TALLADEGA — Talk about being overshadowed.
Alex Bowman flew into Talladega three weeks ago for a media appearance in advance of this weekend’s Hellman’s 500 only to share the stage with (1) the charter members of the Alabama Gang and (2) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It was like a singer still waiting on his first iTunes appearance as the middle act between The Rolling Stones and Springsteen. (Don’t minimize that Stones analogy; Donnie Allison is just four years older than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.)
It left Bowman in a pretty low profile for a driver in one of the highest-profile rides this weekend.
Bowman, a 23-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., is substituting for Earnhardt in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, driving for the team that, in different incarnations, has six victories at this speedway.
“Coming here, (Earnhardt) is such a great superspeedway racer,” Bowman said. “I’m looking forward to being able to lean on him as much as possible.”
“It’ll not be as much fun (for me) to watch Alex get in the car as myself,” said Earnhardt, who plans to be here all weekend. “I’ll be plugged into what’s going on and wanting the guys to do well and be a part of that experience.”
Earnhardt has not raced since July 9 because of a concussion and the on-going symptoms. Jeff Gordon was lured out of retirement but unable to take over the wheel immediately.
That’s when team owner Rick Hendrick dialed up Bowman … and got no answer. Bowman was at work in the simulation department at Hendrick Motorsports and missed the call. The owner called back later and asked him to drive that weekend at New Hampshire.
“They could have picked a lot of people, but they picked me,” Bowman said, sitting down behind a platter of ribs and sides.
“The first week in Loudon (N.H.) was crazy because it was unexpected,” he continued. “It was a lot of media stuff. A lot went on the two days leading in. Definitely more than I expected.”
For age 23 and despite being somewhat unheralded before Hendrick’s fateful phone call, there is a veteran’s air to Bowman.
His career follows the same path as many of his peers. He began racing at age 7 in quarter-midgets, then advanced into bigger cars, bigger circuits. He had some 140 feature wins on local tracks. By 2012, he was racing in ARCA and what is now the Xfinity circuit. He made his Sprint Cup debut in the 2014 Daytona 500.
This will be Bowman’s 55th Sprint Cup start, his fifth at Talladega — give yourself a hand if you remember the Dr Pepper, Dustless Blasting and Golden Corral cars of his past here — and his seventh in the No. 88 this year. He’s fresh from a seventh-place finish at Kansas, his second top 10 of the year.
Despite this week’s focus on the Chase, it’s inevitable that the driver of an Earnhardt-connected car won’t always be in the shadows at Talladega.
“It’s not really a burden,” Bowman said. “It’s the best opportunity I’ve had in my life, so I’m just trying to make the most of it.”