The future is now for Hendrick Motorsports and Chase Elliott. Ok, maybe not right now. But it is really close.
This weekend, Elliott will make his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut for Hendrick, where he will take over the No.24 Chevrolet being vacated by Jeff Gordon starting next season. First things first, though, as Elliott will drive in five races this season in the Sprint Cup Series to get himself accustomed to the series.
This just might be the most anticipated Sprint Cup Series debut since Danica Patrick climbed into a Sprint Cup Series ride for the first time at the 2012 Daytona 500. Patrick finished that race 38th and had a best finish of 17th in her 10 races that season, which included six finishes of 29th or worse.
While there is a buzz of confidence and anticipation surrounding the Sprint Cup debut of Elliott, it is important to remember that it is still his debut and he is going to make that debut at a tough track. It is also important to note that the last two Xfinity Series champions have not exactly had success in their first races at the sport’s premier level.
When Austin Dillon made his Sprint Cup Series debut in 2011, he finished 26th at Kansas and then came back in 2012 with a 24th-place finish at Michigan. In 2013, he saw action 11 times in the Sprint Cup Series with a best finish of 11th and an average finish of 23.1.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. fared a little better in his Sprint Cup Series debut in 2011, finishing 11th at Charlotte. In 2012, he ran four races in the Sprint Cup Series and had a best finish of 12th but also had finishes of 35th and 39th.
In 135 combined races in the Sprint Cup Series, Dillon and Stenhouse Jr. have yet to find victory lane and have just three top-5s and 12 top-10s. Stenhouse Jr. is in his third full-time season in the series, while Dillon is in his sophomore season.
There are a couple of differences between Elliott and his predecessors, however.
For one, Elliott won his Xfinity Series championship before making his debut in the Sprint Cup Series. Stenhouse Jr. won his Xfinity Series title in the same season he made his Sprint Cup Series debut, while Dillon made his Sprint Cup Series debut two seasons before hoisting the championship trophy in the Xfinity Series. For Elliott, he was able to concentrate on winning his Xfinity Seires championship last season while not having to worry about making the jump to the Sprint Cup Series even for one or a handful of races.
Another advantage that Elliott will have is that he is driving for Hendrick Motorsports. The first race of Elliott’s Sprint Cup Series career probably could not have been chosen more perfectly by the team, as Hendrick Motorsports has won four of the last five races at Martinsville Speedway, including the most recent race at the track won by Dale Earnhardt Jr. last October.
If Elliott needs any advice, he won’t have to look far for someone to ask. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon each have eight wins at Martinsville, while Earnhardt Jr. is the defending champion of the fall race. Gordon (28), Johnson (18), Earnhardt Jr. (12) and Kasey Kahne (3) have a combined 61 top-5s at Martinsville as well. Not to mention that between Gordon and Johnson, the Hendrick Motorsports stable holds 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.
Elliott will also be getting a veteran crew chief for his five races in the Sprint Cup Series this season, as Kenny Francis will be on top of the box for the No. 25 Chevrolet. Francis has a history with Hendrick Motorsports, as he was the crew chief for Kasey Kahne the last three seasons. In those three seasons for Hendrick, Kahne recorded five wins and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup all three seasons, including a career-best finish of 4th in the standings in 2012. All total, Francis and Kahne combined for 16 wins with three teams from 2006-2014. It also can’t hurt that Francis has worked with Chase’s father Bill Elliott in the past.
Oh yes – Bill Elliott. Let’s not forget about the genes when it comes to Chase Elliott.
Elliott can always look to his father Bill – better known as Awesome Bill from Dawsonville – the 1988 Sprint Cup Series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner. The elder Elliott found victory lane 44 times in his Sprint Cup Series career. While Bill Elliott never won at Martinsville, he has 45 races under his belt at the track with three top-5s and 14 top-10s. That is plenty of experience that he can pass along to Chase should the younger Elliott come calling to his father.
While expectations should be tempered a bit this season as Elliott drives the No. 25 Chevrolet for the first time this weekend, it is easy to see that the path to success has been paved about as well as it can be for the 19-year-old.
So maybe the future really is now for Hendrick Motorsports and Chase Elliott. And the future is bright.