When Alex Bowman was tapped to relieve Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016 after NASCAR’s most popular driver sustained an injury, it came as quite a surprise to a number of experts. He had not done much until that point with a stint for BK Racing in 2014 that produced one top-15 on a plate track and no top-10s. In 2015, his best finish was a 16th at Talladega.
In 2016 Bowman scored three top-10s and another three results of 16th or better in a well-prepared Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. To put those numbers into perspective, Earnhardt had six top-10s in 18 starts, so Bowman got about as much out of the power plant as his more experienced counterpart.
In 2017 Earnhardt earned only eight top-10s in his final full season. Bowman would improve on those numbers in 2018 to earn 11 top-10s.
No one is denying that Hendrick has a nose for talent, but it took a little while before most fantasy owners saw in Bowman what Rick did. While 2018 was indeed an improvement over the performance of the No. 88, few of the runs were flashy. Bowman had only three top-fives – the first of his career. Those came on traditional strongholds for Hendrick (Bristol, Pocono, and a road course).
From the end of 2018 through April 2019, Bowman failed to crack the top 10, but when he managed to roll over the finish line second behind his teammate Chase Elliott at Talladega, a switch flipped. Bowman finished second again in the next two races at Dover and Kansas, he was seventh in the Coke 600 the following week and swept the top 15 in seven consecutive races.
His three second-place finishes had fantasy players asking when Bowman would win.
Bowman answered that question in June. He was chased down and passed by Kyle Larson late in the Camping World 400 at Chicagoland. Larson appeared to have a much better car as he powered by Bowman, but the driver of the No. 88 dug deep and caught back up to the leader without the benefit of a pit stop or any adjustment to his car.
Bowman’s first win expended a lot of emotion and it would be six more weeks until he earned another top 10. His next top-five had to wait until late September when he finished second on the Charlotte Roval. Bowman finished third the following week at Dover and he closed out the season with a fifth at Texas and ninth at Homestead in the final three weeks of the year.
It depends on precisely how one measures momentum as to whether Bowman is expected to start 2020 strong – assuming a fantasy player even believes in the concept of momentum.
With 12 top-10s in 2019, Bowman was only slightly better than 2018. But the real gauge of his improvement came in the form of his one win and seven top-fives that more than doubled his career-to-date output.
Equally impressive, all of this was accomplished during a rebuilding season.
Hendrick is not the powerhouse today that it was when Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were winning so many races. This is a young organization. Johnson is retiring. Chase Elliott has four seasons under his belt while William Byron has only two. For all intents and purposes, Bowman is in that same boat because the past two seasons plus the 10 races in 2016 are the only times he has been in competitive equipment.
Meanwhile, Chevrolet has been relegated to the shadow cast by Toyota and Ford in recent years. They were slow to figure out how to make the current aerodynamics work. With another generation of cars coming in 2021, it’s hard to know if the bowtie brigade will figure this package out next year.
If Bowman can continue to improve on his seven top-fives from 2019, he will be a better value than 12th, but there are enough unknowns to make players cautious in the opening rounds.
Three Best Tracks
Charlotte Roval (3.0 in 2 attempts)
Chicagoland (18.6 in 5)
Sonoma (20.8 in 4)
Three Worst Tracks
Indy (34.3 in 4)
Kentucky (30.8 in 4)
Phoenix (27.6 in 9)
Top-fives: 7 (.194)
Top-10s: 12 (.333)
Top-15s: 22 (.611)
2019 Finishes at or above rank = 15 (41.6%)
2020 Driver Profiles:
13. William Byron
14. Aric Almirola
15. Kurt Busch
16. Christopher Bell
17. Ryan Newman
18. Matt DiBenedetto
19. Jimmie Johnson
20. Tyler Reddick
21. Chris Buescher
22. Cole Custer
23. Austin Dillon
24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
25. Ryan Preece
26. Ty Dillon
27. Bubba Wallace
28. Michael McDowell
29. Ross Chastain
30. Daniel Suarez