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It was an Elliott week

Steve Mickey

Steve Mickey

Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick wasted very little time in announcing who would fill the seat of Jeff Gordon’s Chevrolet in 2016. It really came as no surprise that Hendrick would choose to fill one of the most successful rides in the history of the sport with who many consider to be one of the stars of the future in Chase Elliott.

Elliott appears to be on the fast track in the sport as he became the youngest champion in any NASCAR national touring series when he won the 2014 XFINITY Series title at the tender age of 18 years, 11 months and 18 days. He added the series Rookie of the Year title, making him the only driver in NASCAR history to win both titles in the same year. It also doesn’t hurt that he has the bloodline of a NASCAR champion as his father Bill won the 1988 Sprint Cup championship and on Friday night was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

There has been a lot of speculation about where and when Chase would begin his career in the Cup series as his XFINITY owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports does not field cars in the Cup Series. Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick not only have a relationship as an owner and driver but also have a working relationship with Jr.’s XFINITY operation. That relationship is why many in the sport always thought that Elliott would somehow begin his Cup career in a car that had a link to Hendrick Motorsports.

Elliott’s future was determined the day that Jeff Gordon announced that this would be his last season as a full-time driver in the sport. Until that announcement there was no ride waiting for Elliot as HMS already was fielding NASCAR’s maximum of four fulltime teams. Once Gordon’s seat became open for 2016, Elliott’s future was all but set.

Hendrick does not plan on wasting any time getting Elliott ready for his rookie season in 2016 as he will enter him in five Cup events this season. Elliot will make his Cup debut in the #25 Hendrick Chevrolet with sponsorship from NAPA Auto Parts, which also is his primary sponsor in the XFINITY Series. His first Cup green flag is scheduled for March 29 at Martinsville Speedway with races to follow at Richmond, Charlotte, Indianapolis and Darlington. By running only five races, he will still be eligible to run for rookie honors in 2016.

Kenny Francis will handle the crew chief duties for Elliott in the five races but when he starts full time in 2016 he will be paired with Alan Gustafson, who has 19 wins, 18 pole positions, 98 top-five finishes and 165 top-10 finishes at the Cup level. Gustafson will likely add to those totals as he guides Gordon through his last season and after a strong season in 2014, they will enter this season as one of the favorites to win the title.

Hendrick did not announce who would be sponsoring Elliott in his inaugural year in the sport. Gordon has some sponsors that have been with him and Hendricks for many years, but it could be that Elliott could attract a new sponsor or bring one with him. His XFINITY series sponsor NAPA has a long history in the Cup series and it could be it would be willing to make the move to Hendrick with Elliott. NAPA left the Cup series after a long relationship with Michael Waltrip Racing when it was involved with an on-track wreck at Richmond that altered the Chase field in 2013.

The last question surrounding Elliott’s move to the Cup level is the number that will be on the side of his car. Just because he is taking over Gordon’s #24 team it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will automatically inherit the number. He campaigns the #9 in the XFINITY Series and that just also happens to be the number of his Hall of Fame father’s car in which he enjoyed his greatest success. That number is presently being campaigned by Richard Petty Motorsports, but its owner Richard Petty has already said that he could have the number for the 2016 season. Could it be like father like son?

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