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

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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.”

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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.”

Martin Truex Jr. on his uncertain future: ‘I’m starting to hear rumors’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – The defending champion of NASCAR’s premier series is uncertain if he will return to the team next season.

“That’s hard to put a number on, honestly,” Martin Truex Jr. said when asked Friday to estimate a percentage of the likelihood he will drive for Furniture Row Racing next season. “I really don’t know. I think in another week or two I’ll have a better answer for you, a better percentage.

“Right now, we need sponsorship. That’s as simple as it gets. It’s hard to say. Is there a 50 percent chance we get that in the next couple of weeks? Or is there a 100 percent chance. Or is there 2 percent? I don’t know. I can tell you that everything really is based upon that.”

With Kurt Busch’s No. 41 ride at Stewart-Haas Racing unfilled for next year and Kasey Kahne’s retirement opening another seat, the garage chatter is growing louder about the annual spinning carousel of drivers heading to new teams. The contract statuses of Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman also are murky for 2019.

Even though Truex won his first Cup title last year with a season-high eight victories and has four wins this year with Barney Visser’s No. 78 Toyota, he acknowledges his name is in the mix.

“I’m starting to hear rumors,” he said. “That’s kind of how it works in this sport. I’ve been in this position before. I’ve got a great team. Barney has done a lot for my career. It’s something we all want to keep going and just need a little bit of time to let the dominoes fall into place and see if we can keep it going. And if not, I have to figure it out from there.”

Truex is in his fifth season with Furniture Row Racing. The team is trying to plug a sponsorship hole left by 5 hour Energy, which is exiting after being a co-primary sponsor for 30 Cup races this season. The company’s departure was announced a month ago with the team in the throes of signing Truex to an extension.

Last season, Furniture Row Racing overcame a season of adversity, including the death of a team member and a heart attack for Visser. Truex said the team has learned to focus through distractions.

“The biggest thing for us as a group (is) we’ve kind of been in this situation before,” he said. “Really the past couple of seasons, we’ve been at a tipping point at some point in time, and we’ve been just been able to focus on doing our jobs.

“We always feel like that at the end of the day, if we do our jobs and we do them well, and we’re winning races, that’s our best opportunity to keep things going the way they are. I think that’s not going to change. That’s what we have to do. The commitments people made to us are through the end of the season. No matter what happens, this is a professional sport, and we need to hold up our end of the deal, and the guys understand that. We’re going to fight as hard as we can no matter what next year looks like and try to repeat what we did last year.”