Hendrick Motorsports didn’t go outside the organization for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s successor.
Bowman was a substitute driver for the team in 2016 as Junior was sidelined the second half of the season because of a concussion.
As part of the announcement of Bowman as Junior’s replacement, the team also said Nationwide was returning as a primary sponsor. Nationwide moved to the No. 88 team in 2015 after previously sponsoring NASCAR’s No. 2 series. The company will sponsor 19 races in 2018.
“Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I’ve wanted to do,” Bowman said in a Hendrick release. “I’ve had so many people believe in me along the way. My family has sacrificed a lot and always been behind me. I would never have this chance without the support of Dale and everyone involved with the No. 88 team. To be part of Hendrick Motorsports and for Mr. Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it’s just amazing.
“The No. 88 team is such a great group of people. I know we can pick up where we left off last year, and I truly believe we can win races and contend for a championship. I’m excited to build on the relationship with Nationwide and all of our partners. It means the world that they have faith in me, and I’m thankful to have them on my side. Now I just want to go win.”
Hendrick also said Axalta, a current sponsor of Earnhardt Jr., would sponsor 15 races in 2018. That means the team has filled 34 of 36 points races on Bowman’s car already.
Bowman has been serving as a test and simulator driver for Hendrick in 2017. He had three top-10 finishes in 10 starts in 2016 and drove for Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2014 and 2015.
Earlier in the week, Matt Kenseth said he didn’t think he’d have the opportunity to drive the No. 88 car in 2018. Kenseth is leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season; Erik Jones is driving the No. 20 car in 2018.
Without Kenseth as an option, it seemed likely that Hendrick would go in-house for Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement unless it found a driver that no one was expecting. Bowman was one of the top in-house candidates along with William Byron, who currently drives in the Xfinity Series.
But Byron turns 20 in November and 2017 is his first full season in the Xfinity Series. Bowman has already made 81 Cup Series starts.
While Byron has shown he can win in NASCAR — he had seven wins in the Truck Series in 2016 and has two Xfinity wins already — his promotion to the Cup Series would be one of the quickest rises in recent NASCAR memory.
And it still could happen fairly soon. While Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott have signed long-term extensions with the team, Kasey Kahne’s contract is up at the end of 2018 and two of his primary sponsors have already said they’re leaving the No. 5 car at the end of the 2017 season. If Kahne departs from Hendrick at the end of his current contract, Byron would be the top candidate to take over for him.
The Bowman news also means NASCAR’s “silly season” is a go for the 2018 season. The opening at the No. 88 post-Earnhardt was the only big name ride that was officially already open for the upcoming season.
Expect more movement to come, especially with Kenseth available and willing to continue driving. Bowman may be just one piece of a Cup Series driver roster that looks a lot different in 2018.
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