News Analysis: Alex Bowman replaces Dale Earnhardt Jr. in No. 88 car

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?

The Top Five: Breakdown of The Clash at Daytona

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis of the race through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. First up: The Clash at Daytona.

1. The two best plate racers in the event crashed on the last lap

When the white flag flew, it looked like Denny Hamlin — who swept last year’s Clash and Daytona 500 — would edge Brad Keselowski for the win, barring something crazy happening.

Well, something crazy happened.

Keselowski got a huge run (which doesn’t happen that often with this restrictor plate aero package) and Hamlin went down to defend, but it was too late. Keselowski was already there, and the cars made contact.

Hamlin told MRN his attempted block was ill-timed, and Keselowski seemed relatively cool about the incident.

“Well, it is the Clash and not the 500,” he said on pit road.

But then Keselowski’s jaw clenched and the muscles in his face tightened.

“I guarantee he knows — and everyone else who was watching today — that I’m going to make that move again,” Keselowski said. “And you better move out or you’ll end up wrecked.”

A few moments later, he said it again: “I know all the other drivers are back watching it today, and they know not to make that block on me again.”

Your move, everyone else.

2. Something is up with Hendrick cars in Turn 4 at Daytona

OK, what’s going on here? Jimmie Johnson twice spun in Turn 4, which continued a pattern of Hendrick Motorsports cars having trouble in that turn over the past year (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott spun out of Turn 4 last year).

After coming out of the care center, Johnson said he didn’t know — and, perhaps more telling, that the team had been so unconcerned about it that no one had discussed it prior to the race.

They certainly will be talking about it now. Johnson said he noticed Elliott looked loose in that turn as well.

One theory?

“The sun certainly sits on that edge of the track a little harder than anywhere else,” Johnson said. “We’ll take some notes and learn from those mistakes and applied that to the 500.”

3. Alex Bowman is a beast

With each opportunity he gets — and there aren’t that many on his schedule for 2017 — Bowman shows he deserves a chance to run a full Cup season in a good car.

No one wanted to help him during the Clash, and the other drivers treated him like a leper at times. At one point, it looked like Joey Logano might go with him — and then Logano went with the Joe Gibbs Racing cars again and Bowman fell all the way to the back of the field.

Bowman won the pole and almost won the race at Phoenix last year, then basically willed himself to a podium finish in the Clash. This guy will drive a great car some day and, at 23, he has time on his side.

4. Joey Logano is an underrated plate racer

Let’s not get too carried away here, because Logano wasn’t going to win the race until the leaders hit each other on the last lap.

But Logano has won three plate races in the last two seasons (2015 Daytona 500 and the Talladega fall race twice in a row), and now adds the Clash to his collection. When is he going to start getting mentioned alongside Keselowski, Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the best of the best on plate tracks? (I’m asking myself that question, by the way.)

Combined with Keselowski the puppet master, you’d better believe the Team Penske cars will bring a large threat to the JGR contingent next week.

5. Danica Patrick gets a good result

I’ll have to go back and watch the replay to see how Patrick ended up with a fourth-place finish, but she’ll certainly take any positive momentum she can get these days.

Her performance on the track has been below average compared to her teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing for a couple years now, and she hasn’t seemed like the restrictor-plate threat she was when she first emerged in the series.

Plus, there’s been that whole Nature’s Bakery lawsuit and the scramble to find a replacement sponsor just a month before the season.

So while a fourth doesn’t count for the official records, it’s a boost of momentum.

Alex Bowman still waiting for his big break

The last time Alex Bowman was at Phoenix Raceway, it looked like he had a career breakthrough. The Tucson native led 194 laps after starting from the pole and nearly won a Cup race over Chase drivers battling for a final four spot.

So surely,  some team would come along in the offseason and snatch him up after seeing how well Bowman ran in the No. 88 car during Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s absence.

But there Bowman sat on Wednesday, wedged in the corner of a hauler in between making laps around Phoenix for Chevrolet’s data-gathering wheel force car.

Bowman’s plan for this season? Well…

“You’re looking at it,” he said with a chuckle.

Aside from running the upcoming Clash (formerly the Sprint Unlimited) in the No. 88 car, Bowman has no races on his calendar. That’s surprising for a driver who was perhaps the top available young talent in the offseason, but there’s at least a partial explanation.

Bowman said he was offered some full-time rides, but he turned them down. If it’s not a car capable of winning, he’s not interested.

“I’ve been in so many different situations the last couple years, and I’m not going to do it if I can’t win or have a shot,” he said. “I had so much more fun running for Hendrick Motorsports and being part of a winning organization. I thought long and hard about a few different opportunities, and it just made more sense for me to stay part of HMS.

“Whatever my role is here, I’m happy to be part of it. I still get to be part of, in my eyes, the best organization in NASCAR.”

After two seasons at BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing — during which Bowman had just four top-20 finishes — the 23-year-old was ready to walk away from racing.

He describes himself as “miserable” back then. Bowman felt pressure to improve his performance, “but the reality is you can only do so much.” He concluded that wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

So when the Hendrick opportunity came along, Bowman savored it. He had three top-10 finishes in 10 races and ran better than his results showed.

After that, he decided he couldn’t go back to just trying to make the best of a backmarker car.

“I can get in a 35th-place car and run 30th with it on a good day, but nobody notices that stuff,” he said. “I feel like I proved all I can (in the 88), and if the right opportunity comes, great. If it doesn’t, I’m happy where I’m at and it’s been fun to be part of this organization.”

Bowman will continue to drive the Chevy simulator for Hendrick and might do more tests in the wheel force car. He also expects to be at every race this season, which he said was “going to be weird.”


Still, it’s worth wondering what would have happened if Bowman had gone to victory lane in Phoenix. Bowman isn’t sure, but he knows the near-miss still bugs him.

“I’ve thought about it every day since then,” he said. “It’s bothered the hell out of me. I don’t know the opportunity to run like that in a Cup race ever again, so it definitely bothers me a lot. It’s something I’ll have to get over it at some point, I guess.”