El­liott, Suarez among Gor­don’s break­outs

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Greg Moore

Jeff Gor­don is a lot like you now that he talks about rac­ing in­stead of driv­ing for a liv­ing.

“It’s brought the fan out in me. I look for­ward to ev­ery race,” the re­tired four­time NASCAR Cup Se­ries cham­pion and cur­rent Fox Sports an­a­lyst said. “I can’t wait to get the green flag and an­tic­i­pate what’ll hap­pen be­fore the green flag and see what un­folds and see who does some­thing sur­pris­ing or ex­cit­ing or maybe doesn’t live up to the ex­pec­ta­tion.”

NASCAR needs a new wave of stars. It’s been this way for a cou­ple of years with the re­tire­ments of pop­u­lar driv­ers such as Gor­don, Dale Earn­hardt Jr., Tony Ste­wart and Carl Ed­wards. Dan­ica Patrick added her name to the list at the be­gin­ning of 2018, and Kasey Kahne joined the ranks at the end of the year.

Gor­don’s view from the Fox broad­cast booth, com­bined with his ex­pe­ri­ence as one of the great­est rac­ers of all time and his work con­sult­ing for Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports, makes him the per­fect guy to dis­cuss the fu­ture stars head­ing into the 2019 sea­son.

Qual­i­fy­ing for the sea­son-open­ing Day­tona 500 be­gins Sun­day. The 61st an­nual Day­tona 500 is sched­uled for Feb. 17, when Gor­don will join play-by-play an­nouncer Mike Joy and an­a­lysts Dar­rell Wal­trip and Larry McReynolds.

In a con­ver­sa­tion with The Ari­zona Repub­lic in Jan­uary be­fore his in­duc­tion into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Feb. 1, Gor­don shared thoughts on some of the more pop­u­lar up-and-com­ing young driv­ers.

(We didn’t talk about reign­ing cham­pion Joey Logano, 28, be­cause, well, he’s al­ready ar­rived.)

Chase El­liott, 23

“It’s pretty ob­vi­ous he’s the most pop­u­lar driver in the sport, right now,” Gor­don said. “If they’re not in Homestead com­pet­ing for a (2019) cham­pi­onship, I think there will be a lot of dis­ap­point­ment.”

He con­tin­ued, say­ing, “Quite frankly, the sport needs it. And I’m not say­ing I’m cheer­ing or root­ing for any­one in par­tic­u­lar (given their con­nec­tion at Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports). But it’s no differ­ent from when Dale Earn­hardt Jr. or Tony Ste­wart, when the guys who are tal­ented and pop­u­lar are ex­celling at the high­est level, the whole sport benefits from it. It’s one of the things that Dale Jr. missed out on. And I’m sure there have been oth­ers along the way that have not been able to pull off be­ing the most pop­u­lar and get­ting the ul­ti­mate prize. Right now, if Chase could pull that off, I think it could be a huge burst of mo­men­tum for the sport.”

Daniel Suarez, 27

“I think this is gonna be a cru­cial year for Daniel,” Gor­don said. “Yes, he was at Gibbs, but I don’t think he was at Gibbs with the team — cer­tainly not the team that Carl Ed­wards stepped into. I think he was at a lit­tle bit of a dis­ad­van­tage there. But I think this year, mov­ing into Ste­wart-Hass, that’s a solid team. … It’s gonna be prob­a­bly his best op­por­tu­nity to show what he’s ca­pa­ble of do­ing. I love him be­ing part of the sport. His en­ergy, his per­son­al­ity and his driv­ing abil­ity is very strong.”

Erik Jones, 22

“Very tal­ented. Very laid back. He sort of sur­prises you when you least ex­pect it,” Gor­don said. “I definitely think this is gonna be a stronger year for him over at Gibbs now that he’s get­ting his feet on the ground there. Ob­vi­ously, that’s a strong or­ga­ni­za­tion, but his team, I don’t think that they per­formed at the level that he an­tic­i­pated, nor any of us. I definitely think there’s gonna be a lot of eyes on them and the small changes that they’re mak­ing to try to im­prove per­for­mance. But he’s cer­tainly very ca­pa­ble of get­ting the job done as a driver.”

Bubba Wal­lace, 25

“He’s got a great per­son­al­ity and at­ti­tude,” Gor­don said. “His driv­ing abil­i­ties are very strong. My only con­cern is whether the team is ca­pa­ble of giv­ing him the equip­ment that he’s ca­pa­ble of. Some­times I see Bubba over­drive the car or get frus­trated a lit­tle bit that he’s not able to get more out of it. Or the car’s not giv­ing him what he needs. That’s where you’d like to see Richard Petty Mo­tor­sports get some more spon­sor­ships, get some more tech­nol­ogy sup­port or engi­neer­ing sup­port to bring bet­ter race cars to the track. Be­cause Bubba’s a guy that, if he could be up there com­pet­ing for wins like he did at Day­tona … that would be ab­so­lutely amaz­ing.”

Ryan Blaney, 25

“You’re talk­ing about (a guy) that seems to get bet­ter ev­ery year,” Gor­don said. “He res­onates with the fans. He’s great on so­cial me­dia, and he’s got a rac­ing lin­eage … and he’s at Penske, which is the cham­pi­onship team, the de­fend­ing cham­pion or­ga­ni­za­tion. I think that this kid’s just got an amaz­ing bright fu­ture.”

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