From Tucson to Nascar's fast lane: Alex Bowman in the 88 car

TUCSON, Ariz. - There's a large crowd around the number 88 car hauler outside Phoenix International Raceway, where Alex Bowman sits inside it.

"I think most of the guys are probably here because they are waiting for Dale Jr to walk out at some point," said Bowman.

Alex Bowman's path to replace the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. started at age six by racing quarter midget cars. The son of an auto body shop owner, Bowman worked his way up the ranks by racing midget and sprint cars.

"Back then, things came a lot easier," said Bowman. "Even running the E series in Arca, it was a lot easier because you're winning every week, and things aren't as tough."

Bowman's biggest fan isn't at the track on this day. It's his grandmother, Loretta Bowman, who attends nearly every race.

"I'm so proud of him," Mrs. Bowman said from her home in Tucson. "I've always been proud of him."

Loretta Bowman was proud when before the 2014 season, Bowman became a full-time driver at Nascar's top level. He was just 19 years old. But for two seasons, Bowman drove for low budgeted teams, and consistently had low finishes.

"I should tell you it was more than frustrating," added Mrs. Bowman.  It was really hard to watch because I knew all the time what a great driver he is."

'It wasn't a whole lot of fun but at the same time, looking back at it, I feel like I learned a lot without a whole lot of expectations," added Alex Bowman.

After two seasons of wrecks, and finishing laps down to cars from the high powered teams like Hendrick, Gibbs, and Penske, Bowman's career was stuck in neutral. Rather than drive again for another underfunded team, Bowman decided to become a test driver at Hendrick Motorsports, not knowing if there would be an opportunity to drive one of its cars.

That's when the unexpected happened. Dale Earnhardt Jr, one of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers, and Nascar's most popular driver, had to miss the rest of last season to recover from multiple concussions. Rather than go outside the company, Earnhardt Jr. recommended to car owner Rick Hendrick that Alex Bowman should fill his seat.

"He stood out to me more than anyone on the racetrack as far as how smooth, how perfect, his line was lap after lap," said Earnhardt Jr.

"You know, there's plenty of people that he could have called to fill in for last year, so very thankful that he thought of me to do that," said Bowman.

Bowman proved they made the right decision. He won the pole last year at Phoenix International Raceway, just one hundred miles from where he grew up in Tucson. And, when Earnhardt Jr announced that he would retire at the end of this season, Hendrick Motorsports needed a permanent driver for the 88 car.

"You know, it wasn't much of a decision at all," said Hendrick. "Alex was the guy."

"This is something that has kind of been building for Alex for many years," said Earnhardt Jr. "We've tried and tried to get more and more opportunities for him because every time we put him in the car, he produced."

"When everyone in the company kind of agrees, from the crew chiefs to the drivers, to the sponsors, we put our shoulders together, and said it's going to work, and its exciting for me," added Hendrick.

"To have the support of Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports means the world to me," said Bowman. "It's so special to be able to drive for him."

Bowman again proved he deserves a top ride. He won his first Nascar race in the lower level Xfinity series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"I was jumping all over the place," said Mrs. Bowman. "I was thrilled to death. I knew he could do it. I really expected him to do it, but when he came through, it's just really exciting."

"I know it's not a Cup win, but to have something to fall back on, it definitely felt good," said Bowman.

It was a win by a Tucsonan who is stepping into the seat of the sport's most popular driver, who's the son of a driver who helped build the sport.

"I really don't think there's all that much pressure," said Bowman. I just want to go have fun and not really stress myself out too much and enjoy it. Junior Nation has been so supportive. I can't thank them enough."

Now, Bowman is creating his own generation of fans.

"He's been racing since he was six," said Mrs. Bowman. "And, I was hoping that someday, he would find what he wanted, and I think he has."
 

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