Driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports
If someone wrote a novel about a driver who had modest success in NASCAR’s lower series, landed a Cup ride with an underfunded team only to learn on Twitter he was fired two years later but then got the call to sub in for NASCAR’s most popular driver while he was injured, only to go a year without a ride — and then be given the keys to the same most popular driver’s ride when he retired, people would probably think it was so far-fetched that they wouldn’t read it. It might make a good Hallmark movie.
Truth is stranger than fiction, though, and that story belongs to Alex Bowman. Let go via Twitter by Tommy Baldwin Racing following the 2015 season after failing to crack the top 10 in two full seasons, Bowman took on a role with Hendrick Motorsports as a test driver in 2016, shaking down cars for the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. far from the cheering crowds on race weekends. He ran a few races for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, but future prospects for a Cup Series career were fading fast.
That all changed when Earnhardt Jr. missed much of the 2016 season after a series of concussions, and Bowman filled in for 10 races. In that time, he scored his first career top 10 in a Cup car and got steadily better throughout his stint, with a pole at Phoenix and a sixth-place finish that same weekend. However, no full-time ride came calling, and Bowman sat out the start of the 2017 campaign. Early that year, though, Earnhardt announced his retirement, and Bowman got a second chance.
That’s a great story, and Bowman has made the most of it. While not a true rookie last year, he still had to learn how to race with top drivers for good positions, something he’d never had the opportunity to do prior to last season. He did well, scoring his first career top 5s and making the playoffs.
What he had behind him was Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that dominated the Cup scene for more than two decades but has fallen a step or two behind in the last few seasons. Hendrick a tick off the pace is still better than a lot of teams, though. The in-house engine shop builds power as good as anyone’s, and that power is also durable. Crew chief Greg Ives, who guided the No. 88 to three wins in 2015, remains on top of the box for Bowman.
Bowman also received a big vote of confidence from the team’s sponsors as well. It’s not a given that backers will stick around for a driver change, especially when the departing driver is the most popular in NASCAR. Major sponsors Nationwide and Axalta not only stayed, but Nationwide also extended its stay through 2020, the length of Bowman’s current contract.
What does Bowman need to do to improve over 2018? Mainly, he needs to develop real consistency. Last season saw some good finishes, with 11 top 10s and a slew of top 15s, but his average finish of 17.0 needs improvement. Bowman did have just three DNFs last year, which isn’t a bad number at all, and he led some laps, but he needs to up his game a little, raising his average by at least a couple of spots and avoiding finishes in the back half of the field (he had 11 of those last year). Once that happens, Bowman can set his sights on winning races, but the basics need to come first.
He’s getting there, and all things considered, he’s doing it well. This year will be his first real test. Bowman’s career has been out of a storybook so far, but he needs to find the consistency he lacks to give it a proper ending.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 50/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)