Dale who? Alex Bowman ready to take the No. 88 back to victory lane


Alex Bowman won the NASCAR lottery.

After spending his first two years driving for uncompetitive teams, Bowman received a huge break in 2016. With the sport's most-popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., suffering from concussion-like symptoms, Bowman earned the opportunity to pilot the No. 88 Chevy for 10 races while Junior recovered.

Formerly known as a driver who ran at the back of the pack, Bowman surprised many fans by picking up three top-10 finishes while subbing for the injured Earnhardt in 2016. Then, when Dale Jr. announced he would retire following the 2017 season, team owner Rick Hendrick shocked the racing world by announcing Bowman would take over as the new full-time driver for the No. 88 team.

Think about it. Rick Hendrick is a smart man and had several options available. Hendrick could have replaced Junior with the sport's second most popular driver, Danica Patrick, or could have put veteran Matt Kenseth in the seat of the No. 88 to provide immediate results. But, he saw enough out of Bowman in his short stint subbing for Earnhardt, that he gave the 24-year-old Bowman one of the most coveted seats in NASCAR.

"Alex impressed the heck out of us last year with his talent, poise and professionalism," Hendrick said after revealing Bowman as the No. 88's new driver in July, according to ESPN. "He stepped up in a very demanding situation and showed that he can run with the best and compete for wins. His ability to stay focused through it all, and the way he's handled himself since then, has shown a lot of character."

Since signing with Hendrick, Bowman has bought a house, continued his work behind the scenes as a simulation driver, and also tested Chevrolet race cars.

Bowman also silenced many critics this year when he won the XFINITY Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Prior to that victory, Bowman was winless in his NASCAR career, albeit he was competing in much inferior equipment when compared to Team Hendrick, which has 12 Cup Series championships to its name.

So how did Bowman get a shot with Team Hendrick in the first place?

Well, Bowman recently explained to RACER that Dale Jr. was partly responsible. After qualifying directly behind Junior during a race at Richmond, the two were paired together in a vehicle while they greeted fans who bought tickets for the race.

"And just started talking. He had two open XFINITY races (for JR Motorsports), he was kind of confused how I qualified (near) him in a BK (Racing) car, so it kind of went from there," said Bowman, according to RACER. "I ran Charlotte and Phoenix for him; we ran really solid in both races and didn't get the finishes we deserved. Then we tried to put together a deal for the following year and just couldn't drum up the sponsorship to do it and the year after we were really lucky to have Valvoline help us and a lot of great partners help us put together a nine-race deal at JRM for '16."

Following his stint driving for Jr. Motorsports, Dale Jr. became one of Bowman's top supporters and even petitioned Hendrick to give Bowman a chance in the No. 88 car while he was injured.

Now, with the Daytona 500 just a couple of months away, Bowman has the best opportunity he's ever been presented in the Cup Series and sounds like he's determined to make the most of it.

"I probably won't believe it's real until we get to Daytona, it's kind of surreal until then. ... This is the happiest I could possibly be with where I'm at and the team I'm driving for. Nationwide, Axalta and everybody is going to keep me busy, I'm sure. We've got a bunch of stuff to do with them, I think my calendar is already booked into January with stuff. So, just really looking forward to working with everybody. The offseason is going to be fun."