LOUDON, N.H. – Jimmie Johnson doesn’t know who will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet next season for Hendrick Motorsports, and he believes sponsors ultimately will determine who will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But the seven-time series champion will have a say with team owner Rick Hendrick, and Johnson clearly thinks Alex Bowman would be ready after substituting for Earnhardt last year.
“We put a lot on him now,” Johnson said Friday of Bowman before practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I think he’d be a great fit to come in that car from a wide variety of angles.”
It was almost a year ago at New Hampshire that Bowman made the first of 10 starts in the No. 88, earning three top 10s after one top 15 (a 13th) in his previous 71 Cup starts with BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.
“When I look at how he stepped in seamlessly, it was really impressive for me,” Johnson said. “He handled the pressure, won a pole (at Phoenix), 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.”
Johnson said it’s been a few weeks since he’s talked to Hendrick about the four-car team’s future, and the candidate pool expanded this past week with Matt Kenseth officially out at Joe Gibbs Racing after 2017.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about what to do,” Johnson said. “Certainly Matt’s availability will have to be considered. I haven’t been in conversations with Rick in the last three to four weeks about where that’s going, but sponsorship is really going to dictate who goes in that car.
“We have some great options to look at. Look at what Alex Bowman did for us when he was subbing for Dale. William (Byron) is certainly an option, he’s definitely young but he’s doing an amazing job. … I’ve been trying to understand the sponsor climate and who, what and how big of a program they want. Who the driver of choice is has been developing, but I haven’t been asked yet.”
Byron, 19, would be another option for Hendrick, which signed him last August. He is ranked second in the Xfinity Series with two wins in his first season with JR Motorsports after a series-high seven victories in the Camping World Truck Series last year.
“Watching him race with (race winner) Denny (Hamlin) at Michigan was ultra-impressive,” Johnson said. “It’s fun watching him grow. At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry … I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. I was wondering if my start was ever going to happen, but I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put. They’re super-talented; it’s just a lot of pressure to put on these guys.”
Bowman hasn’t raced since a 16th in last season’s finale at Miami, but the 24-year-old has shouldered quite a load at Hendrick by spearheading its time on GM Racing’s driving simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina. Bowman also has tested a wheelforce transducer car at tracks such as Indianapolis Motor Speedway, delivering critical real-world data.
“We are counting on him so much,” Johnson said. “The start of our data originates with him. The simulator is our only test bed in a sense. The wheelforce transducer is one of the only opportunities to collect data, and he’s the guy behind the wheel trying to drive the lines, the sensations and set the car up to optimize performance.
“He has more input from that inception point now than any driver at Hendrick from his simulator time and wheelforce car.”
As the dean of the team’s driving corps, Johnson also has much input on the organization, which has reevaluated its makeup.
“We’ve looked at a lot of different ways to be more efficient internally in Hendrick Motorsports and to operate on a leaner budget but still have the performance,” Johnson said. “I know there’s a lot from internal structure and how the buildings function and operate that’s been on the table.”
Hendrick recently has deflected questions about the No. 88, saying there is no timetable to name a replacement.