CONCORD, N.C. – When Alex Bowman arrived at Richmond International Raceway in September 2014, little did he know that his entire career was about to change.
In qualifying that weekend, Bowman earned the 25th position. Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 24th.
That meant the pair would line up side-by-side for the green flag, and they were announced back-to-back during driver introductions.
“Riding around in the truck after driver intros, we just started a friendship there,” Bowman said. “Getting to drive for him (at JR Motorsports) for two races in 2014 and then nine races last year, I wouldn’t be here without his support.”
Without that fateful Richmond qualifying session, “I probably wouldn’t be sitting here,” the driver said after being named the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports beginning in 2018.
Earnhardt’s impact in his career didn’t end with his XFINITY Series opportunity, either.
When Earnhardt was set to miss the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July last season, Bowman was asked to take over as the substitute driver. That turned into 10 total races behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevy in 2016.
“I’m sure last year when he realized he needed somebody to fill in, there’s plenty of other people he could have picked and he was really supportive of it being me, so I’m very thankful for that and all of his advice,” Bowman said.
"Since the beginning, Dale has been behind Alex. And that's big."No. 88 team crew chief Greg Ives
Even as the 2017 season was nearing – before Earnhardt had announced that it would be his last full-time campaign behind the wheel – he was right there to give Bowman more career advice.
“He convinced me to take a leap of faith and not take another full-time Cup ride after last year, honestly,” Bowman said. “There, in my eyes, weren’t any openings here coming up and it was a tough decision to say no to full-time racing and to take a simulator job and just do testing this year. It was nerve-wracking, scary, to say the least.”
The decision paid off, with Bowman now secured behind the wheel of the car that Earnhardt will vacate beginning in 2018.
“So, I’m very appreciative that he did that,” Bowman said of Earnhardt’s advice. “I think he and I are both glad it all worked out and it’s just been really good to have him as a friend.”
Like his new teammate Chase Elliott when it came to climbing behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevy after Jeff Gordon, Bowman said he won’t be looking to fill the shoes of his predecessor.
“Driving the No. 88 car, it’s obviously been the most popular car for as long as he’s driven it. It means a lot to take that over,” he said. “Obviously I’m not Dale Jr. I’m not going to fill Dale Jr.’s shoes by any means. I just want to be my own person and do my own thing. I’m not going to even try to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s his own person and I’m my own person. But to drive a car that he drove and to take that over, hopefully maintain a lot of support from JR Nation – they’ve been great and super supportive every time I’ve driven the car – it’s going to be really neat.”
The relationship between Bowman and Earnhardt is already helping the No. 88 team prepare for the transition.
“Since the beginning, Dale has been behind Alex,” No. 88 team crew chief Greg Ives said. “And that’s big.”
And Bowman couldn’t be more grateful.
“It’s been really cool to have his support,” he said. “He’s been a great friend and another person that without his help I wouldn’t be here.”