Here he comes, just like in the old days, popping up with his scraggly beard and sharp blue eyes as a gaggle of fans erupt into applause.
Long live the Dale Earnhardt Jr. experience.
Only, on this day, the fans aren’t here for Junior. They’re here for his old ride, sure, for the unveiling of a new 2019 paint scheme for the No. 88 car Earnhardt made famous ... but they’re not here for him.
They’re here for his replacement.
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This is a day for Alex Bowman. That No. 88 still invokes the legacy Earnhardt built during his storied career, but now those are only memories.
The car belong to Bowman now. The number, too.
At this point, the challenge is proving to his fans, Earnhardt’s fans, the NASCAR world at large, and himself, of course, that the 88 really is his now. It’s about proving that Alex Bowman stands on his own. That he doesn’t need that moniker — Dale Jr.’s replacement — hovering over him any longer.
“I think that incorporating me into these type of situations is a good thing, but there’s got to be some touch on it,” Earnhardt said Thursday, “because this is a day for Alex. This is a day about Alex’s car, Alex’s unveil.
“And so you’ve got to navigate that just right without overshadowing anything else here today that’s more important.”
On a brisk Thursday evening in Mooresville, and just as the sun goes down, Bowman and Earnhardt simultaneously go live on television to unveil Bowman’s paint scheme for next season.
Nationwide — Earnhardt’s longtime sponsor, now Bowman’s — is here for the spectacle, and having Dale Jr. join in the event further helps bridge the gap between the two drivers. After a quick interview, the 88’s two most recent drivers pull the cloth off the vehicle together and show the world the new car that Bowman, not Earnhardt, helped design.
The car is a clean white body with black and blue trim, the same basic color scheme but decidedly different design from the ones Earnhardt drove en route to nine victories over 10 years. Really, it’s a perfect symbol for Bowman, some way for him to distinguish his car and himself from the man who preceded him.
Asked after the reveal if he still feels the 88 somewhat belongs to Earnhardt, even Bowman could sense the irony in the moment.
“He was still standing by it (today),” Bowman joked. “I don’t know, I feel like everybody’s been really supportive. ... Definitely there are a lot of Dale Jr. fans out there.
“It’s cool to take over the No. 88 car, but it’s also really cool to have Dale’s support and all his help.”
Now three weeks removed from the conclusion of the 2018 Cup Series season — Bowman’s first as a full-time driver for Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt’s first as a broadcaster for NBC — is a prime opportunity to evaluate the year. After retiring from the sport at the end of the 2017 season, Earnhardt moved to the broadcast booth, making room for Bowman to fill his spot at HMS.
Expectations, naturally, were high. But Bowman, along with the rest of HMS and every other Cup team that drove the new Chevy Camaro, struggled. Although he made the playoffs and finished the year 16th overall, Bowman didn’t win a race, collected his lone pole at the season-opening Daytona 500, and only finished in the top five three times out of 36 races.
Not exactly what he had in mind for his first season.
“I’m still on the same page of we didn’t win, and that’s pretty frustrating to me,” Bowman said. “I really just wanted more, but it was a rough year for all of us at HMS.”
That said, Bowman’s first season was actually statistically better than Earnhardt’s final one. Earnhardt finished 21st overall, also won no races, and only finished in the top five once.
Hendrick Motorsports did improve over the course of the year, though, with Bowman’s teammate Chase Elliott winning the first three Cup races of his career and almost advancing to the championship race. Earnhardt said that while he expects all the Chevy teams to improve in 2019, he expects Elliott specifically to challenge for the title — and if he does, then for Bowman to pick up as much as he can from Elliott’s No. 9 team.
“Anytime we had a teammate or even someone outside the organization we had an agreement with, we always leaned on the fastest car, and when we couldn’t figure it out ourselves, that certainly seemed to be the best way to go,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve been in the situation when it’s frustrating if you’ve got three teammates all kicking your butt, and then I’ve been on the other side of it when we were the better car over a period of time.
“I think Alex proved this season that if they can get the cars where they need to be, that they’ve got the right guy in the seat.”
As the evening winds down, Bowman’s fans slowly dissipate, eventually leaving just Earnhardt and Bowman together to chat. The two have remained in close contact throughout the past year, and that undoubtedly won’t change in the future.
What will change, though? The gradual process of turning the 88 into Bowman’s number, not just as a “fill-in” for Earnhardt.
And really, there’s only way for the 25-year-old to do that.
“I feel like it was kind of hit and miss,” Bowman said of transitioning to Earnhardt’s old ride. “Some people really embraced it, and some people were like, ‘Well he’s not Dale’ — and I’m not Dale. I’m my own person and that’s all I can be. I’m just a racer at heart and I want to go win races, whatever that’s in.
“I think that’s the biggest way to get fans attracted, is to go park it in Victory Lane.”