INDIANAPOLIS – Hendrick Motorsports announced Alex Bowman as the driver of its No. 88 Chevrolet last week, but the choice effectively was made long ago.
“We had Alex in the back of mind for whatever opportunity we had,” team owner Rick Hendrick said during a news conference Sunday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It wasn’t much of a decision at all. Alex was the guy.”
Hendrick confirmed Bowman signed a multiyear contract last October that runs through 2019 and hardly considered any other options – including impending free agent — Matt Kenseth to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“We were very, very careful not to guarantee (Bowman) anything other than if opportunities arose, he would have a shot,” Hendrick said. “I can’t make all the decisions. The sponsors have to be involved. But in my mind, Alex was going to get the next (ride).”
When Kenseth revealed two weeks ago that he wouldn’t be returning to Joe Gibbs Racing, Earnhardt was confident his friend would find a ride for 2018.
But with Hendrick having solidified its lineup for next season with Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Bowman and perhaps Kasey Kahne (Hendrick plans to run four Chevrolets next year but left open the possibility that William Byron could drive the No. 5 – “we’re not ready to cross that bridge yet.”), the options for Kenseth remaining in Cup seem limited.
“I love Matt Kenseth,” Hendrick said. “He is a tremendous talent. He and I have actually talked about this in the past. Sometimes things just don’t line up at the right time.”
Everything has seemed to line up well for Bowman, who drove the No. 88 in 10 races last year while Earnhardt recovered from a concussion. He also has tested for the team in its driving simulator and wheelforce transducer car (which gathers critical setup data).
“A lot of guys have the talent, they just need that one critical break, if they stay committed and keep pushing, eventually that opportunity might come along,” Earnhardt said. “(Bowman) gets that opportunity because of his commitment to his career and the gamble on himself he made a long time ago.
“He works hard and has been a key investment for Chevrolet, incredibly helpful for the company and race team. It’s very tedious work. He’s been a team player knowing if he put forth this effort, he possibly could get this opportunity.”
Hendrick said he knew little about Bowman before Earnhardt personally vouched for him. Bowman validated the recommendation by winning the pole at Phoenix International Raceway last November and leading 194 laps.
“The word for Alex is he deserved it,” Hendrick said. “He deserves a shot. He stepped into the most pressure point. I don’t think there’d be a situation on pit road of having the pressure of sitting in Dale Earnhardt’s car and to perform like he did and then the contributions he’s made to our company to help our guys.”