Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Rick Hendrick conceded with a smile that when he first began interacting with driver Alex Bowman two years ago he sometimes mistakenly referred to the young racer as Alex Baldwin.
Getting Bowman’s name right certainly isn’t an issue now as it goes down in the history books as pole winner for next weekend’s 60th annual Daytona 500.
While the two joked about it Sunday afternoon shortly after Bowman’s headline-earning run in the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet, the 24-year old driver acknowledged it has been a long and hard-knocks road to finding a job with the Hall of Fame owner Hendrick…and to a bona fide shot to win on NASCAR’s biggest stages.
“If you talked to me in 2015 and told me that in 2018 I was going to be driving the 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports, I would have called you nuts,’’ said Bowman, who replaced the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Hendrick’s car.
“You know, everything happens for a reason. My career had a lot of ups and downs, and I’ve been able to lean on my past experiences a lot to make me better and to better prepare myself for this job.
“Honestly, I think I’m better because of the things that I had to go through. I got to make a lot of mistakes without anybody watching. Just never give up.”
It is just one of the lessons in watching Bowman begin his ascension in NASCAR’s highest ranks. He comes to the opportunity humbly, for sure.
After one full season (2013) competing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Bowman made his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut as a 21-year old driving for BK Racing in 2014 and then Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2015. A 13th place finish in the 2014 Daytona summer race was his best result in those seasons and the only top-20 finish. He led just three total laps in those first 71 Cup starts (one at Fontana, Calif. in 2015 and two at Kentucky later that season).
When Rick Hendrick hired Bowman to fill in for the injured Earnhardt in 2016, it was a chance of a lifetime. He drove 10 races while Earnhardt recovered from a concussion, earning three top-10 finishes – highlighted by a pole position and a career best sixth place finish at his hometown Phoenix track.
He didn’t make a single Cup start last season, instead spending time in the Hendrick team’s simulator offering feedback to help the team and being “ready” for any call of duty. Earnhardt announced in April he would be stepping away from full-time Cup competition. And then in July, the team formally announced that Bowman would steer the No. 88.
In the excitement of that announcement, Bowman appropriately enough scored his first-ever NASCAR national series victory in an Xfinity Series race three months later at Charlotte – one of two Xfinity starts he made on the year.
“He’s got a tremendous amount of talent and these guys learn so fast with simulation,’’ Hendrick said. “I’m blown away with what a quick study these young ones are and all the things they do’’
Former Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who will start alongside Bowman on the front row next Sunday, conceded that he really hadn’t spoken to the young driver much at all before congratulating him on the pole award as they posed together for photos.
However, the veteran was quick to offer praise and optimism about Bowman’s future.
“He’s earned his position in that car,’’ Hamlin said. “He subbed phenomenally for Dale Jr., and I thought he really earned that right. So he’s the guy ‑‑ he got here the old‑fashioned way; just like I did many, many years ago, just on hard work and grit. I think that he’ll handle it.
“He’s not a full‑blown rookie. He is a young guy, but he’s been in the Cup Series quite a few years. I think he’ll be the surprising young guy of this year, being that he does have the experience. He’s just now in a car that will be contending for race wins week in and week out.”
Bowman will be one-third of a trio of young, up-and-coming talents teamed with seven-time Monster Energy Series champion Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports this season and all four drivers (also Chase Elliott, rookie William Byron and Johnson) advanced to the final 12-driver round of front-row qualifying.
“In all of my years in this sport and my company, we have never worked this close together, and it’s something I’ve been wanting to see,’’ Hendrick said. “So the proof is going to be when we get down to the Playoffs.
“There’s some awful good teams in that garage area. There’s some awful good cars that are not going to be in the Playoffs. But I think we’re just going to get better and stronger.”