Elliott, Suarez among Gordon’s breakouts
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 flag and anticipate what’ll happen before the green flag 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 different 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 benefits 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 definitely 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 definitely 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.”