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?

This is how dumb the NFL is

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is probably relieved today, since — let’s face it — he wanted no part of running a Philadelphia Eagles car next week at Pocono Raceway.

The diehard Washington Redskins fan already tried to plead his case several months ago to boss Rick Hendrick, who basically told him to get over it. After all, major Hendrick Motorsports sponsor Axalta had an important teachers initiative to promote — and this is how it chose to do so.

But now, thanks to a stupid NFL provision, the paint scheme won’t run at all. It’s the kind of policy corporate lawyers come up with just because they’re bored and want to justify their high salaries.

The NFL’s official reasoning, per the Eagles: There rules “states that club marks cannot be used in connection with the promotion or presentation of another sport.”

That seems like a stretch on the NFL’s part. It’s not like the Pocono race is called the “Philadelphia Eagles 400” or something. The logo was going to be on one race car for one race on a broadcast televised by NFL partner FOX Sports — during a time of year when the NFL isn’t even on TV!

The horror!

It’s hilariously sad that some dork in the NFL corporate office actually got upset enough about this to nix the entire thing.

The Eagles are going to be on the most popular NASCAR driver’s car in order to promote teachers who concentrate on STEM education? Send them a cease and desist immediately!

“Without doubt, we are deeply disappointed that the Axalta All-Pro Teachers car will not run,” a statement from Axalta said. “As a primary sponsor of Dale Earnhardt Jr., we were thrilled about plans for him to drive a car that gave the Axalta All-Pro Teachers program and STEM education more visibility by promoting the program on the track.”

The Eagles also said they were bummed.

“Having been reminded of the NFL’s policy, we understand and respect their point of view,” the team said. “While we are disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to increase the visibility of the Axalta All-Pro Teachers program through the Pocono 400 this year, we remain committed to supporting STEM curriculum and the educators who inspire our youth through our relationship with Axalta.”

So lame. The NFL is on top right now, so apparently officials feel they don’t need any additional publicity. But that won’t last forever, and disrespecting $4 billion companies like Axalta might make the journey much more painful on the way down.

UPDATE: Here’s what Earnhardt had to say about the NFL’s decision.

“I was disappointed because the opportunity to honor the teachers was going to be pretty cool learning about that connection that the Eagles have with that was going to be col.  We are still going to have some teachers at the race and some of the Eagles guys are going to come out.  Everything is kind of as is, except for the car.

“I do like the Axalta car we are going to run.  It’s going to look good out there and it’s really just unfortunate for Axalta and a good cross over promotion.  That would be pretty cool even though obviously, we joked around being Redskins fan and all that.  But it was going to be a pretty fun promotion and we are still going to try to maximize what opportunity we can with it.”