Alex Bowman to take over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car in 2018

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Alex Bowman, once told by a doctor that he couldn’t race for eight weeks after a severe crash but returned in half that time, saw his patience for sitting out this NASCAR season rewarded Thursday when Hendrick Motorsports announced that the 24-year-old will take over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Cup ride next season.

“Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I’ve wanted to do,” Bowman said in a release from Hendrick Motorsports. “I’ve had so many people believe in me along the way. My family has sacrificed a lot and always been behind me. I would never have this chance without the support of Dale and everyone involved with the No. 88 team. To be part of Hendrick Motorsports and for Mr. (Rick) Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it’s just amazing.’’

Hendrick Motorsports also announced Thursday that Nationwide signed a one-year extension and will sponsor the car for 19 races. Axalta returns and will be the primary sponsor for 15 races, an increase of two from this season.

Bowman was among the favorites for Earnhardt’s ride because he drove 10 races in the No. 88 car last year while Earnhardt recovered from concussion symptoms. Bowman won a pole at Phoenix Raceway and had three top-10 finishes.

His performance last year earned praise from within Hendrick Motorsports.

“Alex impressed the heck out of us last year with his talent, poise and professionalism,” said car owner Rick Hendrick, in a statement from the team. “He stepped up in a very demanding situation and showed that he can run with the best and compete for wins. His ability to stay focused through it all, and the way he’s handled himself since then, has shown a lot of character. (Crew chief Greg Ives) and the team loved working with Alex, and that dynamic will get even better with more time together.

Earnhardt, who is in his final full-time season racing Cup, endorsed Bowman as the next driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet on Periscope in May.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Alex Bowman at Texas last year when Bowman drove 10 races while Earnhardt recovered from concussion symptoms. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“Alex Bowman in the 88 car next year, is that what you want?’’ Earnhardt said on Periscope a day after the All-Star Race. “That would be pretty awesome. Alex in the 88. That sounds good to me. He earned it last year. He ran real good.”

Bowman’s hire adds another young driver to the Cup series — which already features nearly one-fifth of the starting lineup age 25 or younger.

His path to this ride comes in an unusual way. Rarely do drivers sitting out for an extended period of time get quality rides, let alone join one of the sport’s top organizations.

Bowman, who signed with Hendrick Motorsports in Oct. 2016, has only raced in the Clash in February — earning that spot for his pole at Phoenix last year — and a Camping World Truck race in March at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His primary duty has been as driver in the Chevrolet simulator and driving Chevrolet’s car at NASCAR-allowed tests.

His work in the Chevy simulator has been praised by his future teammates.

“We put a lot on him now,” Jimmie Johnson said last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I think he’d be a great fit to come in that car from a wide variety of angles.”

Bowman made his debut in the No. 88 car last July at New Hampshire after having run 71 Cup races for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing from 2014-15.

“When I look at how he stepped in seamlessly, it was really impressive for me,” Johnson said of Bowman’s performance in the No. 88 last year. “He handled the pressure, won a pole, was up there duking it out for race wins, had a heated moment or two with some of the veterans and wasn’t rattled.

“We all watched him evolve. You drive for a lower level team and unfortunately, people’s opinion about you can change. That cloud or stigma was there for a while, and he had a chance to reset the deck when he drove the 88. I think he’s plenty capable. He’s been a great teammate. He knows our system.”

While Bowman is most noted for running 10 races last year for Earnhardt, he has been tied to Earnhardt since 2014.

Bowman ran two Xfinity races for JR Motorsports in 2014 and returned to run nine races for the organization in 2016.

Bowman’s path to this point has been one full of gambles in a sport where few succeed. His father put a second mortgage on the home to fund Bowman’s racing and saw his used car dealership close during the economic downturn.

Bowman’s racing started when his father got him a quarter midget at age 7. Bowman went on to collect nine quarter-midget national championships before he moved to race midgets.

He was the USAC National Midget Rookie of the Year in 2009 but a crash the next year at the dirt track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway put his season in jeopardy. His midget tumbled several times. He cracked ribs, broke his collarbones and damaged blood vessels in his eyes. He was unable to see for three days because his eyes were swollen shut. When his vision returned, it was blurry. Eventually his vision returned.

Even with both arms in a sling, he wanted to race as soon as possible. Told it would be eight weeks at the earliest, Bowman said he had a race in three weeks. Bowman returned in four weeks.

He’s been focused on racing since — even with the decision to turn down rides this year to be aligned with Hendrick Motorsports even though there wasn’t a ride for him.

Beginning next year, he’ll be out of the simulator and back on the track.

“The No. 88 team is such a great group of people,’’ Bowman said in a release from the team. “I know we can pick up where we left off last year, and I truly believe we can win races and contend for a championship. I’m excited to build on the relationship with Nationwide and all of our partners. It means the world that they have faith in me, and I’m thankful to have them on my side. Now I just want to go win.”

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Austin Dillon, Jeffrey Earnhardt in first wreck of Bristol night race

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The first big wreck of Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race occurred on Lap 232 of the scheduled 500-lap event.

It appeared Austin Dillon may have cut a tire and turned to his right, directly into the car of Jeffrey Earnhardt, sending both cars into the outside SAFER barrier and both sustaining heavy damage.

“We were running really good and all of a sudden the left-rear went flat,” Dillon said. “I don’t know what happened, if we had contact on that restart or our trackbar broke. My car chief said the letters on the Goodyear were rubbed off and about two laps later we broke.

“Our battery was going dead too, so it probably wasn’t going to be much longer we were going to be out of the race either way, but just a bummer. I really love this track and was having a blast tonight.  It sucks it had to end this way.”

Both cars were taken to the infield, with their nights likely over. That’s Bristol, baby.

Matt Kenseth wins Stage 2 at Bristol

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Matt Kenseth took the lead with about 10 laps left in Stage 2 when leader Kyle Busch pitted under caution. Kenseth went on to win the stage Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The second stage ended at Lap 250 of the 500-lap race.

It is Kenseth’s third stage win of the year. He entered the race holding the final playoff spot.

Jimmie Johnson finished second. Kevin Harvick placed third, Ryan Newman was fourth and pole-sitter Erik Jones finished the stage fifth. Jones was followed by Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Busch, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer.

Busch controlled most of Stage 2 and seemed set to win it until crew chief Adam Stevens elected to pit for tires to help set the team up for the rest of the race.

Busch fell from first to sixth on a pit stop after winning Stage 1 because of a problem with the left rear tire. He worked his way back to the lead on Lap 167, passing Jones for the top spot.

Jones took the lead back on Lap 179 as they raced in traffic around Brad Keselowski, who lost four laps because of a cut left front tire from contact in the opening laps.

Busch regained the lead on Lap 199. He maintained the advantage on pit road shortly after that when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall and brought out the caution.

Martin Truex Jr. had a loose right rear wheel and pitted as the field took the green on the restart. He had to pit shortly after that when he was penalized for an outside tire violation. After serving the penalty, Truex was two laps behind the leaders.

AJ Allmendinger had to pit under green because he had a tire rub after contact.

Jeffrey Earnhardt and Austin Dillon crashed on Lap 232. Dillon spun up the track and Jeffrey Earnhardt had nowhere to go and slammed into Dillon’s car. Kasey Kahne hit the wall and Joey Gase‘s car as he tried to slow.

 

Kyle Busch passes Kyle Larson on final lap to win Stage 1 at Bristol

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Kyle Busch passed Kyle Larson on the final lap to win Stage 1 on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Busch and Larson dueled the final 11 laps of the stage. They made contact while racing in traffic while racing to Lap 125 of the scheduled 500-lap event.

Busch seeks to win the Camping World Truck, Xfinity and Cup races this week at Bristol for the second time in his career. He won all three races in 2010.

After Busch, who started 18th, was pole-sitter Erik Jones. Larson finished third. Chase Elliott was fourth. Matt Kenseth placed fifth. Kenseth was followed by Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

The stage win is Busch’s 10th of the season. Only Truex (15 stage wins) has more this season.

A couple of drivers had problems early in the race.

Brad Keselowski suffered a cut left front tire on Lap 5 and lost four laps by the time he pitted and got new tires. He was 38th at the end of the stage.

Aric Almirola brought out the caution on Lap 61 when he hit the wall. He was 33rd at the end of the stage.

List of driver introduction songs for the Bristol night race

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Here’s all the songs NASCAR Cup drivers selected for their introduction prior to the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Erik Jones – “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled

Kyle Larson – “Dirt Track Thing” by Kenny Montgomery

Kasey Kahne – “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” by Brooks & Dunn (picked by Dale Earnhardt Jr.)

Chase Elliott – “Chevy Don’t Let Me Down” by Jeff Bates

Matt Kenseth – “Halo on Fire” by Metallica

Martin Truex Jr. – “That’s How We Do Around Here” by Florida Georgia Line

Denny Hamlin – “Jumpman”  by Drake

Joey Logano – “Energy” by Drake

Clint Bowyer – “How Country Feels” by Randy Houser

Ryan Blaney – “Life Ain’t Fair & the World is Mean” by Sturgill Simpson

Jamie McMurray – “Believer” by Imagine Dragons

Daniel Suarez “El Mariachi Loco”

Ryan Newman – “Hutin’, Fishin’ & Lovin’ Everyday” by Luke Bryan

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – “Chattahoochee” – By Alan Jackson

Chris Buescher – “E” by Matt Mason

Austin Dillon – “Ain’t No Mercy” by Rick Ross

Brad Keselowski – “Right Now” by Van Halen

Kyle Busch – “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons

David Ragan – “I’m from the Country” by Tracey Byrd

Trevor Bayne – “Sideways” by KB Featuring Lecrae

Jimmie Johnson – “What’s My Name?” (clean version) by Snoop Dogg

Ty Dillon – “Rise Up” by Petey Pablo

AJ Allmendinger – “Paper Cut” by Linkin Park

Danica Patrick – “Regulate” by Warren G

Kurt Busch – “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith

Michael McDowell – “Dream Team (I Had a Dream)” by Thi’sl

Paul Menard – “512” by Lamb of God

Aric Almirola – “Green Light” by Pitbull

Kevin Harvick – “Happy” by Pharrell

J.J. Yeley – “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher

DALE EARNHARDT JR. – “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy (Rock Remix) by Birdman and Lil Wayne (Picked by Kasey Kahne)

Cole Whitt – “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot

Landon Cassill – “Silver Bullet” by Hawthorne Heights

Matt DiBenedetto – “Gon Give It To Ya” by DMX

Corey LaJoie – “Lights Come On” by Jason Aldean

BJ McLeod – “Kickstart My Heart” by Mötley Crüe

Gray Gaulding – “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi

JEFFERY EARNHARDT – “Good Life” by Tyler Hatley & The Little Mountain Band

Reed Sorenson – “Over and Under It” by Five Finger Death Punch

Joey Gase – “I Gotta Feeling” by Black Eyed Peas

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