Rookies aren’t supposed to be competing for top fives and wins with the veterans, right? At most, they should barely be running near the top 10. Eh, try again.
This year’s class of “super rookies” have already begun to make their mark in NASCAR’s premier division. A mere four races into the season, two young guns have set themselves apart from the rest. Their talents aside, these men have landed top-tier rides in the early stages of their career, setting them up for success right at the wave of the green flag.
For Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle is not just another superlative. Rather, edging out each other has become a battle for pride and more importantly, one that says “I belong here.”
As the checkered flag waved for the Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, these two drivers placed themselves amongst NASCAR’s best drivers. Impressing once again, they each finished inside of the top 10 — the first time both have done so in a race this year. However, it wasn’t an easy road on a hot Sunday afternoon in the desert sun.
“We fought really hard all day,” Blaney said following the race. “We got a lot better throughout the day. We didn’t start out that great and we just got better as we went along. The guys did a great job with two tires at the end and I thought about staying out, but we wouldn’t have been on the first two rows. I don’t think we had to come in and get two, and I think it picked us up one spot. It was a good day and a good job by everybody on this Motorcraft Quick Lane team and a top-10 car is all I could ask for.”
Throughout the 313-lap contest, Blaney ran approximately 15th to 20th. Struggling with the handling of his No. 21 Ford, he methodically worked his way into the top 15 late in the going. Running behind Matt Kenseth after the penultimate caution until the final one of the afternoon, he was able to work his way up to 10th following a pit stop prior to overtime.
now just gonna throw this out there, blaney has been really good after about 5 laps on tires. not so good on restarts. so we'll see how goes
— Wood Brothers Racing (@woodbrothers21) March 13, 2016
But with a mixture of slow pit stops and a car only good on the long-run, Blaney had multiple set-backs during the 500-kilometer race.
Evidently, he came back to finish 10th, making it two consecutive weeks that the Wood Brothers earned top-10 finishes. The last time that the No. 21 team had back-to-back top 10s was in 2005 at Kansas and Charlotte in October with Ricky Rudd behind the wheel.
As for Elliott, the day was quite smooth for the 2014 XFINITY Series champion.
After starting 17th, Elliott drove his No. 24 car to the top 10 by Lap 105. Once he entered it, he didn’t look back.
Elliott roared into the top five by Lap 210, staying put for nearly 30 laps until he fell back to eighth during the penultimate pit stop. While he couldn’t seal the deal to earn his first top-five in the Cup Series, he maintained a position inside of the top 10 when the checkered flag flew. In doing so, he gave the No. 24 team its second top 10 in four races.
“I felt like it was a solid day for us,” Elliott said post-race. “I was just happy we finally put a day together and got a finish that these guys deserved. I feel like we had a good car. We made gains on it all day long. That last restart, obviously, was pretty wild. We gave up a couple of spots, but we will take it and move on to Fontana.
“I thought it was an improvement all day. First off, my guys have been bringing such fast race cars to the racetrack every week since Daytona, and I haven’t been doing a very good job of getting the finishes that they deserve. I’m just happy today that we could finally finish one of these things and get a solid top‑10 finish. The guys did a great job on pit road picking up spot there. Alan made good adjustments and gave up a couple spots on that last restart, but I was proud of the effort and hopefully we can take it and try to get a little better in Fontana.”
Tire management and brake wear headlined Sunday’s Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Forcing drivers to save their equipment on long green-flag runs, multiple cars slammed into the wall throughout the day, blowing tires due to pushing the limit late in the run. It happened three times on Sunday with Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne going into the wall as they entered the corners.
For the two top rookies to survive the day, finishing on the lead lap, they proved that they have what it takes to compete with the top-tier drivers.
Surviving Sunday’s race was especially important for Elliott, who wrecked twice in the first three races. He continuously has put blame on himself. Even while he has been extremely competitive in his first few races as Jeff Gordon’s replacement, he is starting to show why he was chosen as the new pilot of the No. 24 car. His determination and skill level has begun to lead to success with crew chief Alan Gustafson — the man who led Kyle Busch to multiple victories in his rookie year in 2005.
Moving forward, the Rookie of the Year battle will continue to intensify. Early into the season, Blaney has the advantage with help from Team Penske. However, as Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports team begins to settle into a groove as it did on Sunday, they will begin to lead laps and compete for wins.
Both drivers are running just as strong — if not stronger — than 2014 Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson. Larson started out his rookie campaign with five top 10s in the first 10 events that year, eventually capturing eight top 5s and 17 top 10s en route to the award.
While Blaney has more experience than Elliott in the Cup Series after running 18 races prior to this season, he is with a team running full-time for the first time since 2008. Without a charter and leaving the Race Team Alliance (RTA), the team does have several setbacks that may cause them to struggle late in the year. However, that possibility remains to be seen as the entry lists may dwindle and the team’s alliance with Penske continues to strengthen.
Seeing both of these drivers in the top 10 in the same race is something that will become oh so familiar for every NASCAR fan. Sooner rather than later, the names Elliott and Blaney will be just as familiar as Gordon and Stewart.