My Brain on NASCAR: Junior keeps seat hot for Bowman

Here are nine words you’ve probably never heard anyone say: “I’ll be so glad when Dale Earnhardt Jr. retires.”
Since his official retirement announcement in April, Junior Nation has, for the most part, buried its head in the sand, pretending this isn’t happening, living in a fantasy world where only good things happen, and the white knight always wins.

When something disrupts that perfect rainbows-and-unicorns delusion, we behave in much the same way as the children who believe in fairy tales; if we ignore the bad, scary thing, it will go away.

So much for that theory, which came crashing down on July 20 when Hendrick Motorsports officially announced that Alex Bowman will step into the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet in 2018 after Dale Earnhardt Jr. retires from full-time driving in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series … and any sentient life that exists somewhere out there must surely have heard Earth’s people moaning, millions of miles away.

Taking over the wheel of the most popular ride in NASCAR no small thing.

Bowman, who is only 24 years old, drove ten races with the No. 88 team last year while Earnhardt was sidelined by a concussion that caused him to miss the final half of the season. While he did OK, I believe I can speak for most people when I say that in the eyes of fans, he was merely a placeholder, filling in until their beloved Junior could strap himself into that car and get back to the business of winning races.

Now that things are official, the initial denial period is winding down and most of the crying is over, it’s time to get down to the business of getting to know the guy who may very well evolve into a stock car racing superstar.

Who is Alex Bowman, and where did he come from?

Bowman has followed what we have come to consider a typical NASCAR storyline. His racing career began at age 7, in United States Auto Club (USAC) quarter midget cars. By the time he celebrated his 13th birthday, he had racked up 165 wins and nine championships.

He moved steadily through the ranks, competing in the K&N Pro Series in 2010 and the Arca Series in 2011, then ran some Xfinity Series races in 2013 and 2014 for various teams, experiencing the journeyman lifestyle of drivers literally fighting their way to the top. In a couple of those Xfinity races, he drove the No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevy, where he got to know team owner, whom we all know as Junior.

In 2015, Alex moved up to the Cup Series with Tommy Baldwin Racing, but had some back luck there and parted ways with the team at the end of the season. By this point, the poor guy was probably starting to feel like a ping pong ball (which is not all that uncommon in NASCAR, by the way. I get tired just writing about it.)

The turning point came in 2016. Bowman returned to the Cup Series at Loudon in the New Hampshire 301, driving the No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports as an interim driver for Dale Jr., who would miss the remainder of the 2016 season because of concussion issues. He alternated the car with Jeff Gordon – talk about some pressure – for the balance of 2016, where he finally got the chance to show what he was capable of, winning his first career pole at Phoenix, leading the most laps (197), and finishing sixth.

In 2017, Rick Hendrick announced that Bowman would run the No. 88 in Earnhardt’s place for the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona; he finished third. And when Earnhardt announced his retirement in the spring, he expressed his support for his young protégé and friend, the new driver of the No. 88.

“Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I’ve wanted to do,” Bowman said. “I’ve had so many people believe in me along the way. My family has sacrificed a lot and always been behind me. I would never have this chance without the support of Dale and everyone involved with the No. 88 team. To be part of Hendrick Motorsports and for Mr. Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it’s just amazing.

“The No. 88 team is such a great group of people. I know we can pick up where we left off last year, and I truly believe we can win races and contend for a championship. I’m excited to build on the relationship with Nationwide and all of our partners. It means the world that they have faith in me, and I’m thankful to have them on my side. Now I just want to go win.”

Ah, the enthusiasm of youth. In this case, however, it might actually be warranted. We’ve seen Mr. Hendrick take chances on a couple more relatively unknown drivers, remember – do the names Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson ring a bell? – and things didn’t turn out too badly for them.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

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