Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Rookies & Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

As the last Sprint Cup off week has come and gone, everything remains the same in the top division.

A few rookies are on the cusp of winning, as well as making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The one and only rookie to make the Chase was Denny Hamlin, one decade ago.

This rookie class is similar to the one of two years ago that held Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. Both Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney have seen the ups and downs of the Cup Series in year one, both trending in the wrong direction as one rookie has upped its game.

Bristol marks the fifth straight race that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is sidelined due to concussion-like symptoms. At the series’ most recent race, Watkins Glen, he talked publicly for the first since being removed from the No. 88 car. His words spoke loudly and now Junior Nation knows where he stands on the season and his career.

While NASCAR’s 15-time Most Popular Driver has temporarily stepped to the side for his own well-being, it has granted other drivers an opportunity … an opportunity that one can only dream of. But who is the long term substitute?

Q: What rookie will win next? – Enrico, New Jersey

This is kind of a bloated question because, as we witnessed at Pocono, just about any driver can win on any given weekend. However, obviously, the two top rookie contenders of Blaney and Elliott stand out this season.

On the list of rookies in 2016, Chris Buescher may have been slotted in at third or fourth of rookies that had a chance at a victory in 2016. He competes for a lower budget team, at least compared to Hendrick Motorsports and even Wood Brothers Racing, which has an alliance with Team Penske.

Be that as it may, Buescher was victorious before the other two. Nobody can take that away from him.

With only four races remaining before the Chase begins at Chicagoland, both Blaney and Elliott need to first worry about points before winning. Sure, winning cures everything and when it comes to Richmond it’s possible both have to win a race, but it doesn’t solve everything.

(Photo: Brett Moist/NKP)
Chase Elliott has the best equipment in this year’s rookie class. (Photo: Brett Moist/NKP)

Since Elliott’s runner-up finish at Michigan two months ago, he has an average finish of 25.5, dropping from sixth in the standings to 12th. Currently, the No. 24 is 49 points above the Chase cutoff, but that will all change if Buescher, sitting three points off the bubble, can crack the top 30 in points.

In the last two months, Blaney has had similar struggles as he as crashed in three of the last seven races, dropping to 18th on the Chase grid. As the standings sit right now, the No. 21 Ford is only 18 points off the coveted bubble that Larson holds.

Both of these drivers have struggled in the last few months, but for sure they remain the next rookie to win a race for this current rookie class. If both fail to win a race in 2016, they may have to step aside as Erik Jones is moving up to the Cup Series next year with Furniture Row Racing. FRR has an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that has won 11 races this year, not to mention Martin Truex, Jr.’s dominant Coca-Cola 600 victory.

The best current rookie to be victorious would be Elliott. Before the Chase, he is coming back to three tracks for a second time this season, all in which he had finishes of 12th or better in the spring. He led 35 laps at Michigan before finishing second to Joey Logano.

Let’s face it, Elliott is in the best ride of all the rookies. He took over for four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon. He stepped into an incredible opportunity and though he hasn’t had a top-10 finish over the last seven races, he is having an incredible rookie campaign.

A win is in sight for Elliott. He’s led 118 laps this year, which is more than his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne, who has yet to lead a single lap in 2016. Jimmie Johnson‘s statistics are down from the norm and HMS has only won two races in 2016. That makes what Elliott has accomplished look much more impressive by comparison.

Mark it down — Elliott is the next rookie winner, coming this season, possibly next weekend at Michigan.

Q: Who will be Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s long-term replacement driver if he cannot recover? – Devin, Long Island, New York. 

This is all speculation, especially with some of the comments that Earnhardt made at Watkins Glen. He wants to race. He wants to win. He wants to be a title threat again.

With no timeline for when Earnhardt will be back piloting the No. 88 car, it’s unlikely that it will happen this season. Even if we were to come back as early as Michigan, he currently sits 21st in the point standings without a win.

The smart plan might be to sit the NASCAR veteran out for the rest of the year so he comes in fresh and possibly with a new perspective in 2017. Of course, that will not sit well with sponsors or maybe even Junior Nation, but he has a life outside of racing.

In three events replacing Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon has a best finish of 13th at Indianapolis. Over the last two races, his seatbelt came unbuckled at Pocono and he got into an early incident with Dillon at Watkins Glen, two of his better race tracks. It’s obvious he doesn’t want to be in the racecar, but is doing this as a favor for Rick Hendrick, someone he has the utmost respect for.

So who are possible fill in drivers?

Look no further than JR Motorsports. Alex Bowman is the perfect driver for the ride. He’s young and hasn’t had a fair shot at the sport, spending much of his career in underfunded equipment in 2014 with BK Racing and last year with Tommy Baldwin Racing.

Bowman has a best career finish of 13th at Daytona in 2014. Though he finished 26th at New Hampshire replacing Earnhardt, that doesn’t reflect the kind of run he was having. The No. 88 car was seventh at the time it suffered a blown tire and smacked the outside wall.

Earnhardt, 41, is getting up in age and HMS needs to find a driver to potentially fill his position after he’s gone. Why not give Bowman a shot at the ride, especially since he’s only racing part-time in the XFINITY Series currently? If he performs at an elite level, there’s a good chance he will find a good ride in the sport.

Other drivers that could be in the mix are Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler, both who drive for Earnhardt full-time in XFINITY. If you want a wild card, add Cole Custer‘s name in there as he is running a truck for JR Motorsports this season, likely moving to XFINITY in 2017.

Earnhardt’s situation is unlike any other NASCAR injury in recent memory. He gives back to the sport. He always has. If he can’t perform, it makes sense that the next best option is to throw a young guy into the ride, possibly making a future stars.

About the author

Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.

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