By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
For even the most seasoned veteran, the treacherous high banks of the Bristol Motor Speedway can be a tough task, so the stellar 2016 rookie class had their work cut out for them in the late summer classic.
The race which was postponed due to rain after 48 laps were completed on Saturday night, ran to completion on Sunday afternoon, but Sunday proved to be much tougher than Saturday night under the lights, as Chris Buescher claimed the best finish of the rookies with a fifth place result, while the other rookies ran into trouble over the course of the 500 lap race.
Buescher started the day in 12th place and kept himself out of trouble and inside the top-20 for the majority of the race before making his move in the final 125 laps of the event. At lap 375, Buescher cracked the top-10 and broke into the top-five 25 laps later. Though he fell back to ninth at lap 425, he soon returned to the top-five with 50 laps to go and held onto fifth until the checkered flag flew.
“That was a lot of fun. It’s been a long time since we’ve come to the race track and enjoy it like that. We had awesome speed out of our Love’s Ford Fusion. I’m really proud of the team. This thing was good from the start of the weekend. We kept working our way up towards the end and got to the top five, and almost got one there at the end, but I love Bristol. I absolutely love this race track. What they did with the surface worked out really well and made for some really good racing,” said Buescher.
With the fifth place finish, Buescher now finds himself 30th in points and Chase eligible, holding a 13 point advantage over David Ragan with three races remaining in the regular season. As long as Buescher is able to maintain a gap over 31st, he will be a part of the 16 driver Chase field after Richmond.
“I don’t know exactly where we’re at quite yet, but I know we had to get there. That’s Chase eligibility in one race out of the four we had to do it. Now, we have to hold onto it. I’m really proud of this team. Our Love’s Ford Fusion had great speed this weekend. We’re looking forward to the next handful of races. We’ve got some really good tracks for us coming up. We knew Bristol would be a good one for us. It took us a day later to do it, but we got ourselves a top-5 and had a blast out here. That was an awesome run.”
As for the other rookies, their day did not go quite as well as Buescher’s. The next highest finish for a rookie after Buescher’s top-five was Chase Elliott, who finished 15th on the day.
Before the rains came on Saturday night, Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet was stout, as he powered his way into the lead for 14 laps. When the race resumed on Sunday afternoon, Elliott maintained a presence in the top-10 until lap 374 when he was involved in an 11 car pileup. Elliott was unable to slow down in time when Matt Kenseth slowed in front of him in reaction to spinning cars ahead of them, causing Elliott to run into Kenseth and damaging the front end of Elliott’s Chevrolet. Though he was able to continue on in the race, he was only able to manage a 15th place finish.
The next rookie down the leaderboard from Elliott would be Brian Scott, scoring an 18th place finish on Sunday afternoon. Scott started the day in 30th place and like Elliott, he was also involved in the lap 374 crash, but was able to continue on to the finish. Scott’s finish was his best finish since a 12th place finish at Fontana in the fifth week of the season.
Jeffrey Earnhardt was the fourth best rookie in the race, making his first start since Kentucky and finishing about on par where he has finished for much of the season, starting the day in 38th and finishing 29th, 21 laps down.
As for the fifth rookie in the field, Ryan Blaney, his promising day came to a screeching halt with the lap 374 crash. Blaney started the day in fourth place and made his way as high as second place early in the race and held onto a top-10 position through the first 275 laps of the race. Though he fell out of the top-10, he was still running strong and looked to be making his way back to the top-10 as he used the high line to his advantage.
However, when Elliott and Kenseth made contact and Kenseth spun at lap 374, Blaney had nowhere to go and t-boned Kenseth’s car, causing major damage to Blaney’s car and sending him to the garage. His team was able to make repairs and he was able to get back on track to make some laps, but Blaney would end the day in 35th, 63 laps down. The finish marks the worst finish for Blaney since he finished 36th at Indianapolis.
“I don’t know what happened. I was watching the replay in there and somebody got loose. We were trying to make ground on the top and before I knew it the 20 was sitting sideways in front of me and I hit him pretty hard. It’s unfortunate. We had a really good car early and lost some spots on pit road being in bad spots and kind of lost our car a little bit halfway through, but got it back and thought we were just starting to make ground up and got in that wreck. I want to thank Virginia Tech and Ford and Motorcraft and Quick Lane for what they do. That definitely hurts, especially when you have a good car, but we’ll just go on to next week,” said Blaney.