Junior will leave a big seat to fill in No. 88 next season

Junior’s job is up for grabs.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s surprise decision to retire from the NASCAR Cup series at the end of the season will surely make his No. 88 Chevrolet the hottest ride in racing. But more than talent is needed to take the wheel for team owner Rick Hendrick.

The next driver will face added scrutiny that comes with replacing NASCAR’s most popular driver, the sport’s public face and a peerless pitchman who has done it all with few complaints over 18 years.

Earnhardt might never have won a NASCAR championship, but he did win the Daytona 500 twice, along with 24 other Cup victories, and plenty will be, yes, riding on the decision.

”We’ll take some time to decide what to do there,” Hendrick said.

Hendrick has promising drivers in the pipeline and any of them could earn a quick promotion to the Cup series. There are potential veteran free agents to court and maybe even a surprise candidate or two that might fit with one of the premier organizations in NASCAR.

Hendrick has the checkbook to buy out anyone he wants, though he has to keep his sponsors happy and, he hopes, paying the same top dollar that Earnhardt commanded.

A vote of confidence from Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time champion, would go a long way. Chase Elliott is in his second full season in the No. 24 and Kasey Kahne, one of NASCAR’s biggest underachievers, faces an uncertain future. Hendrick could have a vastly different lineup in 2019.

”You can’t replace Dale ,” Hendrick said.

But let’s try. Some possibilities:

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Alex Bowman, 24. 0 wins in 81 Cup starts.

Bowman was stout as a substitute last season when Earnhardt was sidelined with a concussion. He made 10 starts in the 88 Chevrolet, won a pole at Phoenix and had three top-fives. He made nine starts in the second-tier Xfinity Series for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team and has five top-fives in 50 career starts. Bowman has experience with Hendrick, trust with Earnhardt and success in his first major shot with an established team. He has not competed in a NASCAR Cup or Xfinity race this season and is waiting for his next opportunity.

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William Byron, 19. 0 Cup starts.

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