Sunday’s Auto Club 400 was certainly a surprise to a lot of people. Alex Bowman went out and dominated the event, leading 110 of the race’s 200 laps. Bowman, a driver with just two previous NASCAR wins before Sunday, was a driver that a lot of people considered to be on the hot seat for the 2021 season.
There are several big name drivers who will hit the free-agent market for the 2021 season. Bowman is not the most well-known driver on the circuit and his resume doesn’t have a lot of wins on it. However, he has done an admiral job in the No. 88 car over the last couple of seasons and Sunday’s win proves he can get the job done with the right circumstances.
But does that mean he should continue to drive for Hendrick Motorsports? The organization has had trouble selling sponsorship on the No. 88 Chevrolet and with big-name free agents looming, Bowman’s fate is still in question. That led us to think: Does Sunday’s win mean that Alex Bowman should drive the No. 88 Chevrolet for 2021 and beyond? Our writers Clayton Caldwell and Mark Kristl debate.
There’s Still More To Prove
There’s still more to prove for Alex Bowman. I don’t think there’s any doubt that his run in Sunday’s race proves that when the car is right, he can go to victory lane. However, I am big on consistency and so far Bowman hasn’t proven that he can win consistently or perform on a consistent basis in his Cup career. Add that with the fact that he isn’t a well-known driver and may not be able to sell himself as well as some other drivers may be able to. That could mean less funding for Hendrick Motorsports and that never helps a team.
Last season Bowman had a similar win at Chicagoland Speedway. It was a victory that took a lot of people by surprise and proved he can go to victory lane in the Cup Series. When he won the race, there were 19 races to go in the 2019 season and some thought he would be able to carry that momentum into a strong playoff run.
That wasn’t the case. In the final 19 races, Bowman had a tough time finding consistency. He finished the season with just five top-10 finishes in the final 19 races and finished a disappointing 12th in the series standings. He seemed to really have a lot of trouble with the short-track package at the back end of the year.
Evidence of this is his 15th-place finish at Bristol, 18th-place finish at Darlington, 23rd-place finish at Richmond, 30th-place finish at Martinsville and 23rd-place finish at Phoenix. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a grand total of one top-15 finish on NASCAR’s version of short tracks in the final five visits to those tracks.
All great Cup Series drivers perform on the short tracks. It’s a staple of the series and a staple of stock-car racing in general. He cannot struggle on the short tracks in 2020 and expect to keep his ride. On the bright side for Bowman is that the package has changed drastically on the short tracks from 2019 to 2020. The new package means there is no more excuses as this package should drive a lot more like he is accustomed to.
So far in Bowman’s two years at Hendrick Motorsports he has finished 16th and 12th in the series standings. The expectations for a Hendrick Motorsports car are bit higher than that. Plus, the free agent market heading into the 2021 season is going to be full of big-name drivers.
Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, John Hunter Nemechek, Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez are all free agents going into the 2021 season according to various reports. A lot of those drivers listed have much more decorated pasts than Alex Bowman does.
The list includes several former champions of the Truck, Xfinity and one driver is even a former Cup Series champion. Many of those drivers have more wins than Bowman does in their NASCAR career as well. The stats don’t show the whole picture, but those accomplishments not only prove that those other drivers can drive, but they are much more recognizable because of their past accomplishments.
Alex Bowman doesn’t have those accomplishments, so it puts him in a situation where he has to make his name in the Cup Series. Sure, his wins have been impressive but depending on who can sell to the sponsors, the organization may be better off with someone else in the No. 88 car moving forward. Bowman’s win last season woo the sponsors to him in 2020. There’s no doubt he needs to do more to do that in 2021.
In the end, there is still a lot to prove for Alex Bowman in the 2020 season. If he doesn’t improve on his consistency, I believe Hendrick Motorsports will be better off with someone else in place in 2021. – Clayton Caldwell
Bowman is improving – why replace him?
Hendrick Motorsports absolutely should keep Bowman next year. He is improving as a driver and he likely is already locked into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs this season. Why replace him?
Before he competed full-time in the Cup Series, Bowman only competed full-time in one season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He drove the No. 99 RAB Racing Toyota to an 11th-place finish in the championship standings. He accumulated two top fives and six top 10s, but he could have benefited from another full-time season.
However, he lost his ride with the team before that season finale. For the next two seasons, Bowman drove for underfunded Cup Series teams BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing. While his performance was not stellar, he gained two positions in his second full-time Cup Series season, even if it was from 35th to 33rd.
Then he moved to Hendrick Motorsports to fill in for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. Since then, Bowman has only gotten better. His number of top-10 finishes, his amount of lead lap finishes, and his average finishing position all have risen in his three seasons with the team.
Last season, Bowman only had two DNFs, at Phoenix Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway. Although his average finishing position was a decline from his average starting position, Bowman showed resilience.
He battled Kyle Larson at Chicagoland Speedway and his first career Cup Series race. At the Charlotte ROVAL, he overcame adversity, including a heated exchange with Bubba Wallace, to the Round of 12 in the playoffs.
Admittedly, Bowman did not lead laps at many races last season, but Hendrick Motorsports was partially at fault there. Chase Elliott won three races, but William Byron and Jimmie Johnson also failed to win, and Johnson missed the playoffs. Bowman showed improvement even as Hendrick Motorsports struggled to adapt to the new package.
This season, Bowman and Hendrick Motorsports appear to have made the necessary adjustments. Bowman won at Auto Club Speedway, Johnson and Elliott are both above the playoff cut line, and Byron has consecutively improved his finishing position in all three races this season.
Bowman is only 26 years old. His teammates Elliott and Byron are only 24 and 22, respectively. Those three are cornerstones for Hendrick Motorsports for this year and many more to come. Why change that?
Additionally, seven-time champion Johnson will retire from full-time competition after this season. Hendrick Motorsports has a massive decision to make. Who will replace Johnson in the No. 48 Chevrolet?
The organization already must fill one seat; there is no need to make an unnecessary change and fill another.
One issue for Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 88 team is sponsorship. Nationwide Insurance opted not to sponsor Bowman this season. Hendrick Motorsports acquired sponsorship for Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet this season, but is it enough for 2021?
One option for Hendrick Motorsports for 2021 would be to move Bowman to the No. 48 Chevrolet and add a driver for the No. 88 Chevrolet. Ally Bank will sponsor the No. 48 Chevrolet through 2023. That solves one question for the team; then who would drive the No. 88 Chevrolet?
If the team signs an established driver such as Brad Keselowski or Kyle Larson, then it may be easier to sell sponsorship for races. If the team opts to hire a Xfinity Series driver such as Justin Allgaier or Ross Chastain, then the team could market them as a newcomer. Rick Hendrick has won championships with drivers Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. He is a smart team owner – he will figure it out.
Lastly, there have only been three Cup Series races this year. Bowman has already won one race and likely made the playoffs. He and crew chief Greg Ives can afford to gamble a bit more to accumulate more stage wins and overall victories. If they are successful, Bowman’s stage win and Auto Club 400 victory will not be his only playoff points this season. And winning, at least at the Cup Series level, makes the decision for Hendrick Motorsports to retain him that much easier. – Mark Kristl