MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Having had a few weeks to reflect on the 2018 NASCAR season, Alex Bowman said Thursday that he still has goals left unfinished after his first full season with Hendrick Motorsports. Though he checked another pole position and a first-time playoff berth off his list, he still wanted more — namely a tick mark in the win column.
Though the fortunes of the No. 88 outfit rose and dipped at points during the season, Bowman’s positive approach helped mitigate the sometimes team-wide struggles. It’s a characteristic that stood out for a vested outside observer — his predecessor, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I think from outside the car, he handled it really well,” Earnhardt said. “You know, a young driver their first year, not performing the way you want to perform, he never put it on anybody, he never pointed fingers, never said anything that had a little attitude to it or anything like that. He just was like, ‘We’re going to keep working. We’re having some struggles, we’re going to get it right.’ I thought he kept his attitude great when he was frustrated. …
“And so I felt like that Alex proved this season that if they can get the cars where they need to be that they got the right guy in the seat. I think that that was important for Alex because the car did struggle.”
Bowman’s first campaign with the No. 88 team overlapped with the first season of the Chevy Camaro ZL1 in the Monster Energy Series. Teammate Chase Elliott broke through for his first three wins in the second half of the season, but the organization fought to replicate its trademark performance with the new Chevrolet model and a retooled driver roster.
Still, Bowman was one of three Hendrick drivers claiming postseason berths, joining Elliott and seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson in the 16-car field. Bowman survived a harrowing first three races of the playoffs to advance to the Round of 12, an achievement he said may have changed people’s perceptions.
“I’m still on the same page of we didn’t win and that’s pretty frustrating to me, but we made it further than a lot of people thought we would in the playoffs, which was really cool,” Bowman said. “I really just wanted more, but it was a rough year for all of us at HMS. So to kind of start where we did and make the progress that we did was pretty cool.”
Bowman ended his year with the first three top-five finishes of his premier-series career, including a fourth-place effort at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course that helped him avoid the first postseason elimination. The 25-year-old driver said he hopes to improve on his stats in year two with Hendrick Motorsports, but acknowledged that some performance gains will be dependent on how quickly his organization adapts to a new rules package for 2019.
Earnhardt said Bowman’s progression has the potential to mirror his own. Earnhardt said he set modest goals in his first year with crew chief Steve Letarte (now his broadcasting colleague at NBC Sports) in 2011 of running among the top 15. When he was able to accomplish that on a regular basis, the team reset the bar at top-10 performance, methodically inching closer to being a threat to win.
“They can’t expect to just jump out there next year and they’re just going to miraculously start contending for wins,” said Earnhardt, who estimated that his own team’s transition to becoming a top-tier contender was a three-year process. “You’ve just got to move those standards up and push that team to believe in those standards and work toward that goal.
“Last year, I think his goal would be to run in the top 10 any time they could. I believe they could raise that up a little bit to a top five this year and just aim for that every single week until that is happening every week, and then you can change that goal.”