. Took Earnhardt’s place in the 88 car.
By HOLLY CAIN
NASCAR Wire Service
Rick Hendrick conceded with a smile that when he first began interacting with driver Alex Bowman two years ago he sometimes mistakenly referred to the young racer as Alex Baldwin.
Getting Bowman’s name right certainly isn’t an issue now as it goes down in the history books as pole winner for this weekend’s 60th annual Daytona 500.
While the two joked about it Sunday afternoon shortly after Bowman’s headline-earning run in the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet, the 24-year old driver acknowledged it has been a long and hard-knocks road to finding a job with the Hall of Fame owner Hendrick … and to a bona fide shot to win on NASCAR’s biggest stages.
“If you talked to me in 2015 and told me that in 2018 I was going to be driving the 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports, I would have called you nuts,’’ said Bowman, who replaced the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Hendrick’s car.
“You know, everything happens for a reason. My career had a lot of ups and downs, and I’ve been able to lean on my past experiences a lot to make me better and to better prepare myself for this job.
“Honestly, I think I’m better because of the things that I had to go through. I got to make a lot of mistakes without anybody watching. Just never give up.”
It is just one of the lessons in watching Bowman begin his ascension in NASCAR’s highest ranks. He comes to the opportunity humbly, for sure.
After one full season (2013) competing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Bowman made his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut as a 21-year-old driving for BK Racing in 2014 and then Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2015. A 13th-place finish in the 2014 Daytona summer race was his best result in those seasons and the only top 20 finish. He led just three total laps in those first 71 Cup starts (one at Fontana, Calif., in 2015 and two at Kentucky later that season).
When Rick Hendrick hired Bowman to fill in for the injured Earnhardt in 2016, it was a chance of a lifetime. He drove 10 races while Earnhardt recovered from a concussion, earning three top 10 finishes — highlighted by a pole position and a career best sixth-place finish at his hometown Phoenix track.
He didn’t make a single Cup start last season, instead spending time in the Hendrick team’s simulator offering feedback to help the team and being “ready” for any call of duty. Earnhardt announced in April he would be stepping away from full-time Cup competition. And then in July, the team formally announced that Bowman would steer the No. 88.
In the excitement of that announcement, Bowman appropriately enough scored his first-ever NASCAR national series victory in an Xfinity Series race three months later at Charlotte — one of two Xfinity starts he made on the year.