With the start of the 2016 Sprint Cup season drawing ever closer, the clock is ticking down on Chase Elliott’s much-discussed debut as driver the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
The son of 1988 Sprint Cup champion and NASCAR of Famer Bill Elliott has super-sized shoes to fill in taking the reins of the car that Jeff Gordon drove to 93 points-paying wins and four titles over the past 23 years with the heralded Hendrick organization.
While it might be easy for Elliott, who turned 20 years old in late November, to feel overwhelming pressure to replace a legend, that’s not how he’s viewing his high-profile assignment.
He instead aspires to merely do the best job he can, realizing there’s bound to be a learning curve in transitioning from the XFINITY Series — where’s spent the past two seasons — to Sprint Cup.
"I think me saying I’m excited goes without being said, but I think, as I’ve said before, I’m not trying to fill his shoes or I’m not trying to be Jeff; I’m just trying to be me," Elliott said. "Trying to do my job, and I feel like I have a great opportunity and a great race team to go do that with. Something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I look at it as a great chance for me to try to improve, and like I said, just do my job for my guys."
With just five Sprint Cup starts, which all came last season in a fifth Hendrick car, Elliott has logged fewer laps in a Cup ride than either of his three fellow rookies — Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott and Chris Buescher.
But while a dearth of seat time in NASCAR’s top series might be the youngster’s biggest obstacle to overcome, Elliott brings impressive credentials to his new gig.
In two seasons as a full-time XFINITY Series driver for JR Motorsports – an organization co-owned by his current boss, Rick Hendrick, and new teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Elliott won the 2014 title and finished runner-up to Buescher in the 2015 standings.
The soft-spoken Dawsonville, Georgia native also scored four victories and earned a reputation as a driver who excels at taking care of his equipment. In his two full XFINITY Series seasons, Elliott recorded a total of one DNF — a phenomenal achievement for a teenager with relatively little experience.
Rick Hendrick needed just one season of watching Elliott behind the wheel of an XFINITY car to decide he was the one to succeed Gordon.
In fact, Hendrick believes that Elliott actually does something better than Gordon did at the same stage of his career.
"He’s mentally tougher than any kid I’ve seen his age," said Hendrick, whose drivers have won 11 Sprint Cup titles. "At his age, all the drivers I’ve seen before, Jeff included, made more mistakes than Chase makes. I think he’s ready."
When Gordon announced last January that 2015 would be his final season in the iconic No. 24 Chevy, he and Hendrick discussed whom they felt would be the right fit to take over in 2016.
Elliott was the clear choice.
"I certainly was in Rick Hendrick’s ear a lot and Rick having conversations with me about Chase and how he is the right guy or kid, or whatever you want to call him, to be in that No. 24 car," Gordon said. "And the No. 24 and all those things and the team and what is best for the team. That was a big thing that was important to me."
Gordon even went as far as to tell Chase’s father - a winner of 44 Sprint Cup races – that he believed Chase was the best man for the job.
"I would say things to Bill kind of hinting around that I hoped to see him in that No. 24 car," Gordon said. "Bill kept joking with me, ‘Ah, you are not getting out of that car. I know you are not getting out of that car. There is no way. You are running too good. You are never going to get out of that car.’"
But Gordon – who has joined FOX NASCAR’s on-air team for the 2016 season – made his 797th and final start with the running of last year’s Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
When the engines fire on next month’s Daytona 500 on FOX, another driver will be in the No. 24 Chevrolet that Gordon drove for the first time in the final race of 1992 and has piloted ever since.
The crew chief on the No. 24 will be a familiar one, however, in the form of Alan Gustafson, who worked with Gordon from 2011-2015.
Elliott and Gustafson tested together at Homestead not long after the 2015 finale at the South Florida track, so it won’t technically be Elliott’s first time in the seat. But it will officially mark the dawn of a new era — one that Elliott and rest of the Hendrick organization look forward to getting started.
"All we’re asking Chase Elliott to do is be Chase Elliott," Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt said earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "I think he and Alan had a great test at Homestead. They hit the ground running and felt great about how that went. …
"I feel really good about Alan and Chase. I think they’re going to surprise people this year."