Just as NASCAR is set to honor its legends, it welcomed its newest rising star to the premier Sprint Cup Series.
Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that Chase Elliott, the 19-year-old son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, will move full time to the Cup series in 2016 and take over the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet currently driven by four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
Gordon announced last week that the 2015 season would be his last as a full-time competitor in NASCAR.
“I’m very, very impressed, not only with his talents, but also the steps Bill and (wife) Cindy took in how they started him in racing,” Gordon said about Chase Elliott on Thursday, the final day of the Charlotte Motor Speedway NASCAR Media Tour.
“I cannot think of a better driver out there to get behind the wheel of that No. 24 car and make all those 24 fans proud of who’s taking over the reins.”
At the age of 18 years, 11 months and 18 days, Chase Elliott became the youngest champion in any NASCAR national series when he won the 2014 championship in the Nationwide, now Xfinity, Series last season with JR Motorsports.
He became the first driver in NASCAR history to win a championship and rookie of the year honors in the same season. He was also voted by fans as the series’ most popular driver, a distinction won by his father in the Cup series an unprecedented 16 times in his career.
Elliott’s 2014 season included three wins and two poles and 26 top-10 finishes in 33 races. He was so dominant, he clinched the series championship before the series finale.
“This is a special week anyway but it’s more than just this week. I want to enjoy this. I’m just realty excited to be a part of (the media tour), it’s all new to me,” Elliott said.
“For my dad to be honored (Friday night), that’s very special to him. He doesn’t excited about a ton of stuff, but he’s been very pumped up for this.”
Elliott will again compete in the Xfinity series this season for JRM but will also run in five Cup races in preparation for his full time move to the series.
He will make his Cup debut in the March 29 race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway driving the No. 25 Chevrolet and working with crew chief Kenny Francis. Gordon’s current crew chief, Alan Gustafson, will remain with the No. 24 and work with Elliott in 2016.
“I hoping we put together five solid races. I’m not sure really what that means but obviously, you want to have success in them,” said Elliott.
“We’re going to have nice race cars. That side of things will be fine. There will be no excuse to not do well other than myself. It would be nice to go and be competitive.
“It is the highest level of the sport but you’re not completely changing everything – it’s still racing.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick said once Gordon informed him last July that 2015 would be his final full time season as a driver, his attention turned to a replacement driver.
Chase Elliott was already under contract as a development driver with Hendrick and was already turning heads with his impressive performance in his first season in NASCAR’s second-tier series.
Hendrick said a slew of Cup drivers including Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick repeatedly told him they believed Elliott was ready for the move.
“Chase brings the kind of intangibles that make him the total package as a driver,” Hendrick said. “Not only is he a special talent inside the car, but there’s a natural combination of competitiveness, work ethic and smarts that you rarely see.”
Well, perhaps at least once before, when Hendrick debuted another promising upstart named Gordon in the 1992 Cup series season finale.
The winner of that race? Bill Elliott.