Alex Bowman

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Alex Bowman on contract future at Hendrick: ‘Every year is pivotal’

Leave a comment

CHARLOTTE – He made the playoffs during his first full year at Hendrick Motorsports. He scored his first Cup victory in his second full season with the team.

And for Year Three with a NASCAR powerhouse?

“Got to go win a championship,” Alex Bowman said with a laugh Thursday morning during Hendrick Motorsports’ Media Day.

There isn’t quite that much pressure on the No. 88 Chevrolet driver, but 2020 could be pivotal in a series where drivers often work on three-year contract cycles. Bowman will be among at least eight winning drivers (including Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer and Erik Jones, to name just a few) who will be the subject of speculation during a contract year.

“I think every year is a pivotal year,” Bowman said when asked whether his deal emphasizes the need for more improvement and results. “And every year I want to go run well. It doesn’t matter what a piece of paper says. At no time are you really safe in this business. I’ve had pieces of paper tell me I was safe before and get fired, so I don’t think you’re safe at any time.

“I think at every moment, you need to make the most of every opportunity so I think every year is a pivotal year.”

DRIVER LINEUP 2020: Daniel Suarez’s signing is latest update to Cup

Bowman, who replaced the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 after the 2017 season, said he and team owner Rick Hendrick talked briefly last year about his next contract.

“To be honest with you, I’m not really worried about it,” he said. “This is where I want to be, driving a race car for HMS is what I want to do. I want to stay here as long as I can, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen. Right now, what I can do to make that happen is go perform on the racetrack.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean a championship, but Bowman would like to go deeper after reaching the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons.

He also would like to improve his results on short tracks and overall consistency. While doubling his top fives (seven in 2019, up from three in 2018), Bowman had 12 top 10s last year, which was only one more than ’18.

Though he had a stretch of three consecutive runner-up finishes (Talladega, Dover and Kansas) in the spring, he had only three top fives in the final 19 races of 2019 after his breakthrough victory June 30 at Chicagoland Speedway.

“We’d have a 25th-place run one week and then go run second the next week and go run bad again,” he said. “A lot of that just comes from trying to improve our race cars. We definitely need to start races better. For whatever reason, we start races poorly and improve throughout the day. We typically end up with a pretty decent finish, but those first two stages we lose out on a lot of stage points, and we really can’t afford that. So I know we’re working really hard to figure out why we tend to start so poorly and how we can improve on that.”

Hendrick will have a redesigned Camaro body this season, and NASCAR will return to lower downforce on the short tracks (where Bowman didn’t finish higher than 14th in six starts last year).

“Hopefully that’ll help,” Bowman said of the changes. “We definitely have to capitalize on our strengths on (1.5-mile tracks). I feel like our weaknesses are ever changing. For a while in 2018, they were the mile and halves. Now those are our strengths, and our weaknesses are the places we used to be strong at, so we just need to be more consistent.

“I think if we make the Round of 8, that would be a good accomplishment, but we need to win more than just one race.”

Bowman, who turns 27 in April, will enter 2020 with the security of a recently announced primary sponsor package to fill the void left by Nationwide.

“I saw people on Twitter say if they don’t get a sponsor they’re not going to run (the No. 88) and blah blah blah,” he said. “As soon as we knew Nationwide wasn’t coming back, Mr. Hendrick sat me down and said, ‘Hey, even if we don’t find a sponsor, you’re fine. It’ll all be fine.’

“Obviously having a sponsor is very important, and I’m really excited that we were able to announce that yesterday, but at the same time it wasn’t ever like a worry or a stress point. It was kind of annoying that everybody kept talking about, but I’m really just focused on going and doing my job and controlling what I can control and do the best I can.”

With Las Vegas parties over, NASCAR turns the page to 2018

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The party is over, well it likely ended not long ago in Las Vegas, and the 2017 NASCAR season is over.

While the sport celebrated Martin Truex Jr.’s Cup title Thursday, it also reflected upon those who will be moving on to other things.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retired from racing in the Cup Series, although he is expected to make two Xfinity Series race starts in 2018 for JR Motorsports. Matt Kenseth doesn’t have a ride for next year. Danica Patrick will drive the Daytona 500 before focusing on racing in the Indianapolis 500 and ending her driving career.

MORE: NASCAR celebrates its new champion 

MORE: Who wore it best on the red carpet?

They follow in the recent departures of Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle. With the exit of Stewart and Gordon, Jimmie Johnson is the sport’s only active multi-time Cup champion.

Only five drivers who finished in the top 15 in points in 2005 will be back to compete in 2018 — Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick.

Each is closing in on when they’ll leave the sport. Johnson is 42. Harvick turns 42 on Dec. 8. McMurray is 41. Newman turns 40 on Dec. 8. Busch is 39.

“It’s kind of sad, honestly,’’ McMurray said this week in Las Vegas of the sport’s transition. “I came in not long after those guys, so you know that your days are somewhat numbered.

“My goal is to be able to race for maybe four more years, maybe a little bit more. I watched Biffle this year with (this) being his first year out of the sport. I’ve watched the transitions because there are some unknowns there. We are so busy, everybody in our industry is so busy every single weekend.

“You hear everyone talk about how hard it is step away because of how much time you all of a sudden have, and you have time for things that you didn’t used to.’’

That’s what Kenseth will face, but he will be busier with his wife due this month to deliver the couple’s fourth child.

“I think it will take a few days, few weeks to get home and get wound down and get in the swing of things,’’ Kenseth said after Thursday night’s NASCAR Cup Awards in Las Vegas. “Got a lot going on at home right now. Looking forward to this month. Looking forward to the holidays this year. Kind of turn the calendar over to another year and get settled in. Everything is going really great. Got a lot to look forward to. Got a lot to be thankful for.’’

As drivers leave, others enter. Cup drivers age 25 and under with rides for next season include William Byron (20), Erik Jones (21), Chase Elliott (22), Ryan Blaney (turns 24 on Dec. 31), Alex Bowman (24), Darrell Wallace Jr. (24), Chris Buescher (25), Ty Dillon (25), Kyle Larson (25) and Daniel Suarez (25).

“It’s true, we’re in a transition,’’ NASCAR Chairman Brian France said at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “But that happens from time to time. Not usually in the concentrated manner that we have now, but it happens. But we’re excited.’’

 and on Facebook

With Matt Kenseth available, Hendrick Motorsports already was set on Alex Bowman long ago

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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. “I love him. 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.”

Social Roundup: JR Nation reacts to Alex Bowman taking over the No. 88

3 Comments

It’s official. Alex Bowman will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet in 2018.

Now that the news is out, it’s time for the Internet to react.

This is one of the few times where we’ll encourage you to read the comments.

Below, after Hendrick’s tweet announcing Bowman’s appointment to the No. 88 and Bowman’s reaction, are reactions from social media.

Brace yourself.

 

and on Facebook

Jimmie Johnson: Alex Bowman would be ‘a great fit’ for No. 88; says sponsors will dictate driver

Jerry Markland/Getty Images
2 Comments

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.

Earnhardt also has endorsed Bowman as his successor.