With one of the best rookie classes in recent memory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series occurring during the 2016 season, each week we’ll take a look at the five rookies battling for Rookie of the Year and track their progress throughout the season.
In this week’s edition of the “Rookie Report,” the focus is on Phoenix International Raceway and Sunday’s Good Sam 500, a 312 lap battle around the one-mile oval in the Arizona desert that showcased another great run for the rookies.
While Ryan Blaney took the advantage with a sixth place finish at Las Vegas last weekend, it was fellow rookie Chase Elliott that was at the top of the rookie class at Phoenix.
In five previous starts at the track in the Xfinity Series, Elliott scored two top-five finishes, five top-10 finishes, and an average finish of 6.6, giving him a ton of confidence heading into his first Sprint Cup start at the track.
“I’ve been fortunate to have some good cars at Phoenix. I thought we had two good cars out there last year. I don’t look at Phoenix as being a place I’ve figured out though. I think I have a lot of room for improvement there. On the Cup side the challenges are going to be much greater. I’m just trying to watch tape and learn as much as I can from the guys who really have the place figured out. I’m looking forward to getting on track,” said Elliott ahead of the Phoenix race weekend.
Starting 17th, Elliott moved into the top-10 in short order and was able to keep his No. 24 car there for the remainder of the day. Though he made it as high as fifth place at one point in the race, a late race restart dropped him to eighth place by the finish, tying his career-best finish on the season that came two weeks ago at Atlanta.
“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. I felt like we made gains throughout the day. 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,” said Elliott.
Blaney qualified the best of the rookies at Phoenix with a 12th place start, but early race adversity dropped him back to 16th and one point in the race, making for a rough go of things to gain the lost positions back. He would take his No. 21 car back to 12th place, where he would remain for most of the race.
After a late race caution brought the majority of the field down pit road for service, Blaney and his crew were able to move into the top-10, where Blaney would stay for the final two laps of the race, scoring a 10th place finish. The finish gives Blaney his second straight top-10 finish and also made him the highest finishing Ford driver in the field.
“That wasn’t bad. We fought really hard all day. 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 so 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,” said Blaney.
As for the three remaining rookies, Brian Scott ended the day in 27th, five laps down, Chris Buescher finished 30th, six laps down, and Jeffrey Earnhardt did not race at Phoenix as he was replaced by Joey Gase for the day. Earnhardt is scheduled to be back behind the wheel at Auto Club Speedway next week.
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