A young-looking dude helped sell T-shirts beside the C.J. Leary car at the Chili Bowl midget nationals last month. The happy fans took their new shirts and found Leary to sign their new racing swag.
Either those buying the shirts had no clue who sat behind the table or didn't care that the hands giving them their shirts are the same hands now steering Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ride at Daytona International Speedway and beyond.
Alex Bowman, who would win the Daytona 500 pole four weeks later, enjoyed the moment.
"I can sit out there and sell C.J. Leary T-shirts all day and they're asking C.J. to sign them and have no clue who I am -- which I think is great," Bowman said last month as he moonlighted from his race car driving job to own and build a midget car for that sport's biggest event. "It's fine with me.
"Hopefully we're going to win a bunch of races this year, and I feel like that will change. At the same time, I'm enjoying it while I can and kind of enjoy getting space and be normal, just another guy working on the race car."
Bowman, who replaced Earnhardt in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 car starting last week at Daytona, did sign autographs for those who recognized him at the Chili Bowl.
Bowman obviously never expects to attract the same fame of the driver he replaces. The fact it took Hendrick Motorsports three months to hire him after Earnhardt's retirement announcement last April has some wondering if the 24-year-old will find much success at all. He doesn't have the résumé of fellow Hendrick newcomer William Byron, who earned 11 wins in the Xfinity and truck series in 56 starts the past two years.
But Bowman has the experience, and the mentality, that could make him the right fit as the Earnhardt replacement.
Bowman owns one win in 135 national series starts with just three top-10s in 81 Cup starts, which included 71 races for underfunded teams where his best finish was 13th. He earned all three of his top-10s while substituting for the concussed Earnhardt in 2016 and opted to remain in a non-racing role at Hendrick in 2017.
"We hadn't talked about [me replacing him] at all when the retirement announcement came out and that worried me for sure," Bowman said. "It's just nerve wracking. You get worried and nobody calls and you get scared for sure.
"You hope the decision to turn down offers and sit out pays off. There were times I didn't know what was going to happen."
Bowman will put all the speculation aside, something he probably didn't have the ability to handle seven years ago when he transitioned from midget racing to NASCAR. He won't sweat that he has 62,400 Twitter followers and not the 2.43 million of his predecessor. He will try not to stress over a bad finish.
A guy who loves cars and his pets, Bowman appears prepared for his monumental task, both mentally and from a racing perspective. He led 194 laps in the November 2016 Cup race at Phoenix while substituting for Earnhardt, and he won an Xfinity race driving a Chip Ganassi Racing car at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October.
"People will talk if we struggle," Bowman said. "What have I done before? I won one Xfinity race and we dominated a Cup race. That's just the honest truth of it. ... Hendrick Motorsports hired me to win races and that's what I plan on doing.
"I'm not really worried about what happens if I don't perform because I'm going to do whatever it takes to perform."
At least one person won't worry about it. Lorin Ranier, who judged a tryout about 10 years ago in which Bowman competed in a midget, has confidence, calling out any questions that he might not have the talent.
"I think you're going to see as it goes, he's going to be a really good race car driver. Look what he did last year, gets off the couch and wins that race at Charlotte in the Ganassi car. That's not easy to do."
Bowman isn't used to easy. In 2010, he suffered a bad wreck in a midget car at Las Vegas, where he broke a shock and hit a tractor tire being used as an inside barrier. He doesn't remember flipping several times, breaking ribs, a collarbone and suffering a collapsed lung.
"I'm glad I don't remember it because I didn't have any fear getting back into a race car," Bowman said. "They had to cut me out of it with the Jaws of Life and all that good stuff."
Bowman, against the advice of his doctors and the objections of his mother, got back in the car five weeks later even though he couldn't pull his belts tight because of the soreness.
So maybe Bowman doesn't always make the best decisions, but typically racers don't when their determination and desire overcomes their brains. He also admits to some obsessive-compulsive behavior. He demonstrated that persona in his work on his Chili Bowl car, where he spent hours tinkering with bolts, cleaning the car and making sure everything was just right.
Except it wasn't. The car had a fuel pickup issue because Bowman had painted the fuel cell and chips of paint got into the filter.
"Where I had placed the fuel filter in the fuel system wasn't optimal," Bowman said. "I placed it where I've run it for years and years. It worked and this year I painted the fuel cell and it bit me. It's part of it. It's my fault. Lesson learned. Move on from it. Not do it again."
So why paint the fuel cell?
"It looks better," Bowman said.
Bowman still enjoyed the Chili Bowl beyond that fuel cell and a myriad other issues because he loves the challenge and he's a car guy at heart. He drove the hauler back from Oklahoma to his North Carolina home, which he bought specifically because it had a shop on property, in the area of Mt. Ulla, about a half-hour from the Hendrick Motorsports shop.
"A month ago getting ready [for the Chili Bowl], I look at the clock and it is 4:30 in the morning and I'm still out there," Bowman said. "I was like, 'You know what, maybe I should get a shop somewhere and buy a small house somewhere.'
"I like it. It's convenient. I have a little gym in my shop, too, which is nice. I live pretty far out. I like people, but I like having my space, too. I've got room for my dogs to run around. We fired off the midget in the middle of the neighborhood and no one said anything."
While some drivers honed their skills by racing in the Chili Bowl (Bowman can't do it because Hendrick won't let him), Bowman believed building and owning a car served as the next best thing to get ready for the 2018 NASCAR season.
Bowman had no desire to sit around and watch tapes of races all day or pour himself into data for hours in preparation for his career-changing opportunity.
He obsessed over that midget, running back to the hauler during races once he knew the car had problems. He scrambled trying to replace everything he could to get it right. Members of other teams came over to help him because that's what racers do and also because they have watched Bowman compete in cars he has worked on for years.
"I just can't sit there and watch race tapes over and over again and study and study all offseason because by the time I get to Daytona, I'd already be burned out," Bowman said. "Doing this is relaxing ... when it runs right."
Plus, being a car guy is what got Bowman to where he's at now. He did a year of simulator work and testing for Chevrolet, often spending more than 10 hours a week in a fairly boring job, which primarily consisted of making sure the simulator mimicked what he felt at tests.
Working on a car provided a release from driving one.
"There's also a point that you get so trapped in that world and you think nothing else matters and you have no fun," Bowman said. "When I go to the race track, I want to have fun.
"So, I go to the race track with Hendrick and I have fun. I don't want to put too much pressure on myself. Watch those race tapes over and over again? It gets monotonous and it's not any fun anymore."
Bowman knows what it's like not to have fun. He won races all his life until trying to break into NASCAR's three national series. He went winless in the K&N East Series, finishing sixth in 2011. He did capture ARCA wins in his first two starts and won four more in 2012 but still finished fourth in the standings.
He spent a year driving for Robby Benton in the Xfinity Series, where he finished 11th in points in 2013 and then tried to make the jump to Cup, first with BK Racing in 2014 and then Tommy Baldwin in 2015. Baldwin fired him in January 2016, replacing Bowman with Regan Smith.
"Given the situations he was in and the cars that he was in for the early part of his career, you never really heard of him, right?" said Denny Hamlin, who will share the front row with Bowman for the Daytona 500 on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). "And that's a really good thing. Of the slower paced cars, [the goal] is just don't be in the story, don't cause the wrecks that cost somebody, he just never was in the story.
"That was a good thing, and it's great to see someone that spent his career grinding in the sport finally get the opportunity in a car like he's got now. I've got a ton of respect for him."
Scrambling for a ride after his release from TBR, Bowman landed nine races for JR Motorsports, which led to the substitute driving role when Earnhardt couldn't race. He landed a contract with Hendrick Motorsports as the driver who tested for Chevrolet and drove the simulator.
"He raced with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder the last several years," Earnhardt said. "He invested in himself, and I think we all in this room know about his story and how hard he worked to get this opportunity.
"I told him that now he has this opportunity, now is the time to drop that chip and let people get to know you."
Nationwide Insurance, Earnhardt's longtime sponsor, helped open the door. It will do 11 of the first 12 races of the season with Bowman while continuing to have a personal services deal with Earnhardt, a lifelong customer. Nationwide hopes to focus on Bowman's love of pets and cars -- and his story of perseverance -- to attract customers. Nationwide is pleased with a video series it has rolled out this month trying to get people acquainted with its new driver.
"He's driven by racing -- he's a car guy that loves racing and loves to win," said Nationwide's NASCAR lead, Todd Kubli. "He loves to compete and what he does motivates him to prove he can do it and gives him the confidence to succeed."
At times, that drive has also served as his biggest challenge. For his years in NASCAR prior to getting associated with Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorpsorts, Bowman plodded along as a quiet, reserved teenager.
Public appearances, when he didn't run well, went about as good as his racing.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself back then," Bowman said. "I was pretty miserable because if we weren't winning, I felt like I wasn't doing a good job. it made me miserable all the time.
"I just stopped worrying about it and try to have as much fun as I can with every situation I'm given. I had a lot of ups and downs in my career. It showed me there is a lot more to life than driving a race car. So when I do get to drive a race car, I want to be super thankful for it and have a lot of fun with it."
He freely admits he feels pressure of filling the ride of a 15-time most popular driver. He knows he can't ask for a better opportunity as far as equipment, as well as establishing a fan base.
"The fans that are sticking around with the 88 car seem to be great people and I am super thankful for that," Bowman said. "There are a few of them that are like, 'Hey, you should retire the number' or 'We don't want you to drive the race car' or 'I'm not watching NASCAR anymore' or whatever.
"That's their choice. That's their prerogative. They don't know me. I don't know them. I'm not going to let it bother me."
But does he have the talent? Ranier remembers Bowman at 15 years old at that midget tryout, where Bowman went out fifth among the 10 finalists Ranier judged.
"I saw him run and I said, 'You can take your [data] stuff and throw it away. That's your winner right there,'" Ranier said. "It looked like Tony Stewart rolling out there.
"Just the way he ran the car, the speed -- it's not just the speed, the way he ran, the line he ran, the momentum he carried. He was the fastest. It was actually unbelievable."
Bowman will have to accomplish more unbelievable things now that he has an opportunity that he thought might never happen after driving -- and getting released from -- a struggling Cup team. He had no clue he'd get that chance even though he had a respectable showing as a replacement for Earnhardt for 10 races while he recovered from a concussion. The team used Jeff Gordon in eight races, a sign it wanted star power in that car.
"His age is a big factor," said seven-time NASCAR Cup champion and Bowman teammate Jimmie Johnson. "Reflecting back, I thought probably a lot like Alex, I was never going to get my chance.
"Here I am at 25 and then I turned 26 in 2002 and I got my chance -- and found that age and maturity and life experiences really helped me for what was to come. That's something huge he has on his side."
So if it all is on his side, why did Hendrick take more than three months to look for a driver after Earnhardt announced his retirement? Hendrick appeared to flirt with Matt Kenseth and others, but sponsorship ended up matching with Bowman.
"The whole garage wants it," Bowman said about how he felt when vying for the ride last summer. "That was very nerve-wracking. The other side of things, to get picked for that is such an honor to have Rick Hendrick want me to drive the race car and Nationwide want me to drive the race car.
"That's kind of a relief to me because it shows me they think I can do it, they have faith in me and that gives me a lot of confidence in myself going into this year."
Since the announcement in July, Bowman has waited for this week, his chance to get back in the No. 88 car.
He has spent plenty more hours in the simulator and many hours doing publicity shoots as well as meeting with crew chief Greg Ives. He needed the building of the Chili Bowl midget car as the return to his roots.
And then he went out Sunday and won the pole for the Daytona 500, a testament to the equipment as much as the driver, but also a sign he can handle a little bit of pressure and a lot of speed.
"Every time he gets in the car, he's fast, and his feedback is unbelievable, and Greg is a technician," Hendrick said. "Greg will pull that out of you. ... [Bowman] has got a tremendous amount of talent, and these guys learn so fast with simulation.
"I'm blown away with what a quick study these young ones are and all the things they do."
Last Friday, Bowman went to his weigh-in with NASCAR (the car's weight is adjusted for the weight of the driver). He also saw his car in the Cup garage with his name on it.
He had arrived.
"Just going through all the motions to get going kind of made me realize like, 'OK, it's time to go racing now and actually do your job,'" Bowman said. "It was surreal for so long because it was an opportunity that I never thought I was going to be able to get.
'To kind of have it all come to life here and to get going is really special."
Now comes the hard part: Remain grown up. No goofing around (or at least not too much). Watch what he tweets because he knows Nationwide and other sponsors will read them. And enjoy the ride as much as he did selling T-shirts and working on a car at the Chili Bowl.
"Now is the time for him to stop feeling that it's him against the world and he is trying to get his foot in the door," Earnhardt said. "Now his foot is in the door, he is ready, here is his chance.
"I told him to put a smile on his face and go to the race track and enjoy what you are doing because you have made it. ... It's going to be quite an experience and a tremendous change for him in his profession. He has never been in this type of situation before, but I think he is going to handle it well."