Daytona 500: NASCAR rising star Alex Bowman wants to be best known for winning

Alex Bowman wants to be known for more than a number or a nickname.

Even at speeds exceeding 200 mph, the reigning pole-sitter at the Daytona 500 has struggled to distance himself from either one.

The driver tabbed “Bowman the Showman” enters his second full season behind the wheel of the No. 88 car made famous by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The expectations and pressures from Junior’s steadfast fan base have been inevitable. On the eve of Sunday’s qualifying sessions, Bowman said he has grown comfortable fielding inquiries about succeeding a two-time 500 winner.

“That’s just part of it,” Bowman said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. “I wouldn’t be here without Dale. It’s an amazing opportunity and I’m very thankful for all his help and support. So I’m sure the questions will keep coming.”

Bowman is less enthralled with discussing his catchy moniker. He has, at least, come to accept it.

“It’s just stuck at this point and I’m not getting rid of it,” he said. “I was not a huge fan of it at first. But I feel like if you make your own nickname, that’s like wearing your own T-shirt. You can’t do that.

“Unfortunately, I am stuck with what I’ve got and I’ve just kind of got to own it.”

In the end, Bowman wants to be known for winning.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time Cup series champion, said that, too, is inevitable for the 25-year-old.

“I feel like he has unlimited potential,” Johnson said. “My first year in Cup I was 25 and turned 26. … He’s been around for a handful of years. But he still has so much runway left.”

Bowman’s early years were a rough ride. The Tucson, Ariz., native became a full-time Cup series member in 2014 at age 21 but continues to seek his first win.

“I feel like I’m working harder than I ever have and doing more to prepare than I ever have,” he said. “I feel like last year, for me, it kind of exposed my weaknesses and exposed areas that I could improve on.”

Even so, Bowman, who posted 11 top-10 finishes, did make strides as a driver.

After failing to crack the top 10 even once during his first two seasons, Bowman lost his ride in the sport’s top series. The show, though, would go on.

Recognizing Bowman’s talent and recovering from a severe concussion, Earnhardt asked him and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon to share the No. 88 car in 2016.

Bowman had four top-20 finishes in eight starts before capturing the pole during the season’s penultimate week at Phoenix. He then nearly won the race before falling to sixth place.

Bowman’s first victory in NASCAR came the following season while racing on its Xfinity Series, setting the stage for him to take over for Earnhardt in 2018.

Bowman wasted little time proving a worthy successor, becoming the fourth consecutive pole-sitter for Hendrick Motorsports. Bowman, who would finish 17th after a wreck during overtime, would like to become the iconic team owner’s record-tying ninth Daytona 500 winner, joining Petty Enterprises.

Bowman’s qualifying success notwithstanding, the 2018 season was uncharacteristically slow for Hendrick’s four-driver team. Three wins during the final 15 races by 22-year-old Chase Elliott were all the group mustered.

Johnson went winless for the first time in 17 seasons.

“Last year isn’t what we expect,” Bowman said. “It isn’t what Hendrick Motorsports is.”

Confident, fearless and promising, Bowman fits the profile for an owner who gave Gordon and Johnson their starts as 20-somethings.

Bowman now looks to set his own path and make his own name. Johnson said his young teammate will get the chance once he steers the No. 88 car to Victory Lane.

“It has a decent ring to it,” Johnson said of the Showman tag. “If he rings the bell and goes to Victory Lane and puts on a helluva display, he can change the narrative on that.”

egthompson@orlandosentinel.com

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