Alex Bowman will return to the #88 Chevrolet for the 2018 season, once again replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the ride. Unlike in 2016, this move will be permanent as Earnhardt will retire from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing following the 2017 season. Hendrick Motorsports formally announced the news on Thursday.
“Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I’ve wanted to do,” Bowman stated. “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. Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it’s just amazing.
As a substitute for Earnhardt while he recovered from concussions in 2016, Bowman drove the #88 in ten races. Splitting the ride with Jeff Gordon, Bowman recorded three top-10 finishes, including a near-victory at his home track of Phoenix; he won the pole for the race, followed by leading the most laps before he tangled with Matt Kenseth on a late restart, forcing him to finish 6th.
“The #88 team is such a great group of people. 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.”
“Alex impressed the heck out of us last year with his talent, poise and professionalism,” Rick Hendrick said. “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.”
During the 2016 season, he also drove part-time for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports operation in the Xfinity Series, for whom he first drove for in late 2014. In nine races in the JRM #88, he finished in the top-10 in all but two races, along with winning the pole at Michigan and scoring top-5 finishes in three races (Dover twice, Iowa).
In February 2017, Earnhardt allowed Bowman to drive the #88 at the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona out of appreciation for his replacement duty a year earlier. Bowman went on to finish 3rd, only losing the runner-up position to Kyle Busch in a side-by-side battle to the finish. Although he has yet to run a Cup or Xfinity race this season (he drove the #24 for GMS Racing in the Camping World Truck Series earlier this year at Atlanta to a 6th-place finish), he tested for Hendrick in the simulator. In May, he drove a test car for Chevrolet at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Nationwide Insurance, who has sponsored Earnhardt since late 2014, will remain with the #88 team in 2018, sponsoring 19 races. Likewise, Axalta Coating Systems will return to HMS on a 15-race schedule, a two-race increase from 2017.
The #88 marks Bowman’s first full-time ride in the national series since 2015, when he drove the #7 for Tommy Baldwin Racing to a 33rd-place points finish. Prior to TBR, he had a one-year stint with BK Racing in the #23 car, where he finished 35th in points; across 2014 and 2015, his best finish was 13th in the 2014 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. He ran the full 2013 Nationwide (now Xfinity) season for RAB Racing in the #99 Toyota, where he finished 11th in the championship. He was the 2011 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and 2012 ARCA Racing Series Rookie of the Year.
Before the announcement, speculation among the NASCAR community arose regarding which driver would take over the #88; besides Bowman, other options included 19-year-old JRM driver William Byron and current Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth.
Despite Earnhardt’s retirement from Cup racing, he expects to run a part-time schedule in the Xfinity Series for JRM.
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