Chase Elliott’s Sprint Cup future still to be determined

Jerry Markland

It’s a foregone conclusion Chase Elliott will one day be racing in NASCAR’s premier division, but less certain is when that day will come.

It was a given that with time Chase Elliott would eventually break out and solidify his billing as NASCAR's newest superstar. What no one thought was that the 18-year-old's ascension would take all of seven races.

The first moment came two weeks ago when Elliott hunted down and passed Kevin Harvick for the Nationwide Series victory at Texas Motor Speedway. That alone would have cemented Elliott's reputation.

Next came the encore.

"I don't think about it. I just want to do my job right and to the best of my ability and everything else will figure itself out."-Chase Elliott

Last Friday at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR's oldest, most challenging speedway, Elliott did what no rookie is supposed to do: He won. The high school senior, who skipped his prom to dance with the Lady in Black, charged from sixth with two laps to go to take the lead, utilizing a skillful pass to seize the point from Elliott Sadler.

The triumph made Elliott the youngest two-time winner in Nationwide Series history. It also prompted the discussion of when the son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott would take the next step in his career.

What that next step is, though, is far from clear.

"We haven't had those conversations yet," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who co-owns Elliott's Nationwide team. "I don't think he needs to be focusing on that sort of thing right now. But I do think two years of Nationwide is the best for a driver."

Hendrick Motorsports holds Elliott's contract and considers him, rightfully, a significant part of the organization's future. The catch is that NASCAR limits how many cars an owner can have at one time, and with Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne already in house, the players would have to change to accommodate Elliott's arrival and that is where the uncertainty comes in.

Elliott has long been viewed as Jeff Gordon's heir apparent, a designation that seems all the more fitting considering the events of the past two weeks.

The great unknown in this equation is when Gordon, 42, will hang up his driving helmet. He said in January that if he won this year's championship he would step aside. Most thought the comments were made in jest, but the four-time champion clarified a month later that he was somewhat serious.

"If (another championship) happened, that would be all the reasons I need to say, ‘This is it, I'm done. Go out on a high note,'" he said.

Gordon may be having a change of mind, having recently told Larry King he could see himself driving for another 10 years. Under this scenario, Elliott would no longer be Gordon's successor but his eventual Cup teammate, which means Hendrick would have to procure Elliott a ride by other means.

That avenue will not come at the expense of Johnson or Earnhardt, both of whom have long-term contracts. And though Kahne's contract is up at the end of 2015 and he's off to a slow start this season, it's hard to envision Hendrick jettisoning him considering Kahne has won four races and made the Chase each of the previous two years.

Due to the lack of opportunities Hendrick presents at the moment, one scenario oft mentioned is an elevation of Elliott's Nationwide team to Cup under the JR Motorsports umbrella.

Of all the potential options, this is the least likely for myriad reasons. Chief among them is that Earnhardt would have to cease driving for Hendrick, since NASCAR would otherwise view this as a way to circumvent the four-team cap. Then there is the desire factor to consider, as Earnhardt has spoken out against wanting to own a Cup team because of the commitment involved.

Working in Hendrick's favor is that due to Elliott's age there is no push to put the teenager in a Cup car immediately. Another year of Nationwide would be in the best interests for Elliott, who could continue to develop, and Hendrick, who can use the time to plan a long-term course of action -- whether that's seeing where Gordon stands on retirement or determining if Kahne should keep his seat in the No. 5 car.

In the meantime, expect Elliott to get spot Cup starts, possibly as soon as this season. Hendrick can run a fifth car in select races because of Elliott's rookie status, or he could farm him out to HScott Motorsports, a satellite team which Hendrick supplies with cars and chassis. This was the similar avenue Hendrick used successfully to develop Brad Keselowski.

"I don't think about it," Elliott said. "I just want to do my job right and to the best of my ability and everything else will figure itself out."

No matter how it all unfolds, Elliott's future is equally secure and promising. One day soon he will be driving at the highest level of NASCAR for the sport's most acclaimed organization. The only question is, exactly when that will be?

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