The Future of Chase Elliott

After Dale Earnhardt Jr, no Sprint Cup driver has a better pedigree than Chase Elliott. He’s the son of Bill Elliott, a former champion, NASCAR’s most popular driver, and the first racer to ever win the Winston Million. In his brief career so far, Chase has shown he has the potential to equal or one day even surpass his old man’s accomplishments.

Chase Elliott made a name for himself in short track racing, rising through the ranks while still in high school. He ran part-time in the truck series in 2013, winning his first race at just 17 years old. When he moved up to the XFINITY series, Chase dominated–he won the championship his rookie year and and placed 2nd in 2015.

Elliott’s potential stems not just from his accomplishments, but from his driving style. He’s a hard charging driver; he pushes his car to the absolute limit and always searches for new grooves on track sometimes hurting his car in the process. In that way, Elliott races like a young Jeff Gordon–he runs hard and sometimes reckless, but shows a lot of potential.

Perhaps its fitting that as Elliott moved up to the Cup Series in 2016, he took over Jeff Gordon’s old ride. So far in the season, Elliott has posted 11 top 10’s, 5 top 5’s and a pair of poles. He sits 6th in the points standings and appears to be knocking on the door of his first Cup win. While it’s impossible to know for sure if he will continue his success, the future does look bright for Chase Elliott.

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Nascar’s Kickoff

Despite the Daytona 500’s exciting finish, the rest of the race, and Speedweeks as a whole, felt lackluster. With the absence of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the  truck series caution clock, and the excessive commercials during the 500, the whole week was lethargic. Here, we take a quick look at what did click during the first race of the 2016 Nascar season.

While Fox’s broadcast went a little heavy on the ads, the addition of Jeff Gordon to the booth was a win-win for fans and the network alike. Viewers saw Jeff once more, and the network kept Gordon’s fans interested in watching the race. Although Larry McReynolds scaled back his role to make room for Gordon, the 4-time champion showed a lot of potential in the press box. Jeff’s commentary was insightful and provided an insider’s perspective on the garage. Although Gordon still needs time to develop chemistry with his co-announcers, it was great to see the Nascar legend maintain a presence in the sport after 22 years on track.

The rookie battle was exciting at Daytona as Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott posted strong performances. Elliott, the race’s polesitter, ran up front early, leading the first 3 laps before an unlucky wreck sent him to the garage on lap 18. Ryan Blaney had some better luck, placing 19th in the Wood Brothers Ford and showing serious speed at times during the race. Both drivers turned in excellent performances (3rd for Blaney and 5th for Elliott) at the first Can-Am Duel; their battle for Rookie of the Year looks to heat up even more as the season progresses.

 

 

Ranking the 2016 Rookie Class

We’re less than two weeks away from the start of the 2016 Nascar season, and one of the most exciting storylines is this year’s rookie class. While the 2015 rookies were lackluster (Rookie of the Year Brett Moffitt can’t even find a ride) the 2016 group has a number of promising prospects. Here we take a look at this year’s rookies and rank them by how likely they are to succeed in Nascar’s big leagues.

Ryan Blaney

Ryan Blaney, son of former Sprint Cup driver Dave Blaney, will be running a full-time schedule in 2016 with the historic Wood Brothers racing team. Blaney finished 2nd in the truck series in 2014, before being forced to a limited schedule last year. Blaney won two Xfinity races and a truck series race driving for Penske, but what was perhaps most impressive were his performances in the Sprint Cup series. Driving for the Wood Brothers, Blaney notched 6 top 20’s in the 11 races he competed in without engine problems. With the Wood Brothers’ new technical alliance with Penske, expect Blaney to be very competitive in 2016 and to have a long and successful career once he eventually moves to Penske’s full team.

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott, the son of legendary Nascar racer Bill Elliott, will be taking over Jeff Gordon’s 24 car in 2016. Chase and Ryan Blaney are equals in almost every way–they are both excellent racers who look to be in the Sprint Cup series for a long time. Elliott has experienced far greater success at Nascar’s lower levels. He burst onto the racing scene in 2013, winning the Silverado 250 at Mosport with a daring last-lap pass. Elliott won the Xfinity series championship in 2014 and placed 2nd in 2015, racking up 4 wins and 27 top 5’s in his two year stint. Chase Elliott has big shoes to fill. If he can translate his lower series success to the Sprint Cup, he’ll be able to write his own legacy.

Chris Buescher

The man Chase Elliott lost this year’s Xfinity series championship to is Chris Buescher, the 23-year old from Prosper, Texas. While Elliott’s racing style was often boom-or-bust, Buescher took a more conservative, methodical route, racking up 2 wins and 20 top 10’s en route to a championship victory. Although he drove for Roush in the lower series, Buescher will be racing for perennial backmarker Front Row Motorsports in the Cup series. Why? Although Buescher is a top prospect, funding is very tight for Roush these days. Rather than add a 4th car to their stable, Roush formed a technical alliance with Front Row, bringing Buescher in this season. Expect to see Buescher in a Roush car sin the near future, possibly as soon as next year–Roush driver Greg Biffle is the oldest Sprint Cup regular and is entering the final year of his contract. If Biffle bows out, Buescher could fill his seat.

Brian Scott

Lastly, we have Brian Scott. Scott has shown himself to be a capable racer in the Xfinity Series–although he has never won a race, he’s recorded 73 top 10’s in the past 5 years. While many other drivers would have lost their ride to younger prospects, Scott has held steady, supported by his family’s Shore Lodge sponsorship. Scott brings this money to Richard Petty Motorsports this year, taking over Sam Hornish’s ride. Scott projects to be at best, a racer like Paul Menard–a consistent, if mediocre driver who can occasionally put together a strong performance. However, don’t count him out just yet–many great drivers, such as Jimmie Johnson, were lowly-regarded in lower series before making the jump to the Sprint Cup. Scott showed decent speed in a limited schedule for Richard Childress Racing last year–maybe a change of scenery is just what he needs.

Nascar 2015: What Worked and What Didn’t

Nascar’s 2015 season definitely had some ups and downs. From Jeff Gordon’s retirement to the disastrous introduction of the high-downforce rules package, it was a wild year for Nascar. Let’s take a look back at some of the things that worked and didn’t work in 2015.

The medical waiver: Worked

There was a lot of controversy after Kyle Busch took home the championship at Homestead. Although Busch missed 11 races after breaking his leg in Daytona, he was able to race his way into the Chase by winning 4 races and finishing in the top 30 in points, after securing a medical waiver from Nascar which guaranteed his Chase eligibility. Kyle’s victory may have annoyed a lot of old-school fans, but there’s no question that Busch was one of the best drivers on track in the 25 races he competed in. Busch’s injury, after all, wasn’t his fault–Nascar could have prevented it by installing SAFER barriers on Daytona’s inner walls. Busch’s comeback was a great story for Nascar.

 

NBC: Worked

2015 also marked Nascar’s first year of its television contract with NBC. NBC, in a welcome change, signed on to replace TNT and ESPN/ABC. I’ve already written about TNT’s atrocious coverage, but ABC often did just as poor of a job, rolling out boring broadcasts often relegated to ESPN. NBC, on the other hand, was very good. They introduced new graphics and camera angles, and had solid amounts of Nascar coverage on their sports network, NBCSN. They assembled a strong first-year broadcasting team, bringing in former Hendrick crew chief Steve Letarte and retired racer Jeff Burton. There were some hiccups, but overall NBC did an excellent job, and looks to be a strong partner with Nascar in the future.

Rules package: Didn’t work

Nascar’s Generation 6 cars and its new rules package produced some of the best racing in years in 2014. So naturally, Nascar drastically altered the package in 2015, reducing the horsepower limit with a tapered spacer and increasing the downforce on the cars. The quality of racing dipped noticeably this year–passing was harder and the leader was able to easily pull away from the pack. Nascar’s disastrous experiment with a high-drag package at Indianapolis and Michigan demonstrated the problems inherent to the new setups–most drivers complained that passing was virtually impossible due to the aerodynamics. A low-downforce package, making the cars less stable and more maneuverable, was rolled out at Darlington. Drivers and fans alike enjoyed this setup the most, and Nascar will look to implement it in 2016.

The Kenseth suspension: Didn’t Work

After Matt Kenseth rammed Logano at Martinsville, knocking him out of the lead and the race, many Nascar fans approved. After all, Kenseth was just returning the favor–Logano had popped him two weeks earlier while he led in Kansas. Most fans expected just a fine for Kenseth, or maybe a 25-point penalty. Instead, the Joe Gibbs driver got socked with a 2 race suspension for taking out a Chase contender. The move enraged Nascar fans, many of whom love seeing good old beating and banging on short tracks. It also flew in the face of the precedent Nascar set after previous incidents–when Jeff Gordon took out Clint Bowyer in 2013 at Phoenix, ending Clint’s championship hopes, Gordon only got probation and a points penalty. Nascar’s sanctions against Kenseth were confusing and hasty overreactions. Fans love a villain, and they love seeing drivers settle disputes on the track. Nascar’s ratings could use more of that, not squeaky clean racing. The decision was bad for the Kenseth, bad for the sport, and demonstrated the need for consistent guidelines from the sanctioning body.

 

Jeff Gordon Retired: Who’s Next?

With Jeff Gordon making his final start yesterday, Nascar closed the books on an era. Gordon was Nascar’s first superstar–he helped the sport grow from a regional event to a household name. Gordon is the last driver from the early 1990’s who competed full time, and with his retirement, others may start to follow suit. Tony Stewart, who began racing in 1999. Stewart will follow Gordon out of the sport after the 2016 season. Here’s some drivers who could be headed with them in the next few years.

Greg Biffle

The oldest driver in the Nascar garage isn’t Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart–it’s Greg Biffle, who clocks in at 45 years old. Most people would expect Biffle to be much younger, but that’s because he only started racing in the Sprint Cup Series in 2002. Biffle’s late start and his historically good Roush cars have masked the fact that he’s getting up there in age. With Roush-Fenway Racing on the decline and a lack of new rides opening up in the Sprint Cup,  don’t be surprised to see Biffle be the next driver to make an exit after Stewart.

Matt Kenseth

Kenseth, the 2003 champion and Biffle’s former teammate at Roush, is also getting up there in age. He’s 43 years old and has been racing in the Sprint Cup for 15 years, and is only signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through the end of 2016. Although Kenseth continues to run strong, a two race suspension for taking out Joey Logano dropped him to 15th in the points standings this year. With developmental drivers Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones waiting in the wings, don’t be surprised to see Kenseth bow out in the near future.

Brian Vickers

At first glance, Brian Vickers doesn’t look like a racer ready to hang up his helmet. He’s just 32 years old and recently signed a multi-year contract with Michael Waltrip Racing. However, as MWR closes its doors in the offseason, Vickers will be left without a ride, and more importantly, may be unable to get back on the track. Vickers has battled blood clots since 2010, when clots in his lungs forced him out of the driver’s seat at Red Bull Racing. He battled his medical issues for a long time, and only recently secured a full-time ride with now defunct MWR. However, before the 2015 season began, Vickers announced that he would miss time due to issues fixing a hole in his heart. He ended up driving just 2 races; instead, he spent time working as an analyst for NBC while he recovered. With no ride lined up and no timetable to return to the track, we might have already seen Brian Vickers’ last race.

Jeff Gordon’s Legacy: Part 2

Jeff Gordon has transformed the face of Nascar, but early on in his career few  predicted he would reach such meteoric success. Despite spending 22 years driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon didn’t begin his career in the iconic #24 DuPont Chevy–he started out racing Busch Series Fords for Bill Davis Racing.

Jeff never planned to race for Rick Hendrick–he had a solid foundation with Davis’s team and his crew chief Ray Evernham. Bill Davis originally planned to keep Gordon in the Busch Series in 1992 and move him up to the Winston Cup the following year. The team was a relative newcomer to the sport; it had only gone full-time in 1991, and did not have operations in the Cup Series. The original plan was to build around Gordon’s Cup Series ride and eventually transform the operation into the flagship Ford team. Unfortunately for BDR, the plan never materialized.

Gordon was fielding many offers during the 1992 Busch Series season. In addition to Bill Davis, legendary owner Jack Roush wanted Gordon to drive for him in the Winston Cup. Gordon’s interest was piqued–however, the deal fell through when Roush refused to hire Ray Evernham as his crew chief. Gordon and Evernham had a very successful partnership in the Busch Series, and Jeff wanted to keep it going in the Winston Cup. After talks broke down, another owner began looking into signing Gordon–Rick Hendrick. In 1992, Hendrick Motorsports was not the juggernaut it is today. Although it had signed several successful drivers such as Geoff Bodine, Tim Richmond, and Darrell Waltrip the organization was still searching for its first championship, and was known as a solid, if unspectacular team. When Hendrick first saw Gordon, however, he thought Jeff might be the driver to put his team over the top.

Hendrick hadn’t heard much about Jeff until the 1992 Busch Series Atlanta 300. Walking into the press box halfway through the race, Hendrick noticed one white car slipping and sliding through the turns as he fought Dale Jarrett for the lead. Hendrick remarked that the car was too loose and the driver would crash within a few laps. Gordon never did–he took the lead from Jarrett and never looked back. At the end of the race an incredulous Rick Hendrick turned to the man next to him and asked who the winning driver was. “That’s Jeff Gordon,” the man answered. Hendrick signed Gordon to his Winston Cup team two days later.

Hendrick lured Gordon away from Ford and Bill Davis by promising more pay, higher quality equipment, and unlike Roush, a chance to to keep crew chief Ray Evernham on board. Roush experienced solid success in the 1990’s and 2000’s with Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, and Matt Kenseth, but never matched Gordon’s dominance. Bill Davis did move up to the Winston Cup Series in 1993, fielding rookie Booby Labonte, but the team never achieved success and disbanded in 2009. Gordon signed with Hendrick’s Cup team after the fourth race of the 1992 Busch Series, but didn’t race for him until the final race of the season, the 1992 Hooters 500. That historic event  is remembered for being Richard Petty’s final race–however, it was just the beginning of Jeff Gordon’s long and successful career.

Jeff Gordon’s Legacy: Part 1

As Jeff Gordon’s final season in Nascar begins to wind down, it’s time to reflect on Gordon’s 25 year career. Racing since 1990, Gordon has been one of the most accomplished drivers ever. His resume includes 4 championships, 92 wins, 466 top 10’s, 6 Southern 500 victories, 5 wins at the Brickyard, and 3 Daytona 500 wins. Gordon has the most road course wins ever, has won at every single track on the circuit with the exception of Kentucky, and by the September 27th race at New Hampshire, he will take sole possession of Nascar’s Ironman streak, having completed 789 consecutive races. Jeff Gordon has come a long way since 1990–when he finally hangs up the helmet, the sport will be saying goodbye to one of the most respected drivers in Nascar history.

Gordon’s racing experience broke the mold for many Nascar drivers. Unlike Nascar stars of the past, who grew up driving stock cars around dirt tracks in the Deep South, Gordon hailed from Bakersfield, California. Gordon never raced in stock cars until his Busch Series debut–instead, he drove sprint cars and quarter midgets, small machines with no fenders. Whereas racers in these series typically moved on to race in IndyCar and Formula 1, Gordon’s success propelled him to a ride in Nascar. Jeff experienced great success driving these cars, winning 2 USAC championships. Although he initially wanted to race in IndyCars, after meeting with sponsors and future crew chief Ray Evernham, Gordon decided to move to Nascar. His first start in the Busch Series was inauspicious–although Gordon qualified 2nd, he crashed out early.

Gordon’s fortunes improved after his first Nascar race–he drove full time in the Busch Series beginning in 1991, posting 4 top fives and finishing 11th en route to the 1991 Rookie of the Year Award. It was an impressive showing for Jeff, considering he had never driven stock cars until this year. Gordon made major strides in his second year in the Busch Series, winning 3 times en route to a 4th place finish in the standings. Jeff Gordon’s Busch Series team looked very different than his Hendrick operation today. Although Gordon’s crew chief was Ray Evernham, Jeff began his Nascar career racing Fords for Bill Davis Racing, an underfunded team most remembered for Ward Burton’s improbable win in the 2002 Daytona 500. The original plan for Gordon was to move to the Cup Series with Bill Davis in 1993. So how did Jeff end up driving for Rick Hendrick? Stay tuned for more.