DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—A sea change came at the perfect time for Alex Bowman and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team.
After scoring his first-career victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Chicagoland Speedway, Bowman no longer has to answer the question “When?”
The 26-year-old Tucson native quieted his critics by leading 88 of the final 96 laps and holding off Kyle Larson over the final six circuits for a statement win on Sunday.
“I feel like people question me a lot, and if I deserve to be here or not,” Bowman said. “Just based on the fact that I don't have a big resume to fall back on. I've had a lot of great opportunities throughout my career, but when we went stock car racing, those opportunities got pretty slim.
“Just getting a Cup win is something that kind of relaxes me in the sense that I feel like I can finally say I deserve to be here. But there were definitely some times I was very worried about it. It made going to the racetrack not a lot of fun. But glad we're having a lot of fun now.”
Bowman’s path to Victory Lane wasn’t easy. Despite earning Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s blessing to take the reins of the No. 88 Chevy, Bowman never felt as if he had arrived.
Although he made 71 Cup starts prior to subbing for Earnhardt in 2016, in his first full season with Hendrick, some still mistook Bowman for a rookie.
“Sometimes respect is what you've got to go and get, and I think he's been capable of doing that,” said Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives. “I feel like I've underperformed a little bit with the cars and been able to over the course of the last month and a half, two months, been able to give him an opportunity to run up front and show what he's made of.
“Every week I have one of my guys kind of give the team meeting, and (at Sonoma) his main theme was go get that respect, and I think that's something we've been trying to do, and I think Alex, as well.”
That was a challenge at the start of the 2019 season. Hendrick had yet to figure out the new aero/engine package and had a difficult time keeping up with Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. But 10 races into the season, at Talladega, HMS turned a corner. Chase Elliott won the race and Bowman finished second—the first of three straight runner-up results.
“The hardest part was the beginning of the year,” Bowman said. “We were typically finishing the best or one of the best in our team, and then the rest of our team found a lot of speed, and we struggled to find that same speed they did.
“That was the hardest part for me was just mentally staying patient—Greg and I staying on the same page through some of that and the struggles that come with the three other cars in the organization finding speed and us continuing to struggle. Then we find speed at Texas, and I go back the car in the fence in qualifying. The backup car was super old.”
Bowman started at the rear of the field at Texas and finished 18th—the worst of the four Hendrick cars. He used his Texas troubles as a catalyst to jump-start the team.
“Greg and I kind of sat down, got back on the same page,” Bowman said. “As soon as we did that, it was like a light switch for us over that off week to just regroup and be really good ever since then.”
Ives has noticed a change in Bowman as well. In the 10 races since Texas in March, Bowman has scored four top fives and six top 10s.
No, it hasn't been easy filling Earnhardt’s driving shoes. But Bowman has found a way to make the team his own.
“Nothing is going to be given to us,” Ives said. “It's up to us as a team to know where we're running and what we need to do to get better and to improve.
“Over the course of the last few months, we've been able to do that, and I think that's really been the key, Alex stepping up as the leader of the team and this becoming Alex's team rather than the 88 team of Dale and past teams. Take nothing away, he had to just make it his own identity, and he's been able to do that.”
Rick Hendrick’s assurance that Bowman is locked into the car for a while certainly provides a sense of security for the driver, but an automatic berth in the Playoffs that comes with a win offers a huge relief as well.
“I'm going to be driving the car next year,” Bowman said. “I'm not worried about that. Mr. H has told me I'm good there, so that's all I need to hear. We just need to go win some more races and maybe go chase a championship, and I'm confident the rest will take care of itself.”