Whoever replaced Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the wheel of the No. 88 car this season surely knew he would draw more attention than some other drivers in the NASCAR cup series.
“Junior,” who has retired to the NBC broadcast booth, urged Rick Hendrick to make Alex Bowman that driver.
Bowman responded by winning the pole position for the Daytona 500, and establishing himself in the playoff race.
Through 22 of 38 races, six before the playoffs, headed into the Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocano Raceway (green flag, 2:50 p.m., Sunday, NBCSN), he sits in 16th, the last playoff slot.
“There’s not really any added pressure, there,” Bowman said of replacing the most popular driver in the sport for more than a decade. “You can’t see the door number from the seat.
“Just trying to do my job and be my own person and do my thing. I’m not too worried about it.”
Bowman, who attended promotional events Wednesday in Grand Rapids, has one top-five finish, seven in the top 10, one did not finish, and has led 67 laps so far this season.
That is 453 points, 28 more than Ricky Stenhouse Jr., in 17th; 29 in front of Paul Menard, in 18th; and 74 ahead of Ryan Newman, in 19th.
“We’re right on the edge of the playoffs, and trying to make that,” he said. “We’re definitely capable of doing it.”
As good as his first full season with Hendrick Motorsports has been, Bowman is looking for better.
“You know, we’ve had some ups and downs,” said the 25-year-old from Tucson, Ariz. “We’ve kind of fallen short of where we expect and want to be running. I feel we’ve gotten better, here, lately, and been making strides in the right direction.
“But, I feel like Hendrick Motorsports, as a whole, kind of struggled this year,” Bowman said. “So just trying to get to where we can be.”
It would be a good time for his first career win, after one top-five finish, 10 in the top-10 and two poles in 102 career NASCAR cup starts, over four years, including with BK Racing in 2014 and Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2015.
But Bowman said he also needs to be smart enough not to throw away any races.
“We had pretty bad day at Kentucky a couple of weeks ago that hurt us and a pretty miserable day in Loudon (New Hampshire) last week, but we are able to finish decently and that got us some points back,” he said.
“We’ve got to focus on controlling what we can control.”
After Pocono, and then Watkins Glen on Aug. 5 for a road race, the NASCAR cup series returns to Michigan International Speedway (green flag, 2:50 p.m., Sunday, Aug.12, NBCSN), for the Consumers Energy 400.
Then, it is on to Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis, before the playoffs begin Sept 16 in Las Vegas.
“Michigan’s just really fast,” Bowman said.
“It can be a lot of fun when your car is driving well, and it can be a big headache when you’re struggling a little bit.
“I’d say the biggest thing about it is it’s really, really hard to pass,” he said. “There’s pretty much no passing just with how fast it is, and how aero-dependent the cars become.
“I’ve had some fast cars there. But we’ve never been able to finish well.”
Consumers Energy 400
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12
Where: Michigan International Speedway
Support race: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Corrigan Oil 200, 1 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 11