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NASCAR Charlotte 2016: Preview, lineup, starting grid for Bank of America 500

Alex Bowman hopes filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads to a full-time opportunity next season.

As is typical each fall, the Chase for the Sprint Cup becomes the center of the NASCAR universe. It's an understandable spotlight considering there is a championship at stake and those contesting it are generally the best drivers in the sport.

Beyond the start of the second playoff round Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway (NBC, noon ET), however, there is a 23-year-old driver whose mind isn't on winning a Sprint Cup title, or what he and his team can do to improve so they can be among those in the Chase next season.

In fact, not only does Alex Bowman not have a team for 2017, his prospects of landing a top-flight ride appear bleak. This is despite filling in admirably for Dale Earnhardt Jr. since NASCAR's most popular figure pulled himself out of the car with symptoms that would later be diagnosed as his third concussion in four years.

Bowman has substituted for Earnhardt in five of the races he's missed (including Sunday's rescheduled Bank of the America 500), while Jeff Gordon was lured out of retirement to drive in the seven other events. Gordon's final start comes Oct. 30 at Martinsville Speedway, with Bowman handling the remaining five races.

Before Hendrick Motorsports tapped him to fill Earnhardt's seat, he was relatively unknown. He had two full years driving for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, two of the Sprint Cup's smaller and less successful teams, with mediocre results.

Bowman was released by TBR in January, just weeks before the start of the season. But needing an additional part-time driver for the Xfinity Series team he co-owned, Earnhardt hired Bowman, who had left a strong impression by out-qualifying Earnhardt in a race at Richmond International Raceway. It's a gesture Bowman hasn't forgotten. He credits Earnhardt for "saving my career."

"It just means a lot to have him help me as much as he has and be the friend that he's been," Bowman said. "He has been a big part of my life and I will definitely cherish that friendship forever.

"Obviously, I hate the circumstances, but without him saying, ‘Hey put Alex in it' I don't think that Hendrick Motorsports really would have thought of me. Maybe they would have, but who knows? I'm definitely thankful for all his support."

With Hendrick, one of NASCAR's dominant organizations and not lacking resources, Bowman has gotten a chance to showcase his ability. In his first race with Earnhardt's No. 88 team, he was running in the top 10 when a cut tire put him in the wall. Bowman's next start saw him again in the top 10 when an engine issue sent him to the garage prematurely.

His past two starts went problem-free and the finishes reflected that. Bowman placed a career-best 10th in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, followed by a 14th the next week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He qualified a career-best second (196.000 mph) for Sunday's race, just a titch behind pole-sitter Kevin Harvick (196.029 mph).

"It's so cool to go to the race track knowing that you have equipment capable of winning if you give the right feedback and make the right calls throughout the race," Bowman said. "It's been a lot of fun. It's been the most fun I've had in a long time."

Bowman's performance hasn't gone unnoticed. Harvick said Bowman has "done a good job" and shown speed every time he's been on the track, while Earnhardt praised him on Twitter after clocking in the second-fastest time in qualifying Thursday night.

Yet, when the 2017 season begins with the Daytona 500 in February, Earnhardt plans on being behind the wheel of the No. 88 car. And with no other opportunities within Hendrick's Cup program or Earnhardt's Xfinity team, Bowman is facing an uncertain future.

"Unfortunately, the chips didn't line up in my favor," Bowman said. "... There are not really any rides open next year, so however many races left we have may be the rest of my Cup career."

Those circumstances put the onus on Bowman to make the most of the few opportunities he has left.

"If I win some races or run up front, I think it makes things better," Bowman said. "... I really feel like we have a shot at it."


Position Driver Speed
1 Kevin Harvick 196.029
2 Alex Bowman 196.000
3 Chase Elliott 195.759
4 Kyle Busch 195.228
5 Tony Stewart 195.228
6 AJ Allmendinger 195.087
7 Martin Truex Jr 194.826
8 Carl Edwards 194.553
9 Denny Hamlin 194.168
10 Joey Logano 194.049
11 Jimmie Johnson 192.630
12 Kasey Kahne 188.547
13 Danica Patrick 194.161
14 Greg Biffle 194.007
15 Ricky Stenhouse Jr 193.966
16 Jamie McMurray 193.868
17 Matt Kenseth 193.791
18 Ryan Blaney 193.736
19 Austin Dillon 193.722
20 Brad Keselowski 193.625
21 Ryan Newman 193.209
22 Michael McDowell 193.009
23 Kurt Busch 192.205
24 Matt DiBenedetto 191.489
25 Kyle Larson 191.980
26 Chris Buescher 191.829
27 Trevor Bayne 191.544
28 Paul Menard 191.530
29 Casey Mears 191.469
30 Brian Scott 191.381
31 Clint Bowyer 190.954
32 Landon Cassill 190.617
33 Aric Almirola 190.564
34 David Ragan 190.054
35 Regan Smith 188.864
36 Cole Whitt 186.002
37 Michael Annett 185.976
38 Jeffrey Earnhardt 185.039
39 Reed Sorenson 183.673
40 Josh Wise 183.343