Alex Bowman to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in No. 88 car for 2018 season

Alex Bowman already knows what it's like to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports, and he'll do it on a full-time basis starting in 2018.

Hendrick Motorsports named Bowman as the driver of its No. 88 car for 2018, taking over for Earnhardt after he retires from full-time NASCAR Cup racing. He will have sponsorship from former Earnhardt sponsors Nationwide (19 races) and Axalta (15 races) for the bulk of the season.

Nationwide's extension is a one-year deal, while Axalta has a long-running partnership with Hendrick.

"Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I've wanted to do," Bowman said Thursday via a news release. "I've had so many people believe in me along the way. My family has sacrificed a lot and always been behind me.

"I would never have this chance without the support of Dale and everyone involved with the No. 88 team. To be part of Hendrick Motorsports and for Mr. [Rick] Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it's just amazing."

Bowman, 24, shared substitute driving duties with Jeff Gordon when Earnhardt missed 18 races with a concussion last year. Bowman competed in 10 races; his best finish was a sixth at Phoenix Raceway, where he had earned the pole and led 194 laps.

Earnhardt had publicly endorsed Bowman as his replacement, although Hendrick has spent the last few months seeing who else was available -- former champions Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski as well as championship contender Carl Edwards were all possibilities -- before eventually opting for Bowman.

Bowman will work with the current No. 88 team, headed by crew chief Greg Ives.

"Alex impressed the heck out of us last year with his talent, poise and professionalism," Hendrick said. "He stepped up in a very demanding situation and showed that he can run with the best and compete for wins.

"His ability to stay focused through it all, and the way he's handled himself since then, has shown a lot of character. Greg and the team loved working with Alex, and that dynamic will get even better with more time together."

The one-year deal is significant in that Hendrick was able to keep Nationwide -- known for its high-profile athletes and celebrity spokesmen -- while going with a driver with limited experience. Nationwide cut its number of races by two, while Axalta added two, although Bowman wouldn't command the salary of two-time Daytona 500 winner Earnhardt, who has won NASCAR's most popular driver award for 14 consecutive years.

"To have [Nationwide] extend with us is gratifying for our whole team," Hendrick said. "It's also a credit to the way Alex carried himself last season and built lasting relationships. We're fortunate to work with partners like Nationwide and Axalta that have built impactful, enduring programs around the countless opportunities our sport provides."

Bowman has worked in 2017 as a Hendrick Motorsports employee, spending several hours a week in the Chevrolet simulator to help the organization figure out setups for the weekend. He also is Chevrolet's driver for NASCAR-designated tests where manufacturers put sensors on cars to gather information that, among other things, gathers data for the simulation programs.

He has 81 career Cup starts, mostly for underfunded teams. He also has 50 starts in the Xfinity Series, including a pair of thirds when driving for Earnhardt's JR Motorsports.

"The No. 88 team is such a great group of people," Bowman said. "I know we can pick up where we left off last year, and I truly believe we can win races and contend for a championship.

"I'm excited to build on the relationship with Nationwide and all of our partners. It means the world that they have faith in me, and I'm thankful to have them on my side. Now I just want to go win."

Hendrick still might not be done hiring drivers for next season. While Kasey Kahne has a contract that runs through 2018, Kahne's two primary sponsors, Farmer's Insurance and Great Clips, have announced they won't return, leaving Kahne -- 22nd in the current standings -- in limbo.