What happened: After nearly three months of speculation, we now know who Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement will be in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 car next year: Alex Bowman. Earnhardt sponsors Nationwide (19 races) and Axalta (increasing from 13 to 15 races) will back the team for most of the season.
What it means: Bowman, who had received endorsements from both Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson, has now made one of the most unlikely career comebacks in memory. Despite being just 24 years old, Bowman’s chances of making a career in NASCAR appeared to be slim after he was fired by Tommy Baldwin Racing just a month before last season’s Daytona 500. But he ran well with limited opportunities for JR Motorsports and then as Earnhardt’s substitute in the 88, nearly winning last fall’s Phoenix race. He remained a valuable member of Hendrick’s organization this season by continuing to drive the Chevy simulator and help with setups, which strengthened his bond with the team. It also means the most prized seat of Silly Season has been taken.
News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Although Bowman made the most sense for this position, whoever replaced Earnhardt was going to be pretty big news no matter what. It’s also somewhat surprising and significant Hendrick was able to convince its sponsors to back an unproven driver — three top-10 finishes in 81 Cup starts — after being associated with NASCAR’s biggest stars (Axalta was with Jeff Gordon before Earnhardt).
Three questions: Now that Axalta is sticking with the 88, does that mean there’s less of a reason to rush Axalta-sponsored Xfinity Series rookie William Byron into Cup next season? How long will Bowman get to prove himself if he doesn’t produce results? Can Bowman convince some of Earnhardt’s fans to stay with the 88 and make himself a star driver in the process?