CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- There is a strong crop of drivers headed into free agency this summer and Alex Bowman has hardly been at the top of the list.
Brad Keselowski is a former Cup Series champion, Kyle Larson is considered the future of NASCAR and Ryan Blaney is poised for a breakout season. Erik Jones is determined not to be the lowest-performing driver at Joe Gibbs Racing, while Corey LaJoie is among a handful of young drivers desperate for a chance to drive competitive cars.
Bowman used to be in LaJoie's situation, a group of second- and third-tier drivers routinely passed over by the top teams. They settle for underfunded teams, often have to bring their own sponsorship, don't make much of a salary and never have a fair shot to win each week.
"Every year is a contract year. Every year of my life in the Cup Series has been a contract year," Bowman said. "I've had contracts and two weeks before Daytona read a tweet that said I'm not going to Daytona."
His break came in 2016 when the 22-year-old took his first big step away from driving bad race cars. Bowman patched together nine Xfinity Series races with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team and was available when Earnhardt was sidelined for a long portion of that season with lingering effects from multiple concussions. Hendrick Motorsports called Bowman for 10 of those races and he grabbed the first pole of his career and notched three top-10 finishes as a substitute.
Bowman again refused slow cars all of 2017. He ran just three times all year -- one Truck Series race, twice in the Xfinity Series and nothing at all in Cup -- and practiced his craft on simulators while waiting to be considered for a seat in a car that can actually win.
His plan worked to perfection when Earnhardt retired after the 2017 season and Rick Hendrick gave Bowman the No. 88 Chevrolet.
But going into the final year of a three-year contract, Bowman understood it was going to be a struggle to keep that seat considering how many drivers will be available at the end of the season. Hendrick already needs a driver to replace seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson when he steps back from a full schedule.
So Bowman opened the year determined not to lose the No. 88.
He qualified second for the Daytona 500, might have had a chance to win last week at Las Vegas if not for a late caution and then finally made his way to victory lane Sunday in California with a dominating run. It was Bowman's second career Cup victory in 156 starts, both in the Hendrick Chevrolet, and first opportunity to convince his boss he wants to keep his seat.
"Hendrick Motorsports is where I want to be. It's where I want to stay for the rest of my career," Bowman said. "There's a lot of outside pressure. There's a lot of pressure from myself. I just want to win races. That's all there is to it. When I come here and don't run well and people think I look mad or upset or I'm not friendly, you're dang right, I want to win races. I don't like running bad."
The victory locked Bowman into the 16-driver playoff field just three weeks into the season. He is the first Hendrick driver to win this year and the first to win in the new Chevrolet Camaro. The car struggled through two seasons after its introduction and Chevrolet was shut out of the championship finale both years. NASCAR allowed the manufacturer to make changes prior to this season and Bowman led three Camaros in the top four at California.
"When Chevrolet said they're going to commit to working hard to try to improve the body, that put a sense of morale throughout the whole shop, throughout the whole team, a lot of positive attitudes toward it," said crew chief Greg Ives. "We need to take that positive momentum of the hard work Chevy put in and we needed to put that to results on the racetrack, whether it was top 10, top 5's."
Running well early in the season is the boost Ives needs for his driver and crew. The struggle with the Camaro since 2017, plus the retirements of Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt, knocked Hendrick Motorsports down a peg. While Joe Gibbs Racing won a record 19 races last season and the title, Hendrick drivers won just four races and three were by Chase Elliott.
"It's great to have the win, but continuously building that momentum is something that is needed in the shop environment," Ives said. "It's needed when the guys turn on the TV and they see the racing we had and their product was on the racetrack competing. It's a totally different vibe, totally different feeling."
Does the early season win give Bowman any leverage in contract talks with Hendrick?
Ives answered for him: "No, he's going to need multiple wins, so we're going to work on that."
Bowman laughed at his crew chief, then admitted there is more work to be done the next 33 weeks.
"I'm as motivated as ever, doing everything I can to try to be the best on and off the racetrack as I can be," he said. "Hopefully we can make that happen. It is a contract year, but honestly every year of my career has been a contract year, so it's not much different."