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Dale Jr.: Elliott to Cup 'makes great sense' in 2016

August 08, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chase Elliott
Earnhardt laments loss of National Guard, calls partnership 'a huge honor'

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday that he expects second-generation phenom Chase Elliott to compete full time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2016. 
As for the teenager, Elliott says he's just enjoying the progress as it unfolds.

The questions over the direction of one of stock-car racing's brightest young talents continued to be a burning topic in the garage, even though his career is just 29 NASCAR national series starts old. The fire was stoked earlier in the week when powerhouse team owner Rick Hendrick told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he expected Elliott to enter a handful of Sprint Cup events next season.

Earnhardt did nothing to throw water on the possibilities at Watkins Glen International, saying that Elliott will soon be ripe for a spot in NASCAR's premier series.

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"I think it makes great sense," Earnhardt said outside his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 hauler. "You know, two Nationwide seasons, run a little Cup in that second season and go right on into Cup, I think that's the plan. He's running well enough that that seems to make a lot of sense. I wouldn't have expected anything else, to be honest with you."

Elliott, moments before final NASCAR Nationwide Series practice, said that his schedule and any potential move up for next season and beyond was far from confirmed.

"I think the best word I can come up with is it's 'a thought.' That's going to be my answer for the weekend is it's a thought," Elliott said. "Beyond that, I really don't know. It's kind of out of my hands. I think it's something that Mr. Hendrick has thought about and I know he mentioned it on the radio the other day. So he knows a lot more about it than I do, and I don't ask questions. I just take it a week at a time and beyond that, I'm not sure."

Elliott -- the son of NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott -- has produced captivating results in his rookie season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, vaulting to the lead in the points standings with three victories through the first 20 of 33 races this season. He's done so under the watch of Earnhardt's JR Motorsports organization, racing with the No. 9 that his father campaigned for most of his career.

Though he's tested Sprint Cup cars from the Hendrick shops in the offseason, Elliott said he isn't rushing his timetable for joining NASCAR's big leagues.

"I think you take it as it comes," Elliott said. "Until you go and try, it's hard to say. There's times where I think, 'yeah, maybe we could keep up,' and other days, maybe not. Really until you give it a fair chance it's hard to say at what point you are in your career. So I try to take it a week at a time, I don't ask questions and just try to hope for the best."

Greg Ives, who has helped mentor the 18-year-old Elliott as his crew chief at JRM, will move to Earnhardt's No. 88 team at the start of 2015, replacing Steve Letarte.

While Hendrick's stable is full at the NASCAR-mandated maximum of four full-time Sprint Cup teams, a fifth part-time car for a prospective rookie would be allowed within the rules. Wednesday night, Hendrick lauded Elliott's poise while saying he hoped to see his career progress to the Sprint Cup level next season.

"I said before he ever ran a race, I would put him in a 600-mile race at Charlotte and think he'd finish in the top 15, top 10, because he's so smart," Hendrick told SiriusXM. "He just understands the car and takes care of it. I think he's going to do a super job whenever the time comes. I think we'll surely, probably the second half of next year, we'll probably see him in some races."

Count Jeff Gordon, Hendrick's longtime franchise driver, among the believers.
 
"I mean this kid is phenomenal. He is just a sponge," Gordon said Friday at Watkins Glen. "You just introduce him to new things and he just excels at it. When it comes to young talent like Chase, I think the sooner that you can. Not necessarily the sooner, but you don't want to keep them in a Nationwide car too long. You want to get them in that Cup car and I think that is a perfect plan is to put him in there for some races next year to give him an idea, and I wouldn't be surprised if you see him in there full time the following year."

Earnhardt, in his brief remarks before opening practice, also lamented the loss of National Guard as a primary sponsor at the end of the season. The branch of the U.S. military announced Wednesday that it would cease its backing of all forms of motorsports in 2015.

While Earnhardt described having the organization's logo on his cars has been "a huge honor," he acknowledged that the military's allocation of marketing funds has been a source of scrutiny in the nation's capital.

"There's been the debate in Washington for several years," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to continue to represent them. Really have enjoyed it and it's been a great, great seven years. It's been a great partnership. I think it's been very, very effective. Hopefully we can continue to do that."

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