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REPORT: Alex Bowman move to the #48 in 2021; Hendrick down to three teams?

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When seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson announced last Fall that the 2020 season would be his last as a full-time racer, there was an immediate rush to speculate on exactly who would be brought to Hendrick Motorsports to take his place in the No. 48 Chevrolet come 2021. But as the realities of racing so often dictate, the future of Hendrick Motorsports post-Jimmie Johnson could be determined more by economics than by picking and choosing a driver.

During an appearance on PRN’s The Pit Reporters Podcast, veteran NASCAR reporter Lee Spencer shared a rumor suggesting that Jimmie Johnson’s replacement could come from within Hendrick Motorsports, with Alex Bowman moving from the No. 88 team to the No. 48. In the event of that scenario, the No. 88 team would shut down, and Hendrick could contract from four cars to three.

As is so often the case in auto racing, downsizing to three cars and putting Bowman in the No. 48 might make the most sense from a sponsorship standpoint. While the No. 48 team has a full-time sponsor in Ally, Bowman’s No. 88 team has been sponsored by Chevrolet’s Accessories partners in what amounts to a manufacturer sponsorship rather than corporate backing. Bowman was left with limited corporate backing after the departure of Nationwide, which left NASCAR following the 2019 season.

“As far as the No. 48 situation, I think that they’re really gonna have to look at the economics just like everybody else and see whether or not it’s cost-effective to continue to run four organizations,” said Spencer. “… I think we’re still in maybe that ‘Stay tuned’ (mode). There’s so many moving balls going on with the pandemic right now. Once things kind of get shook out a little bit, we’ll have a better idea of what’s gonna go on there.”

In addition to the scenario where Hendrick downsizes and Bowman moves to the No. 48, Spencer also floated Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick, Brad Keselowski, and NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson as among those whose names have been floated to take over for Jimmie Johnson. Each, however, has circumstances that put their getting the No. 48 outside of the realm of possibility.

Hiring Larson is unlikely to be supported by sponsors, as he was dropped by his sponsors and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing after using a racial slur in-jest during an iRacing event in April. Reddick, a two-time Xfinity Series Champion and one of the top rookie drivers in the Cup Series, is currently driving for Richard Childress Racing. Though Gragson is driving for a Hendrick-affiliated team in JR Motorsports and has won two races this season, he has also gained a reputation and censure for his aggressive driving. And Thursday night, Keselowski stated that progress is being made towards a new contract to bring him back to Team Penske.

As for Bowman, the Tucson, Arizona driver presents an in-house option with both youth and experience on his side. A Cup Series driver since 2014 who has been in the fold at Hendrick since 2016, Bowman has two career wins since taking over for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car, including a convincing victory early this season at Fontana. Bowman, 27, is currently 11th in the Cup Series points standings by virtue of one win, two Top Fives, and six Top 10 finishes.

Hendrick has fielded four-time cars in the Cup Series since 2002, when Johnson’s No. 48 team was added to a fleet that included Terry Labonte’s No. 5, Jeff Gordon’s No. 24, and Jerry Nadeau’s No. 25. While other Cup teams have downsized since the boom era of the 2000s turned to the sponsorship issues and overall contraction of the 2010s, Hendrick has remained one of the three Cup teams fielding four cars. The others are Joe Gibbs Racing (No. 11, 18, 19, 20) and Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 4, 10, 14, 41).

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