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."
The Showman Bowman was fast tonight. Great job @AlexBRacing and @AxaltaRacing gang. P2 @CLTMotorSpdwy— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) October 7, 2016
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."
BANK OF AMERICA 500 LINEUP
|7||Martin Truex Jr||194.826|
|15||Ricky Stenhouse Jr||193.966|