So the soon-to-be new full-time driver of the Nationwide No. 88 Chevrolet decided to take his girlfriend on a date the other night. And when you’re the lucky guy who gets to take the wheel from NASCAR’s most popular driver the past 14 years – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – you take your girl out in style.
“Yeah, we went to the movies,” Alex Bowman told the Arizona Republic during a phone interview this week.
You’ll never guess what happened next.
“Well, it was an R-rated movie and uh, I got carded,” the baby-faced Bowman said.
Stock car racing’s next potential rising star is 24, but he still looks like a teenager. Race fans are beginning to learn about his rags-to-riches story — a kid from Tucson who dominated midget-track racing in nearby Marana, and who climbed out of obscurity and into one of the most coveted rides in the sport.
They just aren’t terribly familiar with his face. Bowman admits he’s been stopped, questioned and harassed by security guards at various race tracks around the country. That’s even more embarrassing than being asked for your ID before they let you inside to watch “American Made.”
“Everybody kind of goes through that until your face gets out there a little bit,” said Bowman, who will be racing the No. 42 Energize Ultimate Lithium Battery Chevrolet on Saturday in the Xfinity Series’ Ticket Galaxy 200 at Phoenix Raceway.
“I was with Kyle Lawson in Las Vegas a couple years ago walking through the garage and they stopped him and made him show his actual driver’s card. Some tracks are better, some tracks are worse. Some tracks I’ve gotten really frustrated at.”
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Like at Martinsville in Ridgeway, Va. After running a race there, security detail wouldn’t let Bowman and others exit a parking lot. So he just sat there for over an hour, waiting.
“That wasn’t the worst of it, though,” he said. “Not only did I sit there parked for an hour, but then a cop walked over to me while I was sitting there and gave me a ticket because my window tint was too dark. That kind of made me a little mad. Everybody’s trying to do their job, I guess.”
So is Bowman, who figures to draw a ton of attention – and facial recognition – once he climbs into the retiring Earnhardt’s rig for good come February at Daytona.
Bowman filled in for Earnhardt when Junior took time off to rest and recover from a series of concussion-related symptoms and did so well last year, including right here in Phoenix, he became an intriguing choice to replace Earnhardt for good.
“Absolutely, it’s a dream come true for me,” Bowman said. “The last couple years, I would have never thought it would end up like this. I’m very thankful for that and to Mr. (Rick) Hendrick (owner of Hendrick Motorsports). It’s been amazing. I’m so glad to have his friendship and to be able to lean on him, but also to be able to drive his race car.”
Bowman always thought his time was coming, even as a 9-year-old tearing around the dirt tracks of southern Arizona.
“Oh yeah, I was always like, ‘I’m the best there is. I’m going to go NASCAR racing someday,’ ” he said. “You keep moving up, though, and little things humble you and you get slapped in the face and realize, ‘This is a whole lot harder than I thought it was.’
“A whole lot more of this is based on sponsorship and equipment than it is driving a race car, but I’m glad I went through that. It humbled me a lot and I’ve learned a lot since then. Without those experienced, I wouldn’t be the driver I am now.”
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Still, it’s been an unusual ascension for Bowman, who dominated in the ARCA series but really had done nothing in any of the top three levels of NASCAR before agreeing on a three-year contract with Hendrick. Bowman spent most of his time working the Hendrick simulator for the engineers, which was basically like playing a sophisticated video game.
It was Junior, however, who put the bug in Hendrick’s ear about Bowman.
“Alex raced for the last few years with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder,” Earnhardt said Friday as he prepared for the penultimate Cup Series race of his career here in Sunday’s Cam-Am 500. “And I told him, ‘Now that you’ve got this opportunity, it’s time to drop that chip.’ I told him, ‘Let people get to know you, get to know the good-guy Alex and the nice-guy Alex.’
“Not that he has shown anybody this rough, edgy chip on his shoulder. It’s just time for him to stop feeling like it’s him against the world. He’s ready. Here’s his chance. It’s like, ‘Man, put a smile on your face. Go to the race track. Have some fun. Enjoy what you’re doing. You’re here. You made it.’ ”
Bowman’s only win in Xfinity Series came last month in Charlotte. It was validation, he said, for getting his new ride, but he needed the win for other reasons, too. It had been six months since he’d been in an actual car and being stuck in the simulator made him think, “I hope I can still do this. I hope I haven’t lost anything.”
Seven-time Cup Series champion and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson was thoroughly impressed by what he saw out of Bowman a year ago in Phoenix, when the youngster captured the pole here in the No. 88 at the Can-Am 500 and led 194 laps before ultimately finishing sixth. Bowman got tapped by Kyle Busch on a restart late in the race and wound up taking out Matt Kenseth by accident to end both drivers’ days.
“When I looked at home he stepped in seamlessly, it was really impressive for me,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “He handled the pressure, won a pole, was up there duking it out for race wins, had a heated moment or two with some of the veterans and wasn’t rattled.
“We all watched him evolve. You drive for a lower-level team and unfortunately, people’s opinion about you can change. That cloud or stigma was there for a while and he had a chance to reset the deck when he drove the 88. I think he’s plenty capable.”
For now, that chip is still on Bowman’s shoulder, right next to that baby face of his that still gets him carded. Just ask him about how close he came to winning in Phoenix a year ago and you’ll know.
“Yeah, that place definitely owes me one, I feel,” Bowman said, adding on Friday when he met with reporters at PIR, “That race has bothered me for a long time, especially because we were so close.”
Reach McManaman at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Wednesday night between 7-9 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.