Next in line? Chase Elliott poised to succeed legendary Jeff Gordon

Chase Elliott (right) is under contract with team owner Rick Hendrick (left).

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

When Kasey Kahne signed a three-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports last November, it immediately raised eyebrows because it meant the team had five drivers under contract for 2016 — Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott — but only four available NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars, the maximum allowed by the sanctioning body.

After Gordon’s announcement Thursday that 2015 will be his last full Sprint Cup season, the numbers for 2016 suddenly make much more sense.

During Gordon’s teleconference Thursday afternoon, team owner Rick Hendrick stopped short of saying Elliott would replace Gordon next year, but that’s certainly the conventional wisdom.

"Oh, we’re just kind of looking at what’s down the road a little bit later," said Hendrick. "We’re going to kind of focus on Jeff and what he’s accomplished, and then at a later time we’ll kind of focus on who is going to be in the car."

Despite what he said publicly, you can bet Hendrick has the succession plan for Gordon firmly in place.

Elliott last year became the youngest champion in any of NASCAR’s three national touring series when he won the Xfinity Series title as an 18-year-old rookie driving for the Hendrick-affiliated JR Motorsports team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller.

"I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys here sitting beside me (Earnhardt and Earnhardt Miller) and Chase Elliott because he is so much better than I even dreamed he could be, his maturity, and what his mom and dad have done to prepare him," Hendrick said at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season finale. "He is wise way beyond his years. I’m super-thrilled about that."

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Elliott is already scheduled to run a handful of Sprint Cup races this year with Kenny Francis, Kahne’s former crew chief, on top of the pit box. Hendrick general manager Doug Duchardt said after the Kahne announcement that the team will use this year to evaluate Elliott’s progress.

"We’ll take a look and see how things are going in ’15 and see what are the right steps in the future," Duchardt said.

By all indications, the "right steps in the future" will see Elliott as the fourth Hendrick Sprint Cup driver in 2016, but until it becomes official, the future remains to be seen.