Bowman making most of his chance with Hendrick Motorsports

Less than a year after losing his full-time ride, Alex Bowman is making noise in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Aaron Doster—USA TODAY Sports
Aug 28

One month prior to the start of the 2016 NASCAR season, Alex Bowman was preparing to make his second Daytona 500 with Tommy Baldwin Racing. The then 22-year-old driver, who was signed through the 2016 season, thought he was in a comfortable spot with a Sprint Cup team.On that very same day, though, Bowman learned he would be out of a ride. Regan Smith would take over for the No. 7 team and Bowman was once again a free agent. Unfortunately, every seat had been filled by that point, so he had zero opportunities to prove his worth to NASCAR teams.The next time Bowman got a chance to drive in NASCAR was in the Xfinity Series with JR Motorsports at Dover in May in the No. 88 car. Little did Bowman know, just over two months later he’d be in the actual No. 88 car filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr.When it was revealed Earnhardt would have to miss a few races due to a concussion suffered at Michigan, he mentioned Bowman’s name to team owner Rick Hendrick. With little time to find a replacement, the part-time Xfinity driver was strapped into the most popular car in Sprint Cup.Putting him behind the wheel this season was just the latest kind gesture Earnhardt has done for Bowman.”Dale Earnhardt, Jr. saved my career two years ago when he gave me that chance in the Xfinity car,” Bowman said. “It just means a lot to have him help me as much as he has and be the friend that he’s been. He has been a big part of my life and I will definitely cherish that friendship forever.”Without him I wouldn’t have got the ride I did last year and going forward obviously I hate the circumstances, but without him saying ‘hey put Alex in it’ I don’t think that Hendrick Motorsports really would have thought of me.”Bowman and Jeff Gordon have traded off the starts up until this point, but it’s Bowman’s show moving forward. With top 10s at Chicago and Kansas — and nearly Talladega before a poor final restart — Gordon and Bowman have posted nearly identical results in the 88 machine.Earnhardt hasn’t been to the track for every race, but has played a part in the decision making — including putting Bowman in the car for the final three races. Giving Bowman a chance was clearly about more than just finding a competent driver to finish out the season in his place.”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.”There is a clear distinction between being in a car with Hendrick Motorsports equipment and a single-car team like TBR. Expectations go from being a mid-pack driver to competing for a win every weekend.In the last two seasons, Junior has posted seven total wins with another 18 top-five finishes. Getting a taste of that success has been completely new for Bowman and one he said he’d love to be a part of for years to come.But with another strong driver in the pipeline like 18-year-old William Byron — who will begin a multi-year deal with JR Motorsports on a full-time basis next season — Bowman is simply embracing the chance he’s been given with 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.”If the past says anything about substitute drivers who succeed at the Sprint Cup level, Bowman should have a chance in the near future. For example, the man who took over his spot at TBR was a substitute for drivers like Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson last season when called upon. Smith was also an Xfinity driver for JRM in 2015, so there is plenty of symmetry between the two drivers.Earnhardt has said multiple times he plans on getting back into the car next year. Most seats have already been filled for next season, including smaller programs. But with three races to go in 2016, Bowman has a chance to make more waves in the No. 88 and hopefully earn a place in the Sprint Cup garage in the years to come.”I don’t know what my future holds,” Bowman said. “There are not really any rides open next year, so this may be these however many races left we have maybe the rest of my Cup career. You never really know what the future holds.”Not having anything set in stone, the one thing that I said I was going to do throughout all these races was to make the most of it and to have the most fun I possibly could. I’m not going to let the pressure kill me.”