As Gordon prepares for final season, is Chase Elliott now set to replace him?

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Chase Elliott’s primary focus this season will be on defending his NASCAR XFINITY Series championship.

But with Jeff Gordon announcing that 2015 will be his last full year of Sprint Cup competition, Elliott may now be in position to succeed the four-time champion at NASCAR’s top level in 2016.

Team owner Rick Hendrick isn’t just Gordon’s boss, but also one of Elliott’s. JR Motorsports, Elliott’s team in the NXS, has Hendrick and another of his Cup drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., as two of its co-owners (the other being Junior’s sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller).

Hendrick has not yet a finalized plan to bring Elliott to Sprint Cup. But he did say last summer in a SiriusXM NASCAR Radio interview that he expects to see the 19-year-old compete in select Cup events this year with a fifth HMS car.

More recently, team general manager Doug Duchardt said in November that Kenny Francis would likely be the crew chief for Elliott in those Cup events. Francis, formerly the crew chief for Kasey Kahne, is now HMS’ vehicle technical director.

“He understands the car and he just takes care of it,” Hendrick said of Elliott’s talents in his interview. “I think he’s gonna do a super job whenever the time comes and I think we’ll surely, probably – the second half of [2015], we’ll probably see him in some races.”

At the time, Elliott was in a dogfight for the NXS title with teammate Regan Smith. But Elliott pulled away in the final stretch of races before clinching in the penultimate race at Phoenix to become the youngest NASCAR national series champion ever.

He may not need to win another crown before he’s announced as the man that will indeed replace Gordon.

Gordon hadn’t completely ruled out the possibility of running select events post-2015 in Sprint Cup in his initial announcement this morning. But in a teleconference this afternoon, he said chances were “pretty good” that the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway would be his last Cup event (although he added that he’d like to leave a door open to perhaps competing in other series one day).

“I know that I’m not coming back to do a part-time schedule [in Sprint Cup],” Gordon said. “I love being competitive. I love racing for wins. It’s not just the thrills or the speed or just being at the track that I enjoy.”

When asked today where Elliott fits in all of this, Hendrick chose not to elaborate on the subject.

“We’re just kind of looking at what’s down the road, a little bit later,” he said. “I want to kind of focus on Jeff and what he’s accomplished, and at a later time, we’ll focus on who’s gonna be in the car.”

Time will tell how it all plays out. But you have to think that one way or another, Elliott is going to be well taken care of and part of the Cup landscape in due course.

April 5 in Motorsports History: Alex Zanardi’s amazing Long Beach rally

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Alex Zanardi entered the Long Beach Grand Prix on April 5, 1998 as the race’s defending champion and the series’ defending champion.

But the Italian didn’t seem a serious contender for much of the 105-lap event. Zanardi started 11th position and lost a lap early when he was involved in a multicar spin in the hairpin.

Alex Zanardi celebrates after winning the 1998 Grand Prix of Long Beach. Photo: Getty Images

But the race was still young, and despite emerging from the incident in 18th place, Zanardi slowly progressed through the field while battling radio problems that made communication difficult with his team.

With five laps remaining, Zanardi passed Dario Franchitti on the backstretch for second place and then focused in on leader Bryan Herta.

With two laps remaining, Zanardi made his move, making a daring pass on the inside of Herta in the Queen’s Hairpin (which no longer exists as the track layout was changed the following year).

The move was reminiscent of Zanardi’s famous last-lap move on the inside of Laguna Seca’s famed Corkscrew in 1996, which deprived Herta of his first CART victory.

Franchitti passed Herta as well, and Zanardi went on to clinch his first victory of the season.

“On a day when everything went wrong, we came back and won,” Zanardi said following the race. “I can’t explain it. It wasn’t until I saw Bryan ahead of me that I ever thought I had a shot at winning. It was amazing. I have no words to describe it.”

Following Long Beach, Zanadri won six more times in 1998 en route to his second and final CART championship.

Also on this date:

1992: Bobby Rahal led from start to finish to win the Valvoline 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. The win was the first of four victories for Rahal during his championship season.

2009: Ryan Briscoe won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of three victories for the Aussie in 2009. The race was also the first IndyCar Series on Versus, which was rebranded as NBC Sports Network in 2012.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994