When the green flag drops to begin the 2016 Daytona 500, there will be a new driver in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
It’former occupant, Jeff Gordon, will be sitting in a Fox Sports TV booth, while his successor, Chase Elliott, will make his official debut in Gordon’s old ride.
And that’s where the similarity between the two should end. Other than sharing the same car number, Gordon and Elliott couldn’t be more different.
Granted, Elliott does have some of the old-school elements that propelled Gordon to 93 wins and four Sprint Cup championships. But at the same time, we’re talking about two entirely different drivers from two separate generations.
If fans believe Elliott will just be able to step into Gordon’s former livery and become an overnight superstar, they’re in for a big surprise. Even though the younger Elliott is the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, it’s more likely that Chase will go through more disappointments than successes early on in his career.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes him two, maybe even three years before he wins his first Sprint Cup race. Look at Kyle Larson; he’s gone two full seasons and still hasn’t won his first race.
Gordon himself went 41 races before he finally earned his first Cup win.
Bill Elliott went 115 starts before he earned his first win (Riverside, 1983).
Do you see where I’m going with all this? Sure, Chase may ultimately go on to win Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2016, but he also may flop.
That’s not to say if he flops in his first season that his entire career will be a flop. On the contrary, young Chase has all the talent and genes to become one of NASCAR’s great champions. He already has one championship under his belt, the 2014 Xfinity Series title. Elliott commented on the No. 24's predecessor:
It's been an honor to watch that guy growing up and to be able to see that race tonight tonight in person. Thanks Jeff! #24ever— Chase Elliott (@chaseelliott) November 23, 2015
But winning a Sprint Cup title is probably at least 10 times harder, particularly when you throw in the uber-difficulty of making it through the Chase for the Sprint Cup and emerging from the Championship round with the title.
There are two things that I hope fans, media and Elliott’s fellow drivers keep in mind and in perspective:
1) He’s going to make mistakes, perhaps lots of them. We have to maintain a semblance of patience that success will eventually come, even if it takes a few seasons to do so. If too much pressure is placed upon him right from the get-go, it will only cause Elliott to make mistakes. I’m not saying give him a big break or cut him some excessive slack, but keep in mind that he is only 20 years old, and he’s not the next Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rolled into one.
2) An even harder thing for fans and media to keep in perspective is that Elliott is not Gordon. Comparing the two would be grossly unfair to young Chase. He may drive “Jeff Gordon’s car,” but he never has been and never will be Jeff Gordon Jr. Sadly, it’s almost inevitable that there will be a lot of fans who will do just that, likely saying things like, “Well, he’s sure no Jeff Gordon, that’s for sure.”
Sooner or later, Elliott will take his rightful place among the sport’s best drivers. As more drivers follow Gordon’s lead and retire over the next several years, it’s very likely Elliott will go on to become one of the primary faces of NASCAR. He may ultimately supplant Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the sport’s most popular driver.
Sure, in a perfect world, Elliott would win Daytona in his first try, go on to win Rookie of the Year and cap off his first Sprint Cup season with his first Sprint Cup championship.
But this is far from a perfect world, and Chase is far from being a perfect driver. Even though he learned at the hip of one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever known, he still has a long and potentially rough learning curve ahead of him. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him finish last in the Daytona 500 two months from now.
There is plenty riding on and invested in the young Elliott. Rick Hendrick wouldn’t have given him one of the most premier rides in the sport if he didn’t think he could handle it—eventually, that is. Hendrick has been in NASCAR for 32 years and has seen many drivers come and go, some even with “can’t miss” labels coming in.
And if Hendrick believes Elliott will become a success—as do others such as Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt—you can pretty much bet your house that he will. It’s just a matter of time of learning how to play the game, and ultimately playing it well.
Chronologically, Chase is still a boy in a man’s game. At 20, he can’t even legally buy an alcoholic beverage yet.
But at the same time, there is plenty of hope and anticipation riding on him, not just within Hendrick Motorsports, but also in NASCAR as a whole.
He may very well go on to be the next Jeff Gordon some day. But for now, let’s not have overly high expectations or set goals that are too lofty, too soon.
Rather, let’s enjoy watching the new driver of the legendary No. 24 develop his skills and showcase the natural talent he has behind the wheel. Sooner, rather than later, he will become a star.
And isn’t that what most people are already hoping for in the first place?
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski