Alex Bowman inherits Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports
Alex Bowman, casually dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt, apologizes for running a few minutes late to an appointment at the Hendrick Motorsports shop where Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolets are housed and worked on daily.
But all is quiet at the nearly deserted building on this November afternoon. Most Hendrick employees are nearly 800 miles away in Homestead, Fla., where Dale Earnhardt Jr. is embarking on his final race weekend as a driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Bowman, who has been tabbed as the retired Earnhardt’s replacement, certainly plans to be in Homestead himself this coming November. But on this day, he is running late because he had been up until 4 a.m. the previous night working on a sprint car in his own shop.
That is who Bowman is. The 24-year-old who is stepping into the No. 88 car for NASCAR’s most popular driver wants people to know that he’s a simple guy who enjoys working on race cars as much as driving them. He loves his dogs, a Labrador named Finn and a somewhat crazy Lab Beagle mix named Roscoe.
But more than anything, Bowman wants everyone to know that he’s his own man.
“It’s a common question: What’s it like to replace Dale Jr.?” Bowman says. “I think the simple answer is that I’m my own person, and I want to do my own thing. Obviously Dale’s done a ton for my career. He’s almost like an older brother to me and I know I can lean on him for a lot.
“But for me, I don’t even look at it as replacing him. I look at it as the best opportunity I’ve ever had, and a dream come true to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. And I get to lean on him and everybody else.”
To outsiders, Bowman may have seemed an odd choice to replace Earnhardt. But when Earnhardt missed the last half of the 2016 season because of a concussion, Bowman split time in the No. 88 seat with none other than Jeff Gordon and acquitted himself well.
In 10 races replacing Earnhardt, he registered three top-10 finishes with a best finish of sixth at Phoenix, where he turned heads by winning the pole.
“You don’t jump into Dale Jr.’s car and win the pole like he did at Phoenix unless you’ve got tremendous talent,” says FOX Sports NASCAR analyst Kenny Wallace, a former Cup driver. “To get in Dale Jr.’s car and sit on the pole tells me he’s got nerve.”
He’ll need nerve and more to succeed as Earnhardt’s replacement, knowing that all the racing world will be watching his every move. When he made his first start in what is now the XFINITY Series in 2012, Bowman had 1,200 followers on Twitter. Now he has more than 57,000 — which still pales in comparison to Junior’s 2.3 million, but is an impressive number that continues to grow.
“I’m probably a lot more boring than Dale Jr.,” says a chuckling Bowman of his social-media efforts. “I don’t have a jet or a house in Key West, or a bunch of land, or any of that stuff. But if you want to watch somebody build a midget (car) in their garage at 3 a.m. or work on their car in the middle of night, someone who is a car enthusiast or hobbyist or whatever, then I’m your guy.”
Bowman has two full-time seasons of Cup driving experience, having driven for two much smaller, less-funded teams in BK Racing in 2014 and Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2015. He did not have a full-time ride in any series in 2016 or ’17, but he remained on the Hendrick Motorsports radar and high on Earnhardt’s list of up-and-coming drivers.
Earnhardt put him in a JR Motorsports XFINITY car for nine races in 2016, and Bowman also drove two XFINITY races last season for car owner Chip Ganassi, winning for the first time at Charlotte.
So when it came time for car owner Rick Hendrick to tab Earnhardt’s replacement, Dale Jr. pushed for Bowman to be the choice. Once it was a done deal, the NASCAR veteran also offered up some pointed advice to the young driver, telling Bowman that he doesn’t have to operate like he has “a chip on his shoulder.”
“I told him, ‘Now that you have this opportunity, it’s time to drop that chip and let people get to know you, get to know the good guy Alex and the nice guy Alex,’“ Earnhardt says. “Not that he has shown anybody this rough, edgy chip on his shoulder, but it’s time for him to stop feeling like it’s him against the world, trying to get his foot in the door. Because his foot’s in the door.
“And he’s ready. Here’s his chance, so I’m like, ‘Man, put a smile on your face, go to the race track and have some fun. Enjoy what you’re doing. You’re here, you made it. Express that.’”
But Bowman insists that the real fun will come only if he enjoys on-track success. “I won’t be happy until we’re winning races,” Bowman says.
– By Joe Menzer