NASCAR: Hendrick makes right choice in picking Bowman

The makeover of NASCAR's premier Cup category is just about complete. The addition of Alex Bowman to the mix in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy starting at the Daytona 500 next year will give NASCAR a stellar lineup of drivers 25 and under. It remai...

Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, takes part in pre-race ceremonies for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The makeover of NASCAR's premier Cup category is just about complete.

The addition of Alex Bowman to the mix in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy starting at the Daytona 500 next year will give NASCAR a stellar lineup of drivers 25 and under.

It remains to be seen if these young studs can push aside the veterans, i.e. anybody 40 or older, next season. But there's not much doubt that Bowman can sustain the kind of verve introduced this year and last to the Cup by the likes of Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., of course, is voluntarily stepping aside due to concerns about concussion injuries and hence the opportunity for Bowman with Hendrick. Now 24, Bowman won't be eligible for rookie of the year, but that's symptomatic of his circumstance. He's advanced so rapidly there wasn't much time for some of the formalities.

Bowman was in the Cup at age 20, driving a full season for BK Racing. That was followed by a full season at Tommy Baldwin Racing, which began at the age of 21.


There was enough money from his father Sean Bowman, a Tucson, Ariz. car dealer, to get Bowman started. And, his father's business experience was important to guiding his decisions. But there wasn't enough money to fund his career, just enough to seed it.

Bowman's breakthrough came when he was signed at the age of 18 by Cunningham Motorsports, an ARCA team that runs a driver development program funded by manufacturers and NASCAR team owners like Jack Roush or Roger Penske. The object of both the factories and team owners who support these driver development programs is to identify younger talent before anybody else and sign them long term.

Driving for Cunningham Motorsports and Crew Chief Paul Andrews -- the crew chief for Alan Kulwicki during this 1992 championship season -- Bowman quickly made his mark. He won four races in 19 starts.

Before that, he auditioned for the Cunningham Motorsports job by winning his first two ARCA races driving for Bill Venturini, which gave him six ARCA victories in 21 starts by the age of 20.

Bowman, who lost out to Blaney in the Penske organization, moved on to what would be considered the NASCAR development teams of Robby Benton in the Xfinity Series, then BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing in Cup. These teams worked the angles of finding sponsorship and using talented young drivers willing to work for low pay to help keep the doors open.

Before the Charter system, these NASCAR development teams were looking for a driver who was a good qualifier, which also verified they could gain time on out laps after pit stops, and who did not tear up too much equipment while getting consistent results.

Bowman's big break came when Earnhardt, Jr. signed him to drive for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series last year. That's where he was employed when his boss got sidelined by concussion syndrome and Rick Hendrick followed Earnhardt, Jr.'s recommendation to put him in his Cup seat.

If a driver is going to make it in any professional series, he or she shows signs of winning right away in good equipment. Bowman led 200 laps all totaled and won the pole at Phoenix while subbing for Earnhardt, Jr. during the Chase, arguably the most challenging time to drive a Cup car. He might have won the race at his home track in Arizona had Matt Kenseth not cut him off in a late-race re-start.


Ironically, Kenseth was mentioned as a possible successor to Earnhardt, Jr. after it was learned his contract would not be renewed at Joe Gibbs Racing in favor of Jones moving into that ride. But Bowman had long since beat Kenseth this time.

Like the player a coach keeps on the varsity bench instead of letting him play for the JV squad, Bowman has spent this season integrating himself into the Cup team at Hendrick while standing by in case the injury problem cropped up again for Earnhardt, Jr. He also was a likely candidate to replace Kasey Kahne, whose future at Hendrick remains unresolved.

After he announced his retirement, when Earnhardt, Jr. was asked about his successor in May he more or less confirmed Bowman was going to be the man.

"Alex Bowman to the 88 next year -- is that what you guys want?" Earnhardt Jr. asked during a Periscope live stream. "That would be pretty awesome to see Alex in that car. That's the plan, I hope. ... Yeah, Alex in the 88. That sounds good to me. That kid earned it last year. He ran good."

What stands out in conversations with Bowman are his poise and intelligence. Just as he's a quick study on the track and is aggressive without crashing too often, Bowman exudes confidence when engaging the media and sponsors. The representatives of Nationwide and Axalta like him well enough that he's got full sponsorship for 34 of next year's 36 races.

Stamina is not to be taken for granted and Bowman has done yeoman's work for the Hendrick team in its simulation program. He's also been notably good in the restrictor plate races in Daytona, where he finished 13th for BK Racing in the summer of his rookie season.

And it was Bowman who helped introduce Jeff Gordon to lower downforce Cup cars when the four-time champ made cameo appearances last year as a sub for Earnhardt, Jr.

So, what's not to like about Bowman -- other than the usual complaint in this era that without the seed money from his family he may not have made it? There's really no downside other than the obvious comparison to the driver he succeeds when it comes to his standing with NASCAR fans.


But Bowman's standing is likely to go up in the full-time gig where he can show what he can do under the new stage system, where youth and aggression have been rewarded this year.

Now, if only Richard Petty Motorsports can find the sponsorship it needs to keep Darrell "Bubba" Wallace in a regular ride on board a second Ford after his substitution debut this year for the injured Aric Almirola.


By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange

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