WEAVER: Chase Elliott Should Exceed Expectations
Last week during the NASCAR Media Tour, Rick Hendrick made quite the bold statement when he suggested that Chase Elliott was seemingly more prepared for his rookie Sprint Cup season than Jeff Gordon was back in 1993.
Given the meteoric rise of the eventual four-time champion, Hendrick dished-out a major compliment towards the new driver of his iconic No. 24 — but can Elliott meet those expectations in his debut season?
Despite a rash of crashed cars, Gordon put together a very impressive rookie campaign, amassing 11 top-10s in 30 starts, not including a victory in his Daytona Duel qualifying race at the start of the season.
In fact, Gordon spent much of the year inside the top-10 in the championship standings and should have finished there if not for three straight finishes outside of the top-20 to end his campaign.
All told, Gordon displayed a tremendous amount of speed and promise for a 21-year-old ex-open-wheel prospect, and that season laid the groundwork for the career that would soon follow.
Elliott has openly admitted that he expects to face a steep learning curve in 2016, but the 20-year-old also has more resources available to him than Gordon could have ever imagined upon joining Hendrick late in 1992.
For one, Elliott has spent his entire life preparing for this moment and grew up in the garage as the son of a NASCAR champion. It took Gordon several years of competing at the Cup level just to gain the knowledge that Elliott had absorbed prior to becoming a teenager.
The Hendrick team that Elliott has just joined is a database of information that Gordon simply didn’t have access to during his rookie year. In addition to Gordon himself, Elliott has Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mr. H to lean on and that will make a considerable difference.
For his part, Hendrick is no stranger to cultivating top prospects either, having led Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch to early success under the HMS banner.
In his rookie season, Johnson posted three victories, 21 top-10s and finished fifth in the championship standings. Even Busch proved to be a quick study with the Concord-based team, posting a pair of wins before finishing 20th that season.
Elliott appears better poised for success at the Cup level than both of them, having already won the 2014 XFINITY Series crown, having earned a reputation for staying out of trouble — both on and off the track.
While no one expects Elliott to make the Chase for the Championship in his first season, there’s no real reason for him not to. In an era where 16 out of roughly 20 competitive cars make the NASCAR playoffs, Elliott should easily be able to point his way into the Challenger Round.
Sure a victory might be a tall task, but Elliott has already proven he can be consistent and that’s all that will be asked of him as he learns on the job in his first full-time season. And should he make the Chase, the sky could be the limit, as he and Alan Gustafson will have enjoyed a 26-race cohesion period in advance of the real season.
Chase Elliott appears to be the real deal and 2016 could be the start of a new legend in the No. 24.
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