The day was always going to come.
Rick Hendrick knew that much. What he didn’t know was how he’d react.
“When Dale Earnhardt calls me and says he’s going to retire,” Hendrick said Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, “you know it’s going to come one day, but it’s a shock when it happens.”
And it was for more than just Hendrick, the team owner. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his impending retirement midway through last season, it was a wake-up call for NASCAR. A sport with a gradual drain of star power in recent years would now take its toughest body shot yet, losing the 15-time Most Popular Driver.
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And yet, to Hendrick and his team, there was already a contingency plan in place: Alex Bowman.
Bowman, 24, had filled in for Earnhardt (along with Jeff Gordon) in 2016 when Earnhardt missed half the season with a concussion. In those 10 races, Bowman won a pole at Phoenix and had three top-10 finishes – all with Earnhardt’s blessing.
“Dale Earnhardt Jr. said when he got hurt, ‘I want Alex in the car, he’s got a ton of talent,’” Hendrick said.
But when Earnhardt returned to driving full-time to start last season, there wasn’t a car for Bowman to drive. Other teams called and offered him deals, would have given him chances to drive and compete right away.
Bowman chose to wait for Earnhardt’s No. 88.
So all of last season, while Earnhardt took his literal and metaphorical victory lap, Bowman watched. He ran laps in a driving simulator, studied in team meetings with the man he’d eventually replace, and watched everyone else drive.
“I want to give Alex so much credit because he sat out a year when he had lots of opportunities, and he did that to wait for the opportunity with us,” Hendrick said. “He paid his dues, and he deserves to be here.”
And while the year was tough on Bowman, whose first two seasons in NASCAR’s Cup Series in 2014 and 2015 were mostly middling, it was also worth it for the payout.
“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,” Bowman said, “I would have called you nuts.”
This weekend at Daytona International Speedway was Bowman’s first time driving his car, not just as a fill-in. And the early results? Well, he was the fastest car in practice and won the pole for the 60th Daytona 500.
Following a famous predecessor is never easy, in any field. No matter how Bowman performs, he’ll always be tied to Earnhardt in some capacity.
In recent weeks, Bowman said it’s finally starting to hit him that the No. 88 car is his, and that he’s not just a backup plan anymore. Earnhardt has told him as much.
“I think his biggest message is just to have fun with everything,” Bowman said of what Earnhardt has told him. “I probably stressed myself out too much with things (in other years), not enjoyed being a race car driver like I should have.
“He has seen that and wants me to have as much fun as I can with this opportunity.”
Whether that’s winning the pole for the Daytona 500, or joking with new teammates William Byron and Jimmie Johnson, or even challenging Hendrick to a drag race in their Corvettes (and the loser loses their car), Bowman has taken that message to heart. Come next Sunday, he’ll get a chance to show all that energy on the track.
And begin making his own name in NASCAR.