Alex Bowman

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

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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.

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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.’’

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

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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

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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.

 

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

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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.

Chase Briscoe fastest in first Truck practice at Atlanta

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Chase Briscoe posted the fastest speed in the first Camping World Truck Series practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The Brad Keselowski Racing driver laid down a speed of 181.083 mph.

The top five was filled out by Noah Gragson (179.883), Alex Bowman (179.412), Christopher Bell (179.104) and Chase Elliott (178.764).

Daytona winner Kaz Grala was ninth fastest.

Click here for full practice report.