Alex Bowman’s last few seasons read a bit like a formula novel or a Hallmark movie: Driver struggles with underfunded team but catches the eye of the sport’s most popular driver. He loses his ride with the underfunded team and lands a couple of races with the popular driver’s minor-league team. When the popular driver gets hurt, the youngster leaps into action, filling in for a bunch of races and scoring a handful of solid finishes. He’s left without a ride once again when the sub stint is over, but then the popular driver decides to retire and convinces one of the top owners in the sport to hire the youngster, who finally gets on the right career path and starts contending for wins, finally getting one.
Bowman was in the right place at the right time to take over for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2018, and he had a decent year, making the playoffs. Early in 2019, Bowman inched closer to winning each week, until he pulled it off at Chicago in June. All in all, last year Bowman posted career-best numbers across the board: top 5s (seven), top 10s (12), laps led (tie, 200) and average finish (14.4). He failed to finish only twice. While the second half of Bowman’s 2019 season wasn’t quite as strong as the first part, he was strong enough in the playoffs to advance to the Round of 12 and might have gone deeper if not for getting swept up in a crash at Talladega.
Considering that Hendrick Motorsports as an organization has not been quite the powerhouse over the last three years that it was in the past, that’s a decent year for a driver who might as well have been a rookie in 2018 in some respects. While his prior stint with tiny Tommy Baldwin Racing had given Bowman experience on the Cup tracks in those cars, he did not have experience racing with the top drivers for position at the front of the field. That was a lesson Bowman still had to learn, and he has learned it well and proven to be a solid competitor who races others with respect.
He’s paired with crew chief Greg Ives, who’s relatively new to the Cup scene as well, having taken the head wrench position with Earnhardt in 2015. Ives works well with Bowman, the Hendrick engineering department and the other crew chiefs, and he has made good decisions on pit road. The pair has shown steady improvement together over the last two seasons, and they seem poised to have another strong year.
The downside for Bowman? Primary sponsor Nationwide decided to end its agreement with the No. 88 after last season, leaving the team looking for backing for much of 2020. Axalta and Valvoline remain on board, and Cincinnati Inc. joins the team for two races. Owner Rick Hendrick won’t let the No. 88 team suffer, but the situation puts added pressure on Bowman to perform. If he can’t attract new backers, he could end up on the hot seat as his contract ends after this season. That’s a tough situation to be in for any driver, and how Bowman rises to the occasion remains a question mark.
If Hendrick Motorsports as a whole comes out swinging and can perform consistently across the board, things will be easier for Bowman. That hasn’t really been the case over the last two years, however. Teammate Chase Elliott has been strong, if a bit streaky, but as a whole, HMS has underperformed. An introduction of a new Chevrolet body style in 2020 creates more uncertainty as to how they’ll adapt.
Bowman has proved that he’s a solid enough driver to make the playoffs and run some very good races. If he can post a few more top 5s and 10s, then 2020 will represent continued improvement. It will be a pivotal season. A good year would add another chapter to his improbable story — but anything less could spell the final chapter instead.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 40/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)