Alex Bowman excels in final scheduled Hendrick Motorsports opportunity

NASCAR via Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With Dale Earnhardt, Jr., analyzing from the FOX Sports booth above, Alex Bowman completed another solid effort to complete his short-lived tenure behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Now Bowman, who was granted the Clash opportunity after earning his first-career pole last fall in Phoenix, will hand the reigns of the No. 88 Chevrolet back to Earnhardt for the Daytona 500.

Bowman avoided the Turn 4 woes that have plagued Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) drivers Earnhardt, Chase Elliott, and Jimmie Johnson in recent years and dodged the last-lap crash between Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski to deliver a third-place result in the Advance Auto Parts Clash.

“It was frustrating. We kind of struggled all day, a little bit,” Bowman said. “We couldn’t get the track position we needed.

“To come home third is solid, and not bad by any means.  We will learn from it and hopefully give Greg (Ives, crew chief) and Dale (Earnhardt, Jr.) some information for the Daytona 500. It is a day race. I am just happy to be a part of the Clash.”

Sunday’s 75-lap exhibition wasn’t easy for Bowman. With less experience at the front of the pack than most of the drivers alongside him, the 23-year-old was preyed upon often by the veterans of the tour.

Still, in the closing lap Bowman found himself banging doors with 2015 Cup Series champion Kyle Busch in a battle for second, a move he admits may have been a mistake.

“We probably could have caught the No. 22 (Joey Logano) and had a shot to win it, but at the same time, he (Busch) didn’t work with me much all day, either,” Bowman said. “A lot of guys hung us out every chance they got. So, to come home third shows what a great race car Hendrick Motorsports brings to the track.”

After spending two years toiling away for the underfunded BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing from 2014-’15, Bowman was left without a ride for 2016. In search of an opportunity, Bowman joined HMS in a limited role, driving for the team in simulator opportunities and contributing where he could.

The small role led to an unexpected top-tier opportunity for Bowman when Earnhardt was sidelined with a concussion in July. The Tucson, Ariz., native was a beneficiary of Earnhardt’s woes, splitting Earnhardt’s machine over the second-half of the season with retired legend Jeff Gordon.

In the time since, Bowman has made an effort to prove his worth in a Cup Series ride.

After a difficult first two starts, Bowman came to form for HMS through eight starts in the playoffs. The 23-year-old tallied six finishes of 16th or better in his final eight attempts, including three top 10s and his Phoenix pole.

The effort proved enough to warrant one final start in the No. 88 as an act of gratitude from HMS, and Bowman again delivered on the team’s faith.

Now, with the Clash complete, Bowman again returns to relative obscurity among the HMS roster. With no openings at HMS and a lack of solid options elsewhere, the eager young star will lie in waiting for the next opportunity.

“I’ve got to thank all the guys for letting me do this; and Dale Earnhardt, Jr,” Bowman said.  “It means a lot to have driven this car for Team Hendrick I think for 11 or 12 races now, whatever it was. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve made a lot of memories. I hope to do it again someday.”

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