ThatsRacin

Column: An early favorite emerges to take Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s seat in No. 88 car

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will leave the building before 2018, this much is true.

Who will replace him at Hendrick Motorsports? This much is speculation.

Earnhardt’s departure will leave a void that ultimately must be filled, even if for all practical matters Earnhardt is irreplaceable as an iconic star of the sport. He moves the needle big-time.

There’s popularity – named the sport’s most popular driver 14 consecutive seasons – and branding. Earnhardt’s sponsors have included Budweiser, Nationwide, Wrangler, Mountain Dew, Chevrolet, Drakkar Noir cologne, Kraft and NAPA.

But we all must move on, and he will leave the seat warm anyway. So who’s next? Alex Bowman? Charlotte’s William Byron? A wild-card entry in Carl Edwards?

Early handicapping points to Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt Jr. in 10 of 18 races that Earnhardt missed last season with concussion-related symptoms. Bowman wasn’t spectacular, but he was steady. Bowman, 24, posted an average finish of 19.7 in those races.

“I see Rick Hendrick going young,” said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s former crew chief and now an analyst with NBC Sports. “I do not think William Byron is the answer in 2018. I think Hendrick understands that drivers need to mature.

“We have already seen the struggle of Daniel Suarez this season, who is the Xfinity champion, perhaps getting moved up a little too quickly. I think that can be a detriment to a driver’s career. I have Alex Bowman circled on a piece of paper. I think Bowman is the perfect guy. I don’t mean a five-year contract, maybe a one- or two-year deal.”

Bowman, who joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2016, has competed in 81 Cup races.

Of course the most appealing and intriguing pick is Edwards, the former Joe Gibbs Racing driver who surprisingly stepped away – but didn’t officially retire – just before the start of the 2017 season.

“Congrats to @DaleJr on one helluva run,” Clint Bowyer tweeted last week. “I didn’t think they would announce Carl’s return till end of year though? Hmm!”

It’s best to leave it at that – Internet speculation and hijinks. Edwards reportedly has no interest in the job, nor has Hendrick Motorsports reached out to him.

It goes back to Bowman, who is under contract with Hendrick but does not have a ride in the Cup Series this season.

Although the final word will belong to owner Hendrick, Earnhardt says he would embrace becoming part of the process.

“They probably have everybody in the world telling them what they ought to do and they don’t need me, but if they ask for it I’m certainly wanting to be involved in that,” Earnhardt said at Richmond this past weekend.

“I want the team to have more success. I said this every offseason. Every offseason is a chance to be better than you were the year before. It’s an opportunity to make those personnel changes and those hard decisions. It’s a chance to do it – the things you can’t do in the middle of the river, in the middle of the season.”

We'll see which way the river flows for the No. 88 in 2018.

Penske’s Wolfe out this week

Paul Wolfe, crew chief of the No. 2 Ford driven by Brad Keselowski, will sit out this weekend’s race in Talladega. The Team Penske group will keep things on hold as they await a final-appeal hearing scheduled for next Tuesday relating to post-race penalties following this year’s Camping World 500 at Phoenix Raceway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Team engineer Brian Wilson will handle Wolfe’s duties in his absence.

This will mark the second race that Wolfe has missed since his three-race suspension that also includes a $65,000 fine. Keselowski and his team were docked 35 driver and owner points, respectively.

If Tuesday’s ruling goes against Team Penske, Wolfe will have to sit out another race.

Worth noting: Keselowski is the defending champion for Talladega’s spring race.

Junior needs Talladega boost

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been solid at Talladega. That’s a good thing because the No. 88 team definitely needs a pick-me-up, looking up from 24th in the standings.

Earnhardt had a solid run in Richmond until teammate Jimmie Johnson got in his crosshairs inadvertently. Earnhardt finished 30th.

“We were probably going to finish anywhere around 10th to 15th today, not all that awesome. But … we just had such terrible luck,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt is a six-time winner at Talladega, a run that includes a record four consecutive wins from 2001 into 2003.

George Diaz is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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