An old management cliche says when a successful, well-loved leader retires, you don't really want that job. (If you're Tim Cook, you can do a spectacular job... but still: You're not Steve Jobs.) What you want is to take over from the person who took over for the iconic figure. 

Even so: Would you pass up the chance to step into a coveted position, no matter how great the pressure to perform may appear?

Not if you're Alex Bowman. Next year Alex will replace the retiring Dale Earnhardt, Jr. -- who fans have voted NASCAR's most popular driver for the past fourteen years -- as the driver of the #88 car for Hendrick Motorsports.

(The way the decision was handled is a textbook example of high-profile succession planning. Dale announced his retirement in late April. HMS waited until late July to name Alex as the new driver. During the intermittent, when asked Dale said that while the decision was not his to make, he did hope to provide input, and said he thought Alex would be great. Jimmie Johnson also said great things about Alex. Rick Hendrick talked about how sponsor considerations would play a role, and the fact that Nationwide and Axalta will continue to be major sponsors is proof of their support....)

Clearly many people are willing to take a chance on Alex -- just like he took a chance on himself when he turned down other driving opportunities and signed a multi-year contract with HMS in late 2016 to play a key role in the organization's simulation and on-track testing programs.

Why was that a risky move?  "We were very careful not to guarantee him anything," team owner Rick Hendrick said, "other than if opportunities arose, he would have a shot." 

As you'll see, Alex decided to bet on himself. 

To say that gamble paid off is an understatement.

You signed a 3-year deal with Hendrick Motorsports with no promises as far as racing. For a driver, three years is an eternity to be out of a ride. How big of a risk did you feel you were taking?

In some ways I felt like I was taking a huge risk.

It's a little terrifying to be a race car driver and not actually be racing. I didn't know if I would forget how to race, if I would lose what talent I had... and beyond that, I didn't really know if any opportunities would even open up for me.

Last year was interesting to say the least. I lost my ride just before the season started. Then I got to fill in for Dale, I ran some races for Junior Motorsports (Earnhardt Jr.'s XFINITY team)... and then I decided to put all my eggs in the Hendrick basket.

I knew I wanted to drive for a race team that can win races and win championships. I always knew I wanted to be at HMS. So when they made the offer, I saw it as a chance to get my foot in the door. Then it was up to me to work really hard, show them I deserved the opportunity, and do everything I could to make the best of it. 

(Laughs.) And I am really glad it worked out.

How much did all the simulator work and the wheel force car testing you do help to keep your skills up?

It kept me sharp in some ways. As far as making laps and having speed, the simulator and wheel force car helps. But in racing you're so affected by everyone else on the racetrack. Your car drives differently because of aero(dynamic factors), and we don't simulate that in the simulator. So as far as restarts and traffic and racing other drivers, that's where I was worried about getting rusty.

So you can practice all you want, but if you want to stay sharp in terms of racing... you really have to race.

I could argue against that, since in your first race in months you won the recent XFINITY race at Charlotte, which was your first race in months.

Well, yeah. (Laughs.) I didn't feel too out of sync or out of sorts. I struggled on pit road a little bit; I wasn't as aggressive as I needed to be because it turned out I really was a little rusty. But I thought I did fairly well on restarts, and I think our restarts probably won us the race.

Also keep in mind I was in a really good car.

 

It was an interesting weekend, though. Even though I was driving for a team I hadn't driven for, and the pedals in the car were different than what I'm used to... the weirdest thing was driving to the race track knowing I was actually going to race.

That felt really different. But in a really good way.

You path to this point included plenty of ups, but also a lot of downs. Looking back, what would you have done differently? 

I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I wouldn't want anything to be different. All the ups and downs made me appreciate the situation I'm in now so much more than I maybe would have.

I won a lot of races at every level as a kid. All the way through the ARCA series I won a lot of races.  Then I reached the XFINITY series and I expected to keep winning... but I didn't. I thought I was going to win at every level, and honestly it was hard for me to understand and accept.

Going through what I did in 2013, '14, '15 and even '16... I grew up a lot. All those experiences helped me understand how I need to act, how I need to communicate, how I need to perform not just on the track but off the track... 

If everything had been handed to me and I had kept on winning, I don't think I would be as prepared for everything that's involved with this opportunity. 

Speaking of this opportunity... there's a tremendous amount of pressure that comes with taking Dale Jr.'s place in the car.

Going through the tough times helps with that, too. In 2013 I expected to win even though I was driving for a mid-level XFINITY team. I put a ton of pressure on myself and when we didn't win, I got frustrated and upset.

Then last year when I filled in for Dale... I didn't know if I would ever get another chance to drive a Cup car, so I wanted to have as much fun and enjoy it as much as I could. 

I was able to step back and enjoy the opportunity because I finally realized I how miserable I had made myself in a lot of different race cars. (Laughs.) I was just happy to be racing. And I drove better because I didn't stress myself out so much.

When you get to do something awesome, enjoy it.

Outside expectations aside, you should have even more confidence going into next year since you're familiar with the 88 team.

Absolutely. Last year I ran ten races with them. We showed we can contend for wins and plan to pick up where we left off.

You mentioned outside expectations. No one can replace Dale. I certainly won't try. All I can do is be myself. I'm really thankful for the support Junior Nation has already shown. They've been awesome.

Speaking of Junior Nation, the demands on your time -- from media and from fans -- will increase dramatically. 

I've run the full Cup schedule before so I know what the week-to-week demands are like. As far as increased attention, the best way to handle that is to surround yourself with a great group of people. Fortunately, I'm at HMS -- so being surrounded by great people is already taken care of.

But I do realize next year will be busy. So this year I took my first vacation.

Wait. You've never been on vacation before?

Nope. Everywhere I've traveled has been for racing. So I've been trying to take advantage of the situation and have some fun. Really, that's my main goal. I'm just going to have fun with everything and try not to get too stressed out. 

Our job is to run the best we can every week. While that sounds like pressure, it's really not. I race cars because I love to race cars. 

When you get to do what you love, and do it with an organization like HMS, it's not pressure. It's fun. 

That's what I was hoping for. I had no idea whether it might come true, but I'm really glad it did.

Published on: Oct 26, 2017
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