Chase Elliott can’t make fans forget the legacy of the No. 24 car, but by all indications, he’s ready to make his own distinctive mark in that vaunted ride.
The history of the No. 24 car is monumental, and Elliott inherited that ride last year from the driver who made it famous.
The No. 24 has won 93 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races in 1,414 starts since the number debuted in 1950. All 93 victories belong to Jeff Gordon, who retired from full-time racing at NASCAR’s highest level at the end of the 2015 season.
When Gordon made his first premier series start in the 1992 season finale, he took over the number from Butch Gilliland, who had driven a family-owned No. 24 Pontiac at Phoenix two weeks earlier. The No. 24 made only two appearances in 1992, with Gilliland behind the wheel, before Gordon ran the number at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
As he made his debut in the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Gordon did so with no weight of history on his shoulders.
The same can’t be said of Elliott, who followed a four-time champion who is third on the all-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory list.
But Elliott has adjusted. By all measures, he exceeded expectations in a 2016 season that saw him claim Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Elliott was a couple of blown restarts away from becoming the only driver other than Gordon to win in the No. 24 car, and he’s ready to build on his strong performance this season.
Sophomore jinx? Forget it.
“You hope you can continue forward and not look at it as ‘year two’ or look at it from that perspective,” Elliott said. “You have to go about it as a new season, as boring an answer as that is. You have to see the challenges as they come. One thing I’m excited about, which I haven’t had in the last few years, is having the same crew chief two years in a row. I haven’t had that.
“I really enjoyed working with Alan (Gustafson) last year. I think he’s one of the best. Everyone says that about their crew chiefs, but I’m pretty confident saying that. He does a great job and is underrated in what he does and how hard he works in trying to make a race team go. For us, it’s about starting another year, improving in areas that we wanted to get better in and also improving some of the areas we succeeded in and try to keep it as simple as that.”
It also helps that Elliott has a different primary sponsor (NAPA) from the ones that dominated the hood of Gordon’s car. Elliott’s souvenir sales have been robust, and his fans are easily identifiable.
“I want to be me and try to keep things as straightforward as I can,” Elliott said. “I try not to be a very complicated person and try to keep things as simple as possible. I certainly appreciate the support we’ve had. It was incredible to see some of that last year.
“Darlington stands out in my mind. We went there and saw a bunch of new 24 gear, which goes a long way. It doesn’t go unnoticed and it means a lot. I certainly appreciate that support, but you want people to support you for who you are and no other reason. I hope that’s the way it is for me. I’m trying to be myself.”
The transition from Gordon to Elliott, in the fan base as well as in the car, is emblematic of the youth movement that’s evolved in the past few years from a groundswell into a full-fledged tsunami. The 2017 season brings three full-time newcomers to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon.
They follow by a year the talented trio of Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher. Before that, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson joined the series.
Elliott recalled once again his experience at Darlington, where, as he sat in his car waiting to leave the track, he noticed a large group of fans wearing No. 24 NAPA gear.
“I happened to see a big group of people,” Elliott explained. “That’s why it stood out in my mind. As the year went on, I guess you did see a little more of the newer 24 stuff, which I thought was cool.
“But I’m perfectly cool with seeing Jeff Gordon gear, too. Jeff’s been good to me and has a great fan base who still enjoy going to the races. New or old 24 gear, I’m happy with it.”
Just as Elliott’s growing cadre of fans will continue to coexist with the long-time backers of Gordon, so will their two legacies.
And as the 2017 season begins to unfold, Elliott appears ready to add considerable substance to his.