Bowman bolstered by Johnson’s early support, now takes over as his successor

When Alex Bowman joined Hendrick Motorsports for the 2018 season, he played along with the mistaken impression that he was a promising Cup Series rookie — even though already he had two-plus years of experience in NASCAR’s top division. Bowman was in on the joke, if only because his actual rookie season was forgettable; he scratched the top 20 just once for heavy underdog BK Racing and finished 35th in the 2014 driver standings.

Bowman was about as far away on the grid as he could be from Jimmie Johnson, who had just sealed the sixth of his seven championships the year before. But Johnson often made it a point to check in with the series’ newer faces during pre-race ceremonies, and his uplifting words helped sustain Bowman as he raced hard in relative obscurity.

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“I was talking about the race that had taken place the week before at just how hard I saw him driving the car,” Johnson recalled. “He was totally sideways, I could see his left-front tire and how active he was behind the wheel, just trying to hang onto it and still going forward. I remember approaching him and being like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you held onto that car and were able to save it and drive it.’ He’s definitely grown up running on the dirt, and I could tell that day when I saw him wheeling the car.”

Somewhat improbably, the two drivers became Hendrick Motorsports teammates four years later and Tuesday, Bowman was introduced as Johnson’s successor in the No. 48 Chevrolet. But their bonds developed into a friendship that was a source of motivation during Bowman’s times of career uncertainty.

“He was the first guy to come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, man. You’re doing a really good job with what you have to work with,’ at a time when I was really unsure of my career and didn’t know how things were going to go, wasn’t really having a whole lot of fun,” Bowman says. “That encouragement kept me going for quite a while, so to be able to take over a car from him is really special.”

Bowman said the two drivers chatted earlier this week to discuss the impending news and how his move to a new team and new sponsor might play out. “More than anything, I just wanted him to know that I’m here,” Johnson said, indicating he would remain close to the No. 48 team next year, even as he leaves full-time Cup Series competition after this season.

Bowman will have some continuity as his pairing with crew chief Greg Ives will remain in place, but he’ll again be a new figure following in famous footsteps. Three years ago, Bowman replaced Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Hendrick No. 88; next season, he’ll take the reins of the No. 48 Chevrolet that Johnson carried to Hall of Fame heights in his illustrious career.

“To watch his growth over the last few years, to drive after Dale Jr. in the 88 car and the pressure that comes with that, I feel like that was a big hurdle to accomplish when he first started, and he checked that box very well and moved on,” Johnson said. “Then the performance started to come, and the next thing is, can you elevate the consistency and have that there week-in and week-out. Then can you win and continue to win consistently, and he just keeps climbing the ladder with all those things in mind and handling all of this very, very well and delivering great results on a consistent level.”

Though 2021’s early story lines will likely focus on whether Bowman can add to the stellar history of the No. 48, Johnson insists he’s eager to see Bowman forge his own identity with the team — much as he has the last three seasons.

It’s just the latest form of encouragement from one driver to another, tracing back to a shared pre-race moment from 2014.

“As we all know, it’ll be a story for a while and then he’s going to make that car his, and he’ll have an opportunity to write his own story,” Johnson says. “So, I’m excited for him, and I can’t wait to see what that story is.”

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