There’s no secret that the master plan for recently crowned NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Chase Elliott puts Elliott, possibly, in a Sprint Cup car for a select few Sprint Cup races in 2015 before a definite full-time move to Cup competition in 2016. Hendrick Motorsports, although already a full-time four-car team, is able to field a part-time entry for Elliott next year, but NASCAR rules bar HMS from fielding a fifth full-time team for Elliott in 2016. The cap is four, and Hendrick is, obviously, already there.
So, where will Elliott land in 2016? Prior to last week, speculation had Elliott climbing into the No. 5 car, replacing Kasey Kahne. That assumption was canned near the end of the week, though, when Hendrick Motorsports announced a three-year contract extension for Kahne to drive the No. 5.
The other popular assumpion had Jeff Gordon retiring and Elliott climbing into the No. 24. After all, Gordon kind of hinted prior to the start of the 2014 season that if he won a fifth Sprint Cup, he’d consider retirment. During the season, he also mentioned that he didn’t know how much longer his back issues would allow him to race. More recently, though, Gordon has said publicly that retirment isn’t on his radar. My assumed translation: he’s not going to be retiring in the next few years.
That leaves Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt’s contract keeps him in the No. 88 through the 2017 season. As for Johnson, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the No. 48 ride is his for as long as he wants it, and I sure don’t see him vacating it anytime soon.
At this point, it looks pretty obvious that Elliott’s not, specifically, going to be in a Hendrick Motorsports ride when he makes that highly-anticipated move to full-time Sprint Cup Series competition in a little more than a year from now. So, where does he go?
There are a lot of options. Team owner Rick Hendrick could strike a deal to put him pretty much anywhere. I’m guessing that he’d prefer to keep Elliott within the Hendrick family, so to speak. But there, at least right now, there’s no room at the Stewart-Haas Racing inn. I’m not sure exactly when those drivers’ contracts expire, but as of now, there are already four drivers there.
I’ve heard rumblings that room may be made at SHR through the retirement of team co-owner Tony Stewart. That talk seems to have caught fire since Kevin Harvick recent Sprint Cup championship run. I honestly don’t see Stewart retiring the next few years. I agree, wholeheartedly that he’s been through so much the last year-and-a-half, both physically and emotionally, but I still don’t see retirement for him in the next couple of years.
How about Turner Scott or Chip Ganassi Racing? Those could be options. Even if none of those drivers are on the chopping block, they could each still be options. Turner Scott is a one-car operation and CGR currently fields two cars. There’s been no talk of either team expanding in the near future, but a lucrative deal with Hendrick could definitely give either organization that luxury.
And, really, a satellite team like Turner Scott or Ganassi wouldn’t be the only option. After all, remember when Kahne originally signed with Hendrick Motorsports more than a year before the No. 5 became available? If not, let me refresh your memory. Hendrick struck a deal with the now-defunct Red Bull Racing. Not only was RBR not a Hendrick satellit team, it wasn’t even a Chevrolet team. Hendrick worked out a deal for Kahne to spend a year in a Toyota. Obviously, a deal could come from anywhere.
My point, and I realize it took me a long time to get around to it here: maybe we need to stop worrying about where Elliott’s going to be in 2016? If Hendrick doesn’t have an exact planned location already in the works, he’ll come up with one. And I’m guessing he’s already working on it or maybe even already had something in line that he’s not ready to announce, yet.
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