No Ordinary Rookie

 

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Past meets future as Jeff Gordon passes the torch to a new generation, and a new legacy for the 24.

Coming into a big time sport as a rookie with enormous hype is one of the tougher challenges in sports. The pressure, the change in lifestyle, the new found fame, it’s no wonder so many rookies have crumbled under such expectations, some to the point of no recovery.

But imagine the challenge when not only you are hyped up to be the next great thing, BUT you are also the immediate successor to a legend. And by legend, I mean legend. I’m not talking about trying to replace an all-star like Jason Heyward in your lineup, or Joe Johnson on your basketball team. I’m talking about trying to replace Babe Ruth or Kobe Bryant.

Jeff Gordon is in the argument for the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time. Not just of his era, but of any era, and his three year stretch from 1996 thru 1998 is still one of the most dominant periods in modern American sports, but that’s another story for another day. Being tabbed to replace Jeff Gordon, with Gordon going out while making NASCAR’s version of the Final Four and competing for a fifth championship, has few valid comparisons in sports history.

While similar to replacing Joe Montana in San Francisco, or Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, it’s still different. In football you still have 52 other guys on the roster. You still have the same team, with the same logo, and many of the same players. You still have the same history of an organization that existed before that particular legend became a part of it. At the end of the day, you’re still one of many people to play quarterback for the 49ers or for the Colts.

What Chase is doing replacing Jeff Gordon is almost unparalleled. The only person to ever win a Sprint Cup race in a car numbered 24 is, for the time being anyway, Jeff Gordon. The commercial isn’t hyperbole or inaccurate in anyway, 24 is more than a number. It is a legacy all on it’s own, and it’s a legacy created by one man.

But within the past five to seven years it began to dawn on us all that at some point, that one man would no longer continue to drive competitively at this level. So what then? Would Rick Hendrick, the owner who took a chance on the fast but crash happy 20-year-old kid back in the early 90s retire the number? Or would he look for a successor? And would it be an established veteran or would he try to repeat history with another young hotshot?

In February of 2011 the plan began to take shape when Rick Hendrick signed a 15-year-old high school freshman from Georgia to a multi-year driver agreement.

The driver? Chase Elliott. You know, son of another NASCAR legend, Georgia’s favorite son, Bill Elliott.

By 2013 Elliott was winning races in the truck series, and by 2014 was running full-time in the Xfinity Series, where as an 18-year-old rookie he not only won three races, he also took home Most Popular Driver, Rookie of the Year, and the series championship.

By January of 2015, with Jeff Gordon announcing that 2015 would be his last season of competitive racing, Elliott was tabbed with the most pressure packed responsibility since Kevin Harvick slid into the seat of Richard Childress’ GM Goodwrench Chevrolet in February of 2001 following the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Fast forward to 2016 with Elliott coming off a 2015 season in which he followed up his championship by finishing second in points and winning another race. For the first time since November of 1992, a premier series NASCAR event was set to take place without Jeff Gordon in it.

However, the 24 car would be there. But with a new look, though the number kept it’s same font and style, new sponsors, and more importantly, a new driver.

All eyes were on the 20-year-old who promptly went out and won the pole for the biggest race of the year. Typically, the fastest qualifier is awarded the Coors Light Pole Award. Only Elliott isn’t of legal drinking age and ineligible for such an aware, or to carry such a decal on his racecar.

So here we are, hot shot 20-year-old kid considered the next big thing, replacing one of the greatest to ever participate in the sport and taking over a car number that’s a legacy and as iconic as almost any number in sports, on the pole for the biggest race of the year, and, oh yeah, in addition to the huge shoes of Jeff Gordon to fill, there’s the small matter of being Bill Elliott’s son.

Nobody can sustain these kind of expectations and possibly live up to the hype, right? Surely the kid is going to crumble. Maybe not beyond repair, but we should be pumping the brakes a bit on his rookie season, no? Give him a couple of years to really get his feet wet and settle into his role, right?

No, not this rookie. Not this rookie who, well, really doesn’t seem like a rookie.

We know what happened at Daytona, the 500 turned into a disaster early. Immediately the criticism began, and it looked like maybe the moment was too big right now. It was too much pressure. Maybe Rick Hendrick had brought him along too soon.

Or maybe any such notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Elliott rebounded from that 37th place finish with a strong top ten run at his home track of Atlanta the next week, only to have a very questionable pit strategy decision by crew chief Alan Gustafson cost him multiple positions late in the race at Las Vegas and leave him mired back in the pack after running up in the top ten all race long. Eventually Elliott would get collected in a wreck not of his own making and finish 38th.

In an interview following the Las Vegas wreck Elliott seemed extremely frustrated, and placed a lot of the blame, needlessly I might add, on himself. He knew what was happening. He had wrecked in two of the first three races, and the naysayers were going to get louder.

Well that’s as loud as they’ve gotten. Since the wreck at Vegas Elliott has done nothing but silence even the most skeptical of critics. Over the last six races Elliott has an average finish of 8.5 and has moved himself solidly into playoff position. But that doesn’t even tell the whole story. He has established himself as a viable threat to win races.

Over the last four races Elliott has finishes of 6th, 20th, 5th, and 4th. In three of those four races he found himself in second position at some point in the race’s final 15%, and without late cautions at California, Texas and Bristol, could very well be looking at a streak of three runner-up finishes in his last four races, though many would argue without a caution at Texas, he may very well have won.

But to truly appreciate what Elliott has done so far this year, you have to put it into perspective by comparing it to the debuts of some other stars in recent, or not so recent, memory.

The chart below illustrates how some of NASCAR’s top drivers and strongest rookie campaigns compare to Elliott’s after the first eight events of their first full-time season. With rookies being rookies and apt to putting cars into fences, the chart also looks at their average finish by taking away the two worst performances in the season’s first eight races, to give a better indicator of how they finished when they, well, actually finished.

Age Top 5 Top 10 Avg St Avg Fin Best 6 Avg Points
Chase Elliott 20 2 5 12 15.8 8.5 12
Jeff Gordon 21 2 4 10.7 16.5 10.7 12
Kyle Busch 20 1 2 24.3 21.4 15.7 25
Jimmie Johnson 26 1 5 14.7 13.3 7.2 7
Tony Stewart 28 0 2 9.9 16.8 11.7 10
Dale Earnhardt Sr 28 2 3 9.1 11.8 8.3 8
Bill Elliott 27 4 5 11 11.5 6.8 5
Dale Earnhardt Jr 25 1 2 8.5 22 16.3 19
Ryan Newman 24 2 4 13.4 19.8 12.8 16
Davey Allison 26 1 2 7.4 18.8 18.8 21
Matt Kenseth 28 0 2 17.1 21.8 15.7 21
Joey Logano 19 0 0 25.4 29.1 25.3 33
Kyle Larson 21 2 4 16.4 16.1 10.7 14
Jeff Gordon 2015 1 5 11.7 16.3 9.3 9

 

*note, Davey Allison didn’t attempt races six through eight, but came back and won race number nine at Talladega, and won again at Dover, giving him two wins in his first eight starts of his rookie, but not within the first eight races of the season*

Elliott compares favorably to the majority on this list. In fact, factoring age, depending on which aspect you value more heavily, an argument could be made that his start to his career has been as impressive, if not more, than anyone on this list.

The only drivers on this list to have five top ten finishes among the first eight races are Jimmie Johnson and then the father and son duo of Bill and Chase and Elliott. Bill Elliott was the only one to finish in the top five on more than two occasions, and the only one sitting in the top five in points (he would finish 3rd and capture his first career win in the season finale at Riverside) at this juncture of the season. However, it should also be noted that the elder Elliott had run 21 races the year before (not a full season) and despite having never run 75% of the schedule, had started nearly 100 races before the 1983 season began, so he wasn’t exactly a rookie.

While the Elliotts are the only ones on the list with five top tens and more than one top five finish, the Earnhardts are the only ones who won a race this early in the going of their rookie season. There is a reason NASCAR is known as such a family sport, after all.

Elliott’s average finish of 15.8 is topped by the asterisked elder Elliott, and then only Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. I guess that’s not bad company. I mean, the two non Elliotts only combined to win nearly 150 races and 13 championships between them.

And just for good measure, I took the time to see how Elliott is doing through eight races this year as compared to that guy he took over for, that Gordon fella.

I’d say he’s doing a mighty fine job stepping into those shoes in the 24 car. And he’s only trending upwards.

I said weeks ago I thought Richmond would be Elliott’s first win. His career average finish in the Xfinity Series there is 2.5, having finished second on two occasions, won once, and fifth in his other appearance. With the trend of how the team has been running lately, that prediction may very well come true.

But even if it doesn’t, Elliott has proven Hendrick knew what he was doing, and that the 24 would be in good hands and Elliott is not only capable of simply carrying the number into the future, but he may very well be able to give that number a new legacy for an entirely new generation of fans.

 

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