By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
With just three races remaining in the regular season, all eyes were on the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookies to see how they would fare on the fast two-mile oval at Michigan International Speedway and whether the other rookies could join Chris Buescher in the win column.
Picking up right where he left off in June, Chase Elliott was stellar throughout the weekend at Michigan as he looked for redemption from his near win at the track earlier this season.
Elliott started the day in fifth place and kept his No. 24 car inside the top-five for the majority of the race, falling in behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. When Johnson had a slow pit stop under green flag pit stops at lap 117, Elliott cycled into the lead and held onto a commanding 15 second lead. However, Elliott’s advantage would go away shortly thereafter when a caution for debris came out at lap 119.
Elliott would lose the lead to Kyle Larson at lap 125, but the tables turned for the two drivers under green flag pit stops at lap 157 as Elliott beat Larson off of pit road. When pit stops finally cycled through, Elliott held onto a two-second gap over Larson with 31 laps to go. Though Larson looked to be reeling Elliott in, lapped traffic allowed Elliott to hold onto the lead until a caution came out on lap 186 for debris.
On the ensuing restart, both Elliott and Larson spun their tires, but Larson got the jump into the lead and though Elliott did his best to try and run down Larson, he had to settle for second place for the second time this season at Michigan.
With Larson winning, Elliott now holds a 27 point advantage over 17th place in points.
“Just a better restart again. That was what it was all about for sure. Once that guy (Kyle Larson) got out front it was really hard to pass. My guys did such a good job today of making the most of pit road. That was the only place you could make a large sum of ground in a short period of time. They did exactly what I asked them to do. I said ‘you guys are going to have to bail me out here I messed up.’ They did they got us the lead just like I asked and I gave it away again. It’s one of those things where you do or you don’t and I didn’t. You just got to recognize your mistakes, look at the positives I guess and move on down the road,” said Elliott.
Through the first 60 laps of the race at Michigan, the second best rookie in the race, Ryan Blaney, was running exceptionally well just outside the top-five, but just past the 60 lap mark, Blaney had a right-front tire go down entering Turn 3. Luckily, Blaney was able to get his car to pit road and his team was able to change all four tires and get him back out on track. Green flag pit stops for the remainder of the field started just after Blaney made his way to pit road and he was able to cycle back into the top-five.
For the remaining laps, Blaney held steady bouncing between the top-five and top-10, ending the day in fourth when the checkered flag flew. Blaney has his work cut out for him if he wants to make the Chase, sitting 71 points back of 16th and needing a win in the next two weeks to secure his Chase berth.
“We were up towards the front most of the day and some runs were better than others. It is kind of a decent day for us. It is nothing to complain about. I thought we were in a decent spot there that last restart and it didn’t work out great. Congrats to Larson. That is cool to see a rookie winning. These are the days we need. These are the days this team deserves. We always want to win in Ford’s backyard but we will go on to Darlington and try to get it done there,” said Blaney.
After a fantastic run at Bristol last weekend, Michigan was anything but for Chris Buescher after engine woes provided a 35th place finish. Buescher came into the race with a 13 point advantage over David Ragan in their fight for 30th place in points and looked to be on the way to another points building run after qualifying 21st on the day.
However, Buescher and his No. 34 team began having engine issues almost as soon as the green flag dropped as the engine seemed to only be running on seven cylinders. Buescher dropped back to 40th prior to the competition caution at lap 20 and the team did their best to try and diagnose and fix the issue under caution. Buescher lost two laps under caution and returned to the race, but was still well off the pace, finishing 35th when the checkered flag flew, seven laps down. With the finish, Buescher is still Chase eligible in 30th, but now only holds a seven point gap over Ragan heading to Darlington.
“The guys worked really hard on our Dockside Logistics Ford to get it back out there. I know it isn’t fun opening a hood of a race car that is as hot at it is and trying to work on it. Kudos to my guys for keeping their heads down and working at it and getting it fixed. Usually when you have engine trouble you are along for the ride. It ended up being something a little bit more simple than I guess we originally figured. We got back up and running and made some laps and made a really terrible day into just an okay day. Now we get to go to Darlington and I am excited for that. I was excited for here. Even with the troubles we had the balance was really good so it is a shame we didn’t really get to participate today,” said Buescher.
“We will have to get it back at the shop and tear it down and take a look at it and diagnose from there to see if it was a freak accident or something we need to look at going forward.”
As far as the other two rookies in the field, Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt, Michigan was just a continuation of the woes they have faced throughout the season. Scott brought his No. 44 car home in 28th, while Earnhardt finished the day in 37th.