and where our car was strong and where we needed work."
In his first four Cup races with underfunded teams at Phoenix, Bowman finished no better than 30th in 2014 and 2015. In four Xfinity races from 2012-2014, he had one starting spot better than 15th and no finish better than 11th.
"When I first came here, we never really ran that well," Bowman said. "The crew chief was like 'Man you just can't qualify here, you can't make speed here.' And then I got in a good car and sat on the pole.
"It's so much about equipment, and sometimes your 1.5-mile program is better than your short track program, and it makes you look like you adapt to different places differently."
After placing 17th in the Daytona 500, Bowman has finished 20th and 16th the past two races and sits 17th in the standings. He knew he might need a little time to adjust considering he competed in only three national series races last year. Plus, the team was coming off a frustrating final season with Earnhardt Jr., who endorsed Bowman to replace him.
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"We have not run how we expect and how we want to run," Bowman said. "It hasn't been a great start for us. I think we unloaded at Atlanta and quickly realized that we have a lot of work to do.
"We've got the best guys in the business back at the shop working hard. We made progress last week. ... To start the year, we are behind what we expected to be, but like I said before, there is such a depth of really smart people at Hendrick Motorsports that I'm confident that we will be contending for race wins soon."
Bowman said the team has had confidence coming into Phoenix because of his previous history at the track.
"None of us have been happy with how we've been running," Bowman said. "To come here and be here and back in the hunt is refreshing for not only me but everybody that put so much work into this Nationwide 88 car."