The young gun gets his first big shot.
One of the many looming questions for 2018 has finally been answered — and it took 3 months for a deserving answer. Alex Bowman will replace NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the №88 Nationwide Chevrolet as he rides off into the sunset after 2017. The announcement was made public on Thursday, July 20th, 2017 — roughly four months until NASCAR and Earnhardt’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
To the average sports fan, this may resemble a new starting quarterback, or point guard, just filling the shoes — not in NASCAR or Dale Jr. NASCAR is a ‘game’ of money, meaning if sponsors do not want to continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their brand on a racecar for a certain driver, they will not.
For example, Home Depot stayed with Joe Gibbs Racing on the №20 for Joey Logano after Tony Stewart, but did not for Matt Kenseth’s №20 ride.
Luckily for Alex Bowman and Hendrick Motorsports, both of Earnhardt’s primary sponsors; Nationwide and Axalta will remain on the car in 2018 for 19 and 15 races respectively, per Bob Pockrass. NASCAR does not release finances of sponsorships, but Nationwide, who signed a one-year extension with Hendrick seemingly wanted Bowman in the 88, as well as Axalta. Since 1992, Axalta has been a longstanding partner of the team. In the wake of the deal, Nationwide dropped two races, allowing Axalta to add two more.
Nationwide’s chief marketing officer Terrance Williams said the company is thrilled to continue its sponsorship with Rick Hendrick and his team by welcoming Bowman. The insurance company has cooperated with HMS on and off the track since 2014, increasing its role to primary sponsorship in 2015.
Alex Bowman is not new to NASCAR’s Cup Series. He has 81 career starts under his belt and raced for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2014 and 2015. Last year Bowman filled in for Earnhardt while he battled a concussion. Bowman’s best race came at Phoenix, his home track in The Chase where he won the pole, led 194 laps and boasted a career best sixth place finish — something the team has to look forward to.
“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,” said Bowman. HMS and Nationwide’s trust has Bowman thrilled about his new opportunity. He later tweeted about all of the positive support he has garnered throughout the day, even by answering 565 text messages.
In Hendrick’s press release, Rick Hendrick praises Nationwide as vehemently passionate about NASCAR and Bowman’s poise and charisma on handling 2016’s tough situations. “He stepped up in a very demanding situation and showed that he can run with the best and compete for wins.”
Bowman is not a rookie, he is not a 19 year old R&D driver for a major team who will not have a shot for several years, Alex Bowman has Cup experience, for underfunded organizations, but possesses the skill. He is hailed as ready and able to compete with the big names but 2018 will prove whether he is marketable and able to retain sponsorship at Hendrick. A subpar year, or inability to live up to expectations of following Dale Jr. could oust Nationwide, or open up opportunities for other sponsors to redefine the iconic №88.
As one may know, in addition to marketability — something Dale Jr. oozes, sponsors and teams bank on on-track performance.
Kasey Kahne has under performed since 2014 in the №5 car at Hendrick, and is left in a bind for 2018, his last year in contract. Farmer’s Insurance and Great Clips have both backed out for 2018 to pursue other sports ventures away from NASCAR.
NASCAR and Hendrick may have another tall task to complete by the end of the season in keeping Kahne or refilling the №5 ride with another big name or an Xfinity Series hotshot in William Byron, who is just 19 years old.
As for July 2017, until November, the №88 team has one goal in mind, and it’s not looking ahead: it’s winning one of the last seven races and competing for a championship. The current №88 team will however be Bowman’s team in 2018 headed by existing Crew Chief Greg Ives.
NASCAR heads to fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday for the Brickyard 400 at 2:30pm on NBCSN.
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