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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Denny Hamlin hopes teams don’t shoot selves in feet with pit guns

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Denny Hamlin is the hottest driver on the Cup circuit. He has two wins – including Saturday night at Bristol – as well as two runner-ups, and a third- and fifth-place finish in the last six races. He’s also moved up to third in the rankings in that string.

But Hamlin isn’t taking anything to chance, particularly some of the smallest details – such as loose lug nuts and wheels.

Hamlin appeared Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On-Track” show and was asked about how not only his team, but also other Cup teams, can overcome the loose lug nuts and wheels issues.

Hamlin said a significant part of the problem – particularly at a place like Bristol Motor Speedway – is pit guns, which are allocated and issued in a pre-race lottery by NASCAR, rather than have teams use their own guns.

MORE: Denny Hamlin earns hard-fought win over Matt DiBenedetto at Bristol

Hamlin does not like that system and explained why:

“(Bristol) puts probably some of the biggest loads we have on our tires. Truth be told, over the last two years since we’ve had these guns issued to us, they’re not capable of getting all the wheels tight, they really aren’t.

“It’s a lottery whether you get a gun that’s good enough to get ‘em tight. Through JGR, Stewart-Haas and other teams that have documented it, in the spring race there were over 20 loose wheels. This is not just a team thing. It’s just that the equipment is not quite up to par as far as what it’s capable of.

“We keep track of all the guns and how good they are and how bad they are. It’s a lottery system of whether you’re going to get (a good or bad one). It doesn’t matter how fast you go, you can hold the gun on there and it’s just not going to get the torque quite tight enough.”

Hamlin experienced a loose wheel that forced him to pit under green on Lap 186 of Saturday night’s race at Bristol, leaving him two laps behind the leaders. Hamlin had another loose wheel on Lap 374 and pitted while running 10th.

Thus far this season, in addition to several loose wheels in races, Hamlin’s team has also been penalized four times for loose lug nuts after races: Fontana, Bristol spring race, Chicagoland and the July race at Pocono.

This isn’t the first time Hamlin has publicly complained about pit guns and loose lug nuts and wheels.

NBC Sports has reached out to NASCAR for comment.

Check out what Hamlin said about that after Saturday night’s race in the video above (Hamlin talks about this issue starting around the 6:00 mark).

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Preliminary entry lists for Xfinity, Trucks this weekend

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While the NASCAR Cup Series will be off this weekend, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any racing.

On the contrary, the Xfinity Series will be racing Saturday at Road America and the Truck Series will compete Sunday at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

Here are the entry lists for both series:

Xfinity – CTECH Manufacturing 180 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

There are 39 cars entered.

Regan Smith will be in the No. 8 J.R. Motorsports Chevrolet.

A.J. Allmendinger will drive the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet.

Saturday’s Cup runner-up, Matt DiBenedetto, will drive the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

There is no driver listed yet for the No. 117 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – Chevrolet Silverado 250 (2:30 p.m. ET FS1)

There are only 28 Trucks listed for the entry list.

All seats are filled.

Click here for the entry list.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. thanks all who have ‘lifted us up’ since plane crash

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. issued his first public comments Monday since he and his family survived a plane crash last Thursday afternoon at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Municipal Airport.

Earnhardt offered thanks to “everyone who has lifted us up with phone calls, messages and prayer since last Thursday. We are truly blessed that all on board escaped with no serious injuries, including our daughter, our two pilots and our dog Gus.”

Earnhardt also thanked the pilots, emergency personnel, law enforcement and hospital staff.

He stated that wife “Amy and I continue to be very appreciative of the privacy extended to us to process everything. It has been important to do that together and on our own time.”

Earnhardt stated that because of the ongoing investigation “we will not be speculating or discussing the cause of the accident.”

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board is expected this week. Ralph Hicks, a senior investigator for the NTSB said in a briefing last Friday that “the airplane basically bounced at least twice before coming down hard on the right wing landing gear. You can actually see the right wing landing gear collapsing on the video (from nearby buildings). The airplane continued down the runway, off to the end, through a fence and came to a stop … on highway 91.”

Both pilots have been interviewed and Hicks stated that what they said was “very consistent” with what the video showed. Hicks also said investigators had talked to the Earnhardt family.

NASCAR America 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Recapping Hamlin’s Bristol win

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs on NBCSN at a special time, from 6-7 p.m. ET, and will recap Denny Hamlin’s win at Bristol.

Steve Letarte will be joined by NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett and A.J. Allmendinger to discuss Hamlin’s win and other storylines.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here for the special start time at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.