The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
They called him Wonder Boy. Twenty-one year-old Jeff Gordon was the new kid on the block at Hendrick Motorsports in 1993. By the age of 23, he had asserted himself as the number one driver at the organization with his first championship already under his belt.
Fast forward two decades and the man they now call "Big Daddy" is a four-time Sprint Cup champion with an incredible 88 victories to his credit and three Harley J. Earl Trophies, signifying his many triumphs over the Daytona 500.
Gordon was fresh off his fourth title and aiming for a fifth in 2002, and with a new teammate to deal with as well. He was a 26 year-old California native with little success in the Nationwide Series and a lot of questions regarding the decision to bring him to Cup. They didn't really have a nickname for him either. Some called him Vanilla; but now they just call him Six-Time.
Jeff Gordon is 42 now, 13 years removed from his most recent championship. Jimmie Johnson is 38, and the reigning champion for the sixth time in the last eight years. Gordon is shooting for one last shot at NASCAR glory while Johnson goes on the hunt to ascertain the number that will solidify his position among stock car's immortals - title No. 7.
In the shadow of these two titans sits an 18 year-old. He's a member of one of NASCAR's royal families as the son of 1988 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Bill Elliott; Chase Elliott. His name may have gotten him here, but his talent is going to take him to places that money and connections can't.
His rookie campaign in the Nationwide Series is just seven races old and he's already won twice, which is more than Jimmie Johnson can say about his own NNS career. One of those two victories came at the notorious Darlington Raceway. With just two laps remaining at "the track too tough to tame," Chase restarted 6th, but that didn't seem to hinder him much. In a spectacular show of raw skill and sheer determination, he muscled his way by names such as Harvick, Busch, Kenseth, Larson, Sadler, and stole the win.
What makes Gordon and Johnson so formidable though? Besides their obvious natural talent, they are both men of impeccable character and rarely get riled up. They balance patience and aggression better than most. They are thinkers who focus on getting through the first 90% of the race before unleashing the beast on the final 10%.
They aren't afraid to lay the bumper to a competitor but also know exactly when and how to do it. They are self-disciplined, tenacious, highly perceptive, posses great fortitude, willing and able to adapt to their situation at any given moment, and always a threat. When at their best, they have this near-infallible mystique about them that makes it seem like they are unstoppable.
I just described Chase Elliott as well. They say that history repeats itself and I firmly believe that to be true. Chase will one day step into that No. 24 and do to Jimmie what Jimmie did to Jeff - take his crown. Dale Earnhardt Jr. once said that Chase doesn't realize how good he is and Jimmie Johnson himself picked him as the next superstar to arrive on the Cup scene.
I can't predict the future but I can say with great conviction that the next legend to walk onto the grounds of Hendrick Motorsports is a Georgia born second generation racer that I like to call...
"Awesome Chase From That Dawson Place."