Bowman makes the rare leap from the heap to the top
You surely have seen the news by now that Hendrick Motorsports has anointed young Alex Bowman as the heir to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s throne in the No. 88. Earnhardt Jr.'s sudden retirement announcement in May opened a premier ride and, thus, set fire to NASCAR's silly season. But with several big name drivers potentially on the market - the biggest of which being Matt Kenseth - Bowman's name stayed at the top of the list. His career arc has achieved an almost impossible feat in today's NASCAR. A driver from a small team broke the glass ceiling to land a ride with a super team.
When Bowman ran the Xfinity Series in 2013 with RAB Racing, he was a perfect fit for a mid-level team and showed some flashes of brilliance with two Texas poles and a handful of top 5s and top 10s. Then BK Racing dangled the carrot of a full-time Cup Series schedule in front of him and he grabbed the brass ring. But at just 20-years old, the mixture of inexperience and bad equipment dropped his stock.
Then Bowman made a slight employment improvement in joining the small, but respectable Tommy Baldwin Racing team. There he also ran in the back of the pack and scored as many top 10s in 2015 as he did the last season and as you have since you began reading this. But Bowman seemed like a good fit for the team.
Then TBR jerked the rug out from under the Arizonan's dusty feet and named Regan Smith as the driver of the No. 7 just a few weeks before the 2016 season. Enter Earnhardt Jr.
JR Motorsports assigned Bowman a very limited 2016 schedule, but in doing so brought under the Hendrick umbrella a hungry driver, eager to learn, who needed a good break. Bowman had run a couple of races for the JRM team in the 2015 NXS and Camping World Truck Series.
When Earnhardt Jr.'s concussion sidelined him midway thru 2016, Bowman got 10 races under his belt and turned heads with three top 10s (the first three of his Cup career), a pole, and a near-win in the Phoenix playoff race. He ran up front in most of that stint, telling the entire garage he could perform. This was the jolt he needed, right?
But there was no room at JR Motorsports' NXS operation or Hendrick's four-car Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team in 2017 when Earnhardt Jr. returned. Bowman opened this season darn near winning The Clash at Daytona in Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 (since he won that Phoenix pole) and running the Atlanta NCWTS race before GMS Racing's Justin Haley turned 18. He has spent most of his energy the past two years patiently working for HMS' R&D department on the driving simulator and waiting for a shoe to drop.
But opportunity and hard work have crossed to make luck for Bowman. Earnhardt Jr.'s sponsors Nationwide and Axalta return fully to the No. 88 - their statuses seemed to be the biggest stumbling block against Bowman landing the ride. And now Bowman gets the chance that thousands of young drivers dream about: a full-time ride with a premier team in NASCAR's premier series.
Not many cross over, once they have landed in small team purgatory. Landon Cassill used to drive for HMS, but has toiled for years on small teams. Parker Kligerman was once a Penske development driver and full-time in Trucks - he's mainly a pit reporter now. Cole Whitt was a development hand for Team Red Bull and ran one year for JRM - he's a back-runner at TriStar Motorsports' Cup team now. And here are some names of young drivers that fell on the scrap heap the last ten years and aren't doing much now: Chase Austin, Tayler Malsam, James Buescher (yes, the NCWTS champ), Dylan Kwasniewsky, Josh Wise, Miguel Paludo...those are just a few. Remember them?
The world moves so fast that so few ever can cross over or move up, once they have been in bad rides. The perceptions against them damage their marketability and the steady wave of new blood purges them out of the consciousness of fans, the media, and team owners.
In the vaunted days of old in NASCAR, driving for small teams and then getting a big break was a rite of passage for most great drivers. Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Mark Martin, Sterling Marlin, Terry Labonte, the brothers Jeff and Ward Burton, the brothers Darrell and Michael Waltrip - all drove at least some years and races for bottom-rung teams and then got promoted.
And some that have gotten that big second break have fallen. Sam Hornish Jr. hasn't been able to stick anywhere. David Stremme lost his Ganassi ride, but got back to the Cup Series two years later with Team Penske, only to lose the No. 12 to one Brad Keselowski by the end of the year. The late Jason Leffler fell flat on his second revival in Cup fell flat and didn't last the season. J.J. Yeley, who also got promoted to Joe Gibbs Racing's Cup team, never landed a quality ride after he lost the No. 18 gig. Georgia drivers David Ragan and Reed Sorenson have driven full-time for big teams and now sit on smaller ones. The aforementioned Regan Smith has vacillated from mid-level teams, to JR Motorsports in NXS, to part-time and relief driver. This list could go on and on...
For Alex Bowman to have broken the glass ceiling over the young drivers' junk yard is almost as big of a story as some of the big names of the youth movement that are shining now. If he wins races and is a weekly contender, he will have proven Rick Hendrick was right in waiting to promote the much-younger William Byron or hire an experienced shoe like Kenseth. And it will be the biggest Cinderella story the sport has seen in a long time. If he struggles for a year or two an loses the ride, chances are he will never get a chance anywhere close to this.