In a year where Alex Bowman says he needs to prove himself, he climbed into Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Sprint Cup car Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with the sport focused on him.
Bowman is driving Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet this weekend because the sport’s most popular driver is out after experiencing “concussion-like symptoms.’’ No timetable has been set on Earnhardt’s return. A Hendrick Motorsports official said Friday that Jeff Gordon will come out of retirement and drive Earnhardt’s car next weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway if Earnhardt is not cleared medically to compete.
So who is the guy driving Earnhardt’s car this weekend and also making his fifth start of the year for Earnhardt’s Xfinity team, JR Motorsports?
The 23-year-old Bowman rose to the Xfinity Series in 2013 with flashes of speed, climbed into the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 and found himself out of a ride a few weeks before this year’s Daytona 500.
Until he drove in May’s Xfinity Series event at Dover, Bowman had not raced since driving a midget car in the Chili Bowl in January. In the first of nine races he’ll run this season for Earnhardt’s team, JR Motorsports, Bowman finished third that day but noted he needed to do more.
“These nine races I have to go win some,’’ Bowman said in May at Dover. “I have to prove that I should be here, and I think winning means that. You can have these days where you lead laps and you run third, but at the end of the day, Erik Jones is in victory lane holding the trophy and I’m not. I need to win races.”
Since he didn’t have a ride early in the season, Bowman attended a few races but couldn’t do that for long.
“It’s really awkward as a race car diver going to the track and not driving a race car,’’ Bowman said at Dover. “It’s pretty miserable, to be honest with you. I did it a couple of times to start the year off and then I was like I’ve got to stay away, I’m going to depress myself. It was really humbling.’’
Bowman has faced challenges in his career.
In 2010, he flipped during a midget car race at Las Vegas and spent a week in the intensive care unit. He broke ribs and both collarbones. He couldn’t see for about three days because his eyes were swollen shut. Told he couldn’t race for eight weeks, Bowman returned to the car in half that time.
He moved to NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2011 and won rookie of the year honors. Chase Elliott was third in the rookie of the year standings that season.
Bowman was rookie of the year in ARCA in 2012. He ran the full Xfinity season in 2013 before joining BK Racing for the 2014 Cup season. He moved to Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2015. In 71 career Sprint Cup starts, Bowman’s best finish is 13th at Daytona in July 2014.
Bowman has had a relationship with JR Motorsports since 2014. What started as a conversation between Bowman and Earnhardt before a race at Richmond International Raceway led to Bowman driving two Xfinity races for the team in 2014.
“I think I can really thank Dale Jr. for saving my career two years ago pretty much, with those two Xfinity races at Charlotte and Phoenix, and then for the opportunity to run nine races this year with him,’’ Bowman said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “He has been a good friend to me. He has been somebody that I can lean on all the time.’’
Bowman drove one Camping World Truck race for JR Motorsports in 2015 and then added the nine Xfinity races this season. Saturday’s Xfinity race at New Hampshire will be his fifth start of the season.
He was a natural selection when Earnhardt’s team was looking for what it thought would be a backup driver earlier in the week. When Earnhardt was advised not to race this weekend, Bowman became the primary option.
“It’s the best opportunity I’ve ever had in my life,’’ Bowman said Friday. “I’m ready to just plug into their program and do my job. I’ll give them the best feedback I can and go from there. I’m really confident in the whole team. Obviously they bring great race cars to the track every weekend, so if I just do my job I feel like we would be good to plug into it.”