Taking over for NASCAR’s most popular driver for almost two decades isn’t necessarily an enviable position. How long will it be before fans stop calling Alex Bowman’s No. 88 ride “Dale Jr.’s car?” But Bowman earned his chance, and he’ll have it this season.
Bowman is hard to judge as a driver. He’s had limited success in NASCAR’s three national series, but he’s also had limited opportunities. His one full season in the XFINITY Series and two at the Cup level were with woefully underfunded, overmatched teams, so his lack of production isn’t exactly surprising.
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Bowman’s opportunity came when Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion in 2016 and missed half of the season. Bowman, by then a test driver for the Hendrick Motorsports camp, filled in for Earnhardt in 10 races, with impressive results — a pole and three top-10 finishes despite not having raced a Cup car in months. Bowman, who will be 24 when the season opens, drove a couple of XFINITY races for Chip Ganassi last year; he won one (at Charlotte) and finished in the top 10 at the other (Phoenix).
Based on his previous runs in the No. 88 — in a car that was configured for Earnhardt — Bowman should perform very well when he’s the main focus. Crew chief Greg Ives, who is entering his fourth full Cup season, worked well with Bowman in his substitute stint, and he has an XFINITY Series title with Chase Elliott on his résumé. He’s a good choice for Bowman: young and innovative, but not inexperienced.
Hendrick Motorsports does have some rebuilding to do. The 2017 season was a subpar year for the organization as a whole following a Cup title in 2016, and the No. 88 in particular struggled to keep up. Some of that likely can be attributed to Earnhardt, who returned from his injury but didn’t really look like the same driver.
Chevrolet as a whole was behind the curve. This year, the company fights back with a switch to the Camaro, and it will put all the resources it can behind HMS to assure better results.
Bowman inherits sponsorship from Earnhardt in Nationwide Insurance and Axalta. That’s a fabulous way to start, but there’s also a good bit of pressure, because it will be hard for Bowman to bring those brands the same level of exposure that Earnhardt did. He’ll also gain some of Earnhardt’s fan base, but not the legions that his predecessor boasted. He’ll have to bring the sponsors value in other ways.
So, what’s a reasonable expectation of Bowman entering 2018? If the No. 88 team can show overall improvement over last year, it’ll count as a success. If Bowman can find the speed he did when he was filling in for Earnhardt, it’ll be a major one.
But expecting a playoff spot is a little unrealistic. This is a young driver in top equipment that’s his for the first time — a car that’s gone winless since 2015. He’s not a rookie but might as well be, and expectations should perhaps mirror those of a first-time Cup driver. A top-20 points finish with a handful of top 10s and a few top 5s would be solid, and that’s an attainable goal.