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In Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ride and at his ‘worst’ track, Alex Bowman proves he belongs

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series New Hampshire 301

LOUDON, NH - JULY 17: Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, shakes hands with team owner Rick Hendrick prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17, 2016 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

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LOUDON, N.H. – Racing around Sprint Cup superstars is nothing new for Alex Bowman, who raced full time in NASCAR’s premier series from 2014-15.

But racing with the elite?

That’s what made Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway special for Bowman, who filled in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet and raced inside the top 15 for much of the New Hampshire 301.

“I passed Jimmie Johnson,” Bowman, 23, exclaimed with a smile when asked if there was a moment when he realized he belonged. “Yeah, I’ve never … The biggest thing is I’ve raced around those guys for two years; almost three years now. I’ve never raced with them.

“Today I was finally able to do that.”

Bowman finished 26th, the last driver on the lead lap, because of a cut left-rear tire that sent his car into the Turn 1 wall with 28 laps remaining. Bowman made contact with Kurt Busch while losing control of his car because of the tire problem, which he said stemmed from a pit collision with Carl Edwards.

“I think (Carl Edwards) was backing up because he was blocked in as I was leaving the pit box,” Bowman said. “My left-rear hit his right-rear as I was leaving. It caved it in enough, we thought we would be fine, but obviously, when I got into (Kurt Busch) it was already going down.

“They knew we were here for sure and I had a blast.”

Making the result even sweeter is that the Tucson, Arizona, native considers the 1.058-mile oval his worst track. He credited a warm reception from crew chief Greg Ives and team for helping ease the transition as the high-profile substitute for Earnhardt, who missed the race with concussion symptoms.

“When I got the call I was like, ‘Oh, Loudon? Really? OK, well, I’ll try,’” Bowman said. “And they were so welcoming. Such great people to get to work with. Greg (Ives) and all the guys….I had so much fun working with everybody. I can’t thank Mr. ‘H’, enough, too, for letting me be here. it was just an absolute blast.”

Bowman raced for BK Racing in 2014 and Tommy Baldwin Racing last year. His only top 15 was a 13th in the 2014 Daytona 500. His best finish on a non-restrictor plate track is 20th (at Bristol Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway in 2015).

“I don’t think I’ve gotten out of a Cup car with a smile on my face in a while,” said Bowman, who is racing for JR Motorsports this season after being cut loose by Baldwin. “We had some amazing runs with TBR. Can’t thank Tommy and all those guys enough for what they did for my career last year. We had a lot of fun together. We had our struggles.

“It’s just so much fun to get to run up front like that. I’ve spent two years of my career wondering ‘Can I really do this at the Cup level’ and today I answered that for myself.”