DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The day was always going to come.
Rick Hendrick knew that much. What he didn't know was how he'd react.
"When Dale Earnhardt calls me and says he's going to retire," Hendrick said at Daytona International Speedway, "you know it's going to come one day, but it's a shock when it happens."
And it was for more than just Hendrick, the team owner. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his impending retirement midway through last season, it was a wake-up call for NASCAR. A sport with a gradual drain of star power in recent years would now take its toughest body shot yet, losing the 15-time Most Popular Driver.
And yet, to Hendrick and his team, there was already a contingency plan in place: Alex Bowman.
Bowman, 24, had filled in for Earnhardt (along with Jeff Gordon) in 2016 when Earnhardt missed half the season with a concussion. In those 10 races, Bowman won a pole at Phoenix and had three top-10 finishes -- all with Earnhardt's blessing.
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"Dale Earnhardt Jr. said when he got hurt, 'I want Alex in the car, he's got a ton of talent,' " Hendrick said.
But when Earnhardt returned to driving full-time to start last season, there wasn't a car for Bowman to drive. Other teams called and offered him deals, would have given him chances to drive and compete right away.
Bowman chose to wait for Earnhardt's No. 88.
So all of last season, while Earnhardt took his literal and metaphorical victory lap, Bowman watched. He ran laps in a driving simulator, studied in team meetings with the man he'd eventually replace, and watched everyone else drive.