Bowman ready for final shot as Earnhardt's super substitute

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Alex Bowman will race 75 laps in the car that belongs to NASCAR's most popular driver, hang up the firesuit and head home.

When will he return?

Bowman has no idea if he'll return to Cup racing in 2017.

A year after making a string of solid starts, Bowman is outside the NASCAR picture following Saturday's opening exhibition Clash race at Daytona International Speedway.

The 23-year-old Bowman has no rides lined up in any NASCAR series and knows the Clash may be the last time he competes for Hendrick Motorsports. Bowman was a stout as a substitute last season for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. With Junior sidelined with a concussion, Bowman made ten starts and shared the 88 Chevrolet with four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. Bowman won a pole at Phoenix - which earned him a spot in the non-points Clash - and had three top-fives.

Bowman was courted by other teams, and certainly could have landed a ride that would have left him a backmarker. Bowman had been down that road and had no top-10 finishes in 71 starts over the 2014-2015 seasons with BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.

No deal could pull him away from Hendrick .

''I was kind of surprised that a winning Xfinity car or something like that didn't open up,'' Bowman said. ''I feel like I want to be part of a winning organization whether I am driving; just working for the team; doing testing or doing the simulation stuff.''

Bowman made nine starts in the second-tier Xfinity Series for Earnhardt's JR Motorsports team and has five top-fives in 50 career starts.

Earnhardt has been cleared to drive, and could have returned to race for the first time since July. Earnhardt graciously declined his spot and let Bowman take the wheel. Earnhardt instead will help call the action in the Fox Sports booth.

''It's owed to Alex,'' Earnhardt said.

Bowman, who couldn't find the necessary sponsor funds for an Xfinity ride, couldn't wait to hear Earnhardt call his race.

''I feel like we can be up front all night,'' he said. ''But it definitely adds some pressure to have probably the best speedway racer of our time in the booth calling the race.''

Earnhardt has missed races because of concussions in two different seasons. Should Earnhardt, or any of the other three Hendrick drivers, be forced to sit out a race for any reason, Bowman is on-deck and ready to ride.

''I think if something did come up, that I would think I would be the one that would get called for it,'' he said.

Bowman spends time testing in the Hendrick race simulator and was vague about his future race plans.

''I do have a couple of races, not in the Cup Series, but in some other stuff coming up,'' he said. ''Excited about that. I can't really talk a whole lot about it, but I will be racing some stuff. Really, I will be hanging out at the shop and coming to the race track when I can, just trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I can.''

Until then, he'll sign some autographs in the Daytona garage, embrace his role one more time as super sub, and try and find the win against NASCAR's elite that has so far eluded him.

All with a tip of the helmet toward Junior.

''Dale's been so great to me. I wouldn't be here without him,'' Bowman said. ''He is the one that pointed me out when he wasn't feeling good. I feel like I owe a lot to him, and I am very thankful for him to put me in the car for this race.''

---

More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.