NASCAR most popular driver was doing something he doesn’t normally do on a Sunday. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was not inside his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Earnhardt announced earlier in the week that he would be sitting out the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Loudon Sunday suffering from concussion-like symptoms. The announcement sent shock waves around the NASCAR world.
With Earnhardt sitting out the weekend, who would be tasked to race one of the most visible racecars in NASCAR. That fell to a somewhat unlikely hero Alex Bowman. The 23 year old from Arizona was suddenly on NASCARS biggest stage behind the wheel of one of the most famous cars on the circuit.
The young Bowman has made five starts in the NASCR Xfinity series in 2016 for JR Motorsports the team owned by Earnhardt, and he had 71 career starts in the Sprint Cup series for Tommy Baldwin Jr. prior to Sunday.
The spotlight began to shine of Bowman on Friday. He qualified Earnhardt’s Chevy 20th. Sunday began an impressive run methodically working his way towards the front of the field. By the halfway point, Bowman was running strong and as the laps wound down he found himself inside the top 10. Then disaster struck. On a restart on lap 270, Bowman was racing with Kurt Busch for eighth position and the two made contact. On lap 273, the No. 88 Chevy lost a tire and bounced off the frontstretch wall. Bowman was able to make it back to the pits, get repairs and continue, however his chances for a top 10 finish were gone. Bowman was able to hang on however and finished all of the 301 laps in 26th, the last car on the lead lap.
As soon as the checkered flag fell, Earnhardt Jr. obviously watching the race, posted a comment on social media.
“The result will not show what a great job @AlexBRacing and the @nationwide88 gang did this weekend,” he Tweeted. “Proud of them guys.”
For his part, Bowman seemed pleased with his race.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) July 17, 2016
“It was amazing,” Bowman said. “I can’t thank Hendrick Motorsports and all these guys enough. They took me to my worst racetrack by far and made me look good. I just have to thank Mr. H. I had such an amazing time. Everybody, Greg (Ives, crew chief) and all the guys were so welcoming. I hate the circumstances and really hope Dale is feeling well, but I had so much fun today. Obviously, I hate that we didn’t get the finish we deserve, but I’ve raced with a lot of these guys for a long time… I raced around them I’ve never got to actually race with guys like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, all those guys. I had a lot of fun passing really good cars. Just really thankful for Nationwide and all of Hendrick Motorsports for letting me be here.”
“I hate the circumstances, obviously, and I hope Dale is feeling better,” he added.” I’m just so appreciative of the opportunity to be here. I’m really disappointed to end our day that way, but we showed we were a Top-10 car all day long. “
As for the incident that led to his 26th place finish, Bowman was apologetic, but still happy. He said his troubles started on pit road.
“I think the No. 19 (Carl Edwards) was backing up because he was blocked in as I was leaving the pit box,” Bowman said. “ My left-rear hit his right-rear as I was leaving. It caved it in enough, we thought we would be fine, but obviously, when I got into the No. 41 (Kurt Busch) it was already going down. I got really loose, got up the race track and got into him. I hate that for Kurt. Obviously, just got loose had a tire going down and then it went down at about the start/finish line, I just tried to hang on to it. It is really unfortunate. They knew we were here for sure and I had a blast.”
At the end of the day though Bowman said he was happy.
“I don’t think I’ve gotten out of a Cup car with a smile on my face in a while,” he said. “It’s just so much fun to be able to run up front like that. I’ve spent two years of my career wondering if I can really do this at the Cup level and today I answered that for myself.”
“The biggest thing is I’ve raced around those guys for two years; almost three years now,” he added. “I’ve never raced with them. You can call Superspeedway racing whatever you want to call it, but I’ve never had a day where I could just race with them. And today I was finally able to do that.”
Matt Kenseth won Sunday’s race. It was announced on Friday that if Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t medically cleared for next week’s race at Indianapolis, Jeff Gordon will come out of retirement and race the No. 88.