After scoring his best career finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last weekend at Texas, Chase Elliott and the other Cup Series rookies headed into Bristol ready to get a crash course in racing on the half-mile bullring.
All five rookies started outside of the top-15 and although Bristol seemed to have their number early on, most of them found a way to turn things around by the time the checkered flag flew.
Leading the way once again was Elliott, who fell two laps down at one point in the race and looked like he was struggling, but made his way back onto the lead lap and drove his way as high as the runner-up position behind eventual winner Carl Edwards as the race neared its conclusion.
A series of late cautions doomed Elliott’s chances at the race win as he restarted on the slower inside lane each time and fell back to fourth place by the time the race was over, bettering his best career finish from last weekend at Texas by one position.
“I just had a really good Kelley Blue Book/NAPA Chevrolet. The guys brought a fast car here this weekend. Started off a little slow. I didn’t qualify as well as we wanted to on Friday, but we hit on a couple of things, I thought, right there towards the end of final practice yesterday that we really liked. Fortunately that carried over to today and I was able to move forward. I hated to have a loose wheel, but stuff happens. The guys did a good job having a good pit stop under green. We only ended up losing two laps and that gave us a shot to get back. One down, and then trying to get back to the lead lap. It was a long day but I’m definitely proud of the effort. We’re chipping away, just not close enough,” said Elliott.
Though Elliott was the only rookie that finished in the top-10, his closest rival in the rookie of the year race, Ryan Blaney, ended the day just outside the top-10 in 11th. Blaney was holding steady in the top-five with about 25 laps to go, but just like Elliott, restarting on the inside lane would be his downfall, causing him to fall to 11th by the finish.
“It was good until the end. We should have run fifth, easy,” said Blaney. “The bottom (lane) is terrible here. You can’t go anywhere on the bottom. If you’re lucky enough to restart on the top, then you’ll move forward even if you’re a terrible race car. We had a good race car and got stuck on the bottom for three straight restarts and went backward. That’s pretty disappointing when you know you have a top-5 race car.”
Finishing 21st was Chris Buescher and while that may not be an accomplishment for most drivers, it was for the rookie, as it marked his best finish of the season by a longshot. Buescher ran as high as 13th near the end of the race, but like so many others, a bad draw of getting stuck with the inside lane on the late restarts sent him backwards to his eventual 21st place finish.
“Lining up there at the end just got us. We were 14th on the board and we were lined up 13th or 15th, I don’t really know, but things like that. This track is so line sensitive now and it’s so hard to pass that there’s not much we could do on the bottom on restarts, except try to get to the top and get rolling. It wasn’t bad. There’s a lot of hope there. We had a lot of speed there and it was fun racing,” said Buescher.
As far as the other two rookie of the year contenders, Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt, both struggled on the day, with Scott finishing 30th, seven laps down, and Earnhardt finishing 32nd, 12 laps down.
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