Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced on Monday that he would officially retire from NASCAR following the 2017 season. That news shocked the NASCAR world, but left questions about who would replace the 14-time Most Popular Driver next season.Maybe “replace” is a strong word. There’s no replacing a NASCAR icon like Junior in the sport, but Hendrick will certainly try to keep the No. 88 team competitive in 2018 and beyond.Based on recent moves made by the Hendrick Motorsports, there are quite a few options for the No. 88 ride when next season rolls around. There aren’t many names in the pipeline, but here’s a look at some of the top options as Hendrick looks toward a future without Earnhardt.Alex BowmanOne of the top names that will likely be high on Hendrick’s list will be Alex Bowman. The 24-year-old driver his birthday was the same day Earnhardt announced his retirement has the most experience at the Sprint Cup level of all the options and he’s certainly proved he has the talent.Last year, Bowman replaced Earnhardt for 10 races while he dealt with concussion symptoms. Bowman struggled at the start, but found his groove during the Chase with three top-10 results and five top-15 finishes while racing in eight of the final 10 events of the season.Earnhardt, for one, doesn’t lack confidence in Bowman’s abilities behind the wheel.”Alex has done a great job, I’m really happy to see him get an opportunity like this,” Earnhardt said. “… It’s given him more opportunities to show what he can do. I’ve worked with Alex for about four or five years through JR Motorsports on and off with our Xfinity program, so I believe in him.”I’m happy to see him seeing some results on the racetrack. He belongs out there full-time and his phone’s ringing.”Prior to his time with Hendrick in 2016, Bowman was a full-time driver for Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2015 and BK Racing in 2014. The results, of course, were far less promising than his time with Hendrick in lesser equipment with the two smaller teams.Bowman might not be a rising star like the next name on this list, but he’s a steady driver capable of making the leap for Hendrick and keeping the team competitive.William ByronRick Hendrick has gambled on young drivers in the past, and he’s rarely been wrong. Whether it was a 22-year-old Jeff Gordon in 1993, a 20-year-old Chase Elliott last season or even a 20-year-old Kyle Busch in 2005, Hendrick has a history of bringing up young drivers with a championship pedigree.With Earnhardt on the way out, the door may be open for yet another young gun to make the jump into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. That driver is William Byron, who is already driving with JR Motorsports this season at the Xfinity Series level as a development driver for Hendrick.When asked about his own future last year, even Bowman was aware Byron was likely the next in line for Hendrick.”Obviously, Hendrick Motorsports signed William Byron and William is a great young race car driver and he is going to get in the Xfinity car next year,” Bowman said. “I think he is really their guy to be in line for that. He is their development guy. I don’t know. I would like to think that hopefully I’m that guy, but we will just kind of have to wait and see.”Not only does Byron have the talent he just won five Trucks Series races last year at 18 he’s also already entrenched with several large sponsors like Axalta and could attract more in the No. 88 car. Just two years after Elliott was thrust into the spotlight after the retirement of Gordon, could Byron be the next to replace a legend? Thanks to his talent and being at the right place at the right time after joining Hendrick last fall, Byron looks like Hendrick’s next young star.Justin AllgaierOK, this one might be the sexiest option, but it makes sense on several different levels. Justin Allgaier has two years of Cup experience, several large sponsors and has proven his talent at the Xfinity Series level for the past two years.He also happens to be one of JR Motorsports drivers along with Byron, putting him in line for a potential move up by Hendrick. While he may be 30 years old, the oldest of the potential targets, he’s also the most accomplished with a top-30 points finish at NASCAR’s top level and four wins in the Xfinity Series.Much like Bowman, Allgaier was unable to prove his mettle at the Cup level with an underfunded team in HScott Motorsports in 2014 and 2015. But thanks to his success at the lower level he’s never finished worse than sixth in the standings in Xfinity Allgaier could do some serious damage with the No. 88 team.
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