CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Alex Bowman proved to Dale Earnhardt Jr. he's ready to take his place next year.
In his first race in nearly a year, Bowman drove his No. 42 Chevrolet to his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a rain-delayed playoff elimination race.
Bowman will replace Earnhardt next year in the No. 88 Chevrolet in the Cup series. Earnhardt is retiring after the season.
Bowman is not eligible for the Xfinity playoffs.
Justin Allgaier, William Byron, Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer, Elliott Sadler, Brennan Poole, Matt Tifft and Ryan Reed advanced to the second round of the Xfinity Series playoffs. Brendan Gaughan, Michael Annett, Blake Koch and Jeremy Clements were eliminated.
Bowman hasn't had a ride this year, instead serving as a simulator driver for Hendrick Motorsports.
He had five top-five finishes in the Xfinity series entering the night, and said it was a relief to get a breakthrough win.
"Trust me, I have heard plenty of people tell me I have never won any of the NASCAR races on the top three levels," Bowman said. "It definitely gave me a mental stamp of approval that I can do it. ... Hopefully, it puts some of the people who are talking to rest because we are going into 2018 to win a lot of races in that 88 car."
He said he felt a little rusty in the car not having raced since Homestead. But that went away as the race progressed.
After the race, Earnhardt posted on Twitter : "That @AlexBRacing can wheel. Pure talent. Can't wait to watch him do amazing things next year in the @nationwide88."
Reed nipped Gaughan for the final spot in the playoffs by one point. Gaughan finished in 11th place — one spot ahead of Reed — but it wasn't enough to catch him in the playoffs.
"That's awesome for the sport that it came down to that," Reed said. "That is about as great of a battle as you can ask for a first elimination race."
Reed said his team got a gift when a caution flag came out late and his crew was able to adjust a loose car on a pit stop. He was able to stay close enough to Gaughan's bumper to advance to the Round of 8.
Two of the fastest cars on Saturday night had problems in the second half of the race.
Daniel Suarez, who led a race-high 111 laps, had a tire problem on a pit stop with 37 laps remaining, forcing the No. 18 Toyota to head to the back of the field. He finished eighth.
Erik Jones, who won the first stage of the race, had been running with the leaders before hitting the wall with 79 laps to go.
Allgaier entered the race with the Xfinity Series lead, but his engine blew up with 86 laps left ending his night. He had damaged his car earlier in the night when he ran over debris on the racetrack causing the engine to overheat.
However, he had accumulated enough points early in the race to qualify for the second round.
"The good news is we gave ourselves a cushion just in case we had to use a Mulligan. And we needed to use one," Allgaier said.
The metal display board that flashes the number for the black flag fell off the flag stand bringing out a caution with 58 laps remaining.
The metal box fell onto the track but did not damage any cars.
There was also a scary moment in the second half of the race when Telvin McClurkin, a member of Ryan Reed's team, got his foot caught under the front of the car and went for a brief ride. However, McClurkin was fine and continued to work.
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