SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Last year, Rick Hendrick didn’t know a lot about Alex Bowman.
But when it came time for the Hendrick Motorsports owner to make a decision on who to put behind the wheel of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS with Dale Earnhardt Jr. recovering from a concussion, Bowman’s name kept coming up.
In fact, Hendrick noted that it was Earnhardt’s recommendation that got Bowman his first shot as a substitute driver at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last July.
“Then when he got in the car, the way he performed and the feedback that he had with all the teammates and the crew chiefs, they were just super excited about how he performed,” Hendrick said. “The thing that really impressed me was he was so committed to our organization.”
After 10 races as a fill-in driver with the No. 88 team last year, Bowman signed a contract to stay with Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 as a simulator driver. It was a leap of faith for Bowman, but Hendrick, Earnhardt and the rest of the organization knew that if an opportunity knocked, Bowman would be high on their list.
And when Earnhardt announced that he would step away from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing following the 2017 campaign, Bowman’s name came up once again.
“We had Alex in the back of our mind for whatever opportunity that we had,” Hendrick said. “It wasn’t much of a decision at all. Alex was the guy.”
This week, Bowman was officially named the driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet starting in 2018. For the young driver, it was “a complete dream come true.”
Earnhardt couldn’t be happier to see that dream come to fruition for a driver he believed had what it takes very early on.
“I think the first time I saw Alex's potential was at Phoenix in one of our JR Motorsports cars,” he recalled. “He stood out to me among everybody else on the racetrack as far as how smooth and how perfect his line was lap after lap.”
“This is something that's kind of been building for Alex for many years,” he continued. “We've tried and tried and tried to get more opportunities for him, because every time we could get him in the car, he produced.”
What stood out most to Earnhardt, in addition to Bowman’s skill on the racetrack, was his willingness to put in the work every day, pushing toward his big break.
And it means a lot to Earnhardt to be a part of providing that break.
“He gets this opportunity because of his commitment to his own career and his gamble on himself he made a long, long time ago,” Earnhardt said. “He's really had to make some sacrifices and a great example of that would be this year sort of sitting on the sidelines, so to speak, all the while he's been in the simulator pretty much every day.”
"It wasn't much of a decision at all. Alex was the guy."Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick
Making the decision to forgo a potential full-time ride elsewhere in order to stay with Hendrick Motorsports was “nerve-wracking,” Bowman acknowledged. But he felt he was in the right place with the right people.
“I knew that given the right chances I could go win races,” Bowman said.
Now, he has that chance. And Earnhardt has no doubt that the wins will come.
“I feel confident that he’s going to have great success in the car,” he said when asked how his fans will feel about Bowman taking over the No. 88 Chevy. “Once they get to know him or he starts to win races, everything else takes care of itself.”
The No. 88 team's partners are equally as excited to have Bowman behind the wheel next year, including Nationwide, which signed a one-year extension as a 19-race majority sponsor of the No. 88 Chevrolet next season.
"He's a young, talented driver that we have history with back in the Nationwide Series days, and obviously what he did last year in the car was amazing under very tough circumstances," said Jim McCoy, director of sports marketing at Nationwide. "He's really earned everything he's gotten and we're excited to get to work next year to really kick off the relationship in a big way in Daytona."
Most of all, the entire organization can’t wait to see what Bowman can do with the opportunity starting next season. And that begins at the very top with Hendrick.
“It's fun for me to see someone that's worked so hard, and I think the word for Alex is he deserved it,” Hendrick said.
“I just think he’s going to be an awesome driver – fast, smart and committed. I’m super excited about Alex.”