On Sunday, the 58th running of the Daytona 500 will kick off another NASCAR season. Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will all be there to try and get the jump on the others competing for the Sprint Cup.
The major names are familiar to most fans, but one legendary driver will be at the Daytona International Speedway, but not on the track. Jeff Gordon put away his fire suit as a driver and now wears a business suit as part of Fox Sports’ broadcast team.
Gordon and the 24 car went together much like strawberries and short cake. He brought a legion of fans to the sport during his 23 seasons as a driver.
Now NASCAR is hoping those fans do not drift away. It is a huge loss to car owner Rick Hendrick as well as to the sport.
Hendrick made a daring move to replace Gordon within his stable. He tapped Chase Elliott, only 19 at the time, to keep the winning tradition of the 24 car alive.
Elliott certainly comes from good stock. He is the son of Bill Elliott, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. Bill Elliott also won the 1988 NASCAR championship, then known as the Winston Cup. The elder Elliott still owns the stock car speed record at Daytona, a 210.364 mph lap set in 1987.
Chase Elliott is off to a good start. On Sunday he became the youngest pole winner at age 20 in Daytona 500 history. His lap of 196.314 mph edged out Matt Kenseth, who will start second.
“It’s nothing special I did,” said the humble Elliott. “It’s really just kind of work (the race team) did this offseason to make it happen. This is very, very special and a great way to start the season.”
Elliott was the Nationwide Series’ Rookie of the Year in 2014 and was voted the most popular driver in 2015 as the series was renamed the Xfinity Series. NASCAR is banking on Elliott’s personality, and driving ability, to bring in new fans of his own.
Many Gordon fans backed not only the personable Gordon, but the 24 car as well. They are likely wondering to whom they should award their allegiance now that their driver is gone.
It is a safe bet that if Elliott gets off to a good start, they may stick with the car. Having NAPA Auto Parts as the prime sponsor will look different, but the number is the same.
NASCAR’s marketing department will be working hard to promote the sport as some of its past champions like Gordon and Tony Stewart retire. Their short term and long term goals could be helped by three on-track scenarios:
Danica Patrick could somehow win a race; Earnhardt (NASCAR’s most popular driver) would have a strong season; and Chase Elliott could have a solid rookie season.
NASCAR’s next phase begins Sunday.