BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) Alex Bowman should have plenty of fans this weekend at Michigan International Speedway in his return to NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.
Not only will he be filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but his No. 88 Chevrolet will be adorned with a special University of Michigan paint scheme. Maybe that'll be enough to turn Bowman into a college football diehard.
''My whole life I've raced so much that I haven't really been able to be a big fan of anything,'' he said. ''This year has been a big change in that. With football starting up here next week, I'm going to start off as a University of Michigan fan and go from there.''
The 23-year-old Bowman has never finished in the top 10 in 72 starts at the Cup level, so this chance to race for Hendrick Motorsports in Earnhardt's place gives him a rare opportunity to compete under the spotlight. Earnhardt has not been cleared by doctors to return to racing as he recovers from a concussion.
Bowman drove for Earnhardt at New Hampshire last month, but Jeff Gordon has filled in for him the past four races. Earnhardt will miss at least two more races, with Bowman taking his place this weekend and Gordon driving for him at Darlington.
''Being as close of friends as I am with Dale, I have just been hoping he gets to feeling better more than anything,'' Bowman said. ''Obviously, I'm more than happy to fill in whenever I can. New Hampshire was a lot of fun.''
Bowman, from Tucson, Arizona, made 71 Cup starts over the 2014 and 2015 seasons with BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing. His best finish came at Daytona in 2014, when he was 13th.
He looked as if he might have a chance to top that at New Hampshire, but his car went into the wall because of a tire issue, and he finished 26th. That's been his only Cup race of the year.
''Obviously, we ran a lot better than we finished,'' he said. ''I hated that the race team didn't get the finish they deserved. Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and Chevy and everybody, they have been so welcoming and easy to work with.''
Bowman qualified sixth Friday for this weekend's race. He has never started higher than 14th at the Cup level.
This week, NASCAR is using its lower-downforce rules package from races earlier this season at Michigan and Kentucky. That's not a huge deal for Bowman - if only because he's hardly raced on the Cup circuit this year under any set of circumstances.
''As far as the downforce package goes - only running one other Cup race this year, I wouldn't necessarily say I'm used to it the other way,'' said Bowman, who has made five starts this year on the Xfinity circuit.
The University of Michigan unveiled a partnership with Axalta Coating Systems in March. Axalta is a sponsor of Earnhardt's, and the plan was for him to race with the Michigan paint scheme for this weekend's race.
But with Earnhardt still sidelined, it's Bowman who will be in the No. 88. Bowman said he talked to Earnhardt on Friday.
''Him and I went back and forth this morning on the rules package and what to expect and just what he thought the race car was going to do and whatnot,'' Bowman said. ''As far as going forward, we haven't discussed that at all. Obviously, I'm happy to fill in when needed. Jeff is going to be in the car in Darlington. Hopefully, we'll just have to see Dale's timeline, but I'm definitely happy to get in the car whenever needed.''
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister