CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Alex Bowman knows he has big shoes to fill.

So, how's he feeling going into his first full season replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of NASCAR's most popular drivers ever?

"It's been really surreal for probably the past seven or eight months," Bowman said before the opening practice for Daytona 500 qualifying Saturday. "Now, to unload and be like, 'man, I'm driving a race car today,' is really special. It's a dream come true for me.

"It was an opportunity that I never thought I was going to be able to get. To kind of have it all come to life here and to get going is really special."

After spending two years toiling around the back half of the Cup Series garage, the 24-year-old received the opportunity of a lifetime when he filled in for the injured Earnhardt Jr. in 2016. In 10 starts behind the wheel of Hendrick Motorsports' No. 88, Bowman earned three top-10 finishes, including a pole and leading nearly 200 laps at Phoenix.

Although a full-time driving gig didn't materialize for Bowman last year, he did manage to stick with Hendrick as a simulator driver. In a spot start for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series, Bowman scored the win at Charlotte in October.

Bowman said the advice of Earnhardt, who spent his entire career in the spotlight, is to just enjoy the moment.

"I think his biggest message is just to have fun with everything," said Bowman, who lamented not enjoying being a race car driver when struggling early in his career. "I just want to go have fun and enjoy this because it's a dream come true for me.

"He has been great to lean on and always has been for me, so (I'm) very thankful to have his help."

In career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Bowman has a best finish of 13th at Daytona in 2014. To help with his lack of in-race experience on superspeedways, Bowman said he's relying on Earnhardt, as well as teammate and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, both of whom are two-time Daytona 500 champions.

"I spent a lot of time talking to Dale last night about when to use runs and when to be aggressive and stuff like that. I wouldn't say superspeedway racing is my favorite," Bowman explained. "I am going to try to make the most of it, try to keep the Nationwide No. 88 up front, but it's going to be a learning experience."