#88-Dale Earnhardt Jr. will leave the building before 2018, this much is true. Who will replace him at Hendrick Motorsports? This much is speculation.
Earnhardt's departure will leave a void that ultimately must be filled, even if for all practical matters Earnhardt is irreplaceable as an iconic star of the sport. He moves the needle big-time.
But we all must move on, and he will leave the seat warm anyway. So who's next? Alex Bowman? William Byron? A wild-card entry in Carl Edwards?
Early handicapping points to Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt Jr. in 10 of 18 races that Earnhardt missed last season with concussion-related symptoms. Bowman wasn't spectacular, but he was steady. Bowman, 24, posted an average finish of 19.7 in those races.
"I see Rick Hendrick going young," said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's former crew chief and now an analyst with NBC Sports. "I do not think William Byron is the answer in 2018. I think Hendrick understands that drivers need to mature.
"We have already seen the struggle of Daniel Suárez this season, who is the Xfinity champion, perhaps getting moved up a little too quickly. I think that can be a detriment to a driver's career. I have Alex Bowman circled on a piece of paper. I think Bowman is the perfect guy. I don't mean a five-year contract, maybe a one- or two-year deal."
Bowman, who joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2016, has competed in 81 Cup races.
Of course the most appealing and intriguing pick is Edwards, the former Joe Gibbs Racing driver who surprisingly stepped away - but didn't officially retire - just before the start of the 2017 season. It's best to leave it at that - Internet speculation and hijinks. Edwards reportedly has no interest in the job, nor has Hendrick Motorsports reached out to him.
It goes back to Bowman, who is under contract with Hendrick but does not have a ride in the Cup Series this season. Although the final word will belong to owner Hendrick, Earnhardt says he would embrace becoming part of the process.
--- Orlando Sentinel ---