AVONDALE, AZ — Rick Hendrick has an eye for talent. In 1992, he discovered and signed a young USAC star that didn’t have enough money for an Indy Car seat. This young brazen kid was a Ford development driver, but Hendrick swooped in and took him Cup racing. He saw what he did in a Busch race in Atlanta and signed him 48 hours later.
Gordon, made his first career Cup start on Nov. 15, 1992. That was Richard Petty’s final NASCAR start. The “kid” would pan out just fine. Four championships and 93 race wins later, Gordon goes down as one of the best to ever race a stock car.
In 2000, Hendrick found another budding young star. He wasn’t necessarily tearing up the track in the Busch Series, but Hendrick and Gordon figured this guy deserved a chance. For the 2002 season, in came a guy named Jimmie Johnson.
Seven championships and 83 wins later, Johnson, like Gordon, will go down as one of the all-time greats.
Johnson, made his final Cup start on Sunday at the Phoenix Raceway. It was a day that another driver that Hendrick found won his first career championship. That kid?
Elliott, became the third youngest NASCAR champion ever at the age of 24. But, you have to rewind to a decade ago for this relationship. Hendrick, got a tip from a friend, a former NASCAR owner, about this second generation driver tearing up dirt tracks around the Southeast.
After witnessing it, Hendrick decided to call this kid (Elliott) and his dad (Bill Elliott) over to North Carolina to chat. He signed that kid. Hendrick, gave Elliott a contract at 14 years old. Now, that 14 year old is 24 and a NASCAR champion.
“I won’t name any names at our company, but I think a lot of people thought I was nuts,” Hendrick said. “No, you see a kid like that… Actually James Finch told me, Have you seen Chase Elliott drive?And I said, No. He said, Man, he’s whipping all these guys on dirt.
“So I started getting some videos, and then I called Bill, and they came down and we talked.
“I just watched him in those late models and then actually saw one of the races he was racing Kyle Busch. Just the way Bill raised him and what a polished young guy he was and had a lot of talent, I thought, man, he’s just 14 years old so sure want to take a chance if we can.
“You’ve got to find a guy like that early. And again, I think it was a combination of skill, pedigree and just a sharp young man.”
Elliott, has the pedigree to be a multi time champion now. This could be just the first of many. Johnson and Gordon combined to win 11 titles and 177 races. Is this now Elliott’s time to shine?
He’s won 11 races, five of which coming this season alone. Three of those five in the final five weeks, all coming in cutoff races.
“Well, you know, he’s a young guy,” Hendrick said on Sunday of Elliott. “I think he’s going to win a lot of them. Seven is a big number, but that’s something to shoot at.
“Chase has shown so much maturity and everything by just winning these races and now the championship at 24 years old. I think he’s got a lot left in his tank.”
He sure does. This could be that changing of the guard moment in NASCAR.