By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – His nickname is Bowman the Showman, yet that did little in helping Alex Bowman to get Rick Hendrick to remember his name.
Bowman was a journeyman driver who had already washed out of the Cup Series once when he found himself inside mighty Hendrick Motorsports with the opportunity of a lifetime. Perform well in a Hendrick car, and Bowman just might land a full-time job with one of NASCAR’s top organizations.
He had his work cut out for him: The boss initially believed his new driver was named Alex Baldwin, not Bowman.
“Then he showed the talent he had, the sponsors really liked him,” Hendrick said.
Bowman’s debut as the new driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet got off to a strong start when he won the pole for the Daytona 500. It’s a record-tying fourth consecutive year a Hendrick car has won the Daytona 500 pole.
Bowman will race Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway in one of the two qualifying events that sets the remainder of the field. The 24-year-old from Arizona has been here before, most recently in 2015, when a multicar accident in his qualifying race cost Bowman a spot in the Daytona 500.
His only previous start in the Daytona 500 was in 2014 when he finished 23rd as a rookie. He missed the race the next year, and was out of a job after the 2016 season. His break came when Dale Earnhardt Jr. found nine Xfinity Series races for Bowman to drive for JR Motorsports.
When a concussion sidelined Earnhardt for the second half of that season, Earnhardt talked Hendrick into giving Bowman a shot as the replacement driver. Bowman got 10 races and meshed well enough with the team that he got the job when Earnhardt retired after last season.
While he waited, Bowman sat on the sidelines.
“If you talked to me in 2015 and told me that in 2018 I was going to be driving the 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports, I would have called you nuts,” Bowman said. “You know, everything happens for a reason. My career had a lot of ups and downs, and I’ve been able to lean on my past experiences a lot to make me better and to better prepare myself for this job.
“I think I’m better because of the things that I had to go through. I got to make a lot of mistakes without anybody watching.”
All eyes will be on Bowman the rest of this week as he leads the rebuilt Hendrick roster into NASCAR’s biggest race of the year. Although the team is anchored by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott is entering just his third season and William Byron will make his Cup debut in Sunday’s race.
Hendrick looks at this as a chance to give three young drivers a chance to develop on the job. Elliott was promoted when Jeff Gordon retired. Earnhardt got Bowman this shot at Hendrick. Byron made it to the Cup level in his third season in part because if Hendrick didn’t promote him, he’d likely lose the 20-year-old to another team.
“I can’t speak for the rest of the garage, but when I have an opening and here’s a guy that I’ve tried to groom, and he develops faster than I thought he could, and then if you don’t do something with him, someone else is,” Hendrick said. “So my idea this year was let’s let them learn in the stuff they’re going to be driving for a long time.”
Hendrick also commended Bowman for showing patience rather than just rushing into a ride after his 2016 stint in the No. 88. Bowman did get three events last year, two Xfinity Series races and a Truck Series race, but the rest of his time was spent in a simulator while he hoped Hendrick would come through with a job.
“He sat out a year when he had lots of opportunities, and he did that to wait for the opportunity with us,” Hendrick said. “That speaks a lot of his desire, and he’s spent an awesome amount of time in a simulator giving feedback. He’d run setups before the race for all the guys, after the race for all the guys. He was like a human computer for them. He paid his dues, and he deserves to be here.”
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