On Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, none of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookies had a stellar night, but for two of them, they were able to survive the chaos to race their way into the 16 driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field when the checkered flag flew.
The two rookies that were able to move on to the postseason were Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher, both of whom had a rough go of it during the 400 lap race, but were able to finish high enough to score enough points to keep themselves Chase eligible. Elliott and Buescher making the Chase makes them the first rookies to move into the postseason since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
Elliott finished the highest of the rookies, bringing his No. 24 Chevrolet home in 18th. Starting 34th on the night, Elliott slowly but surely made his way up through the field, cracking the top-15 by lap 90. At lap 95, Elliott found himself three-wide with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman, with Newman getting into Gordon, who then made contact with Elliott. The contact between Elliott and Gordon would cut Elliott’s tire and sent him into the Turn 1 wall a lap later. While Elliott lost several positions after the contact, he was able to rebound over the final 300 laps of the race to finish 18th, clinching a Chase berth by 49 points.
“I just think we have to, first off, be thankful that we were able to get in tonight after the night we had. I can’t thank my guys for working as hard as they did. I’ve never had to go through, and I’m sure they haven’t either, the stuff that we went through tonight, so hat’s off to them fixing our car multiple times. I appreciate our 3M/NAPA group for doing that. We’re excited about these next 10. I think we have to go in with the mentality that we can give ourselves a chance at Homestead and if not, we should have let the next one in,” said Elliott.
Likewise, Buescher started deep in the field, rolling off 31st at the start of the night. Buescher struggled for a good portion of the race, coming dangerously close to falling out of Chase contention at certain points of the race. However, for Buescher, it was a late race caution with 44 laps to go involving his closest rival in the points, David Ragan, which would seal the deal for the Texas native, allowing him to finish the night inside the top-30 in points. Though Buescher got some damage from Ragan’s crash, he was able to cross the finish line in 24th, giving him a 21 point buffer on 31st place in points and officially moving himself into the 16 driver Chase field.
“This is awesome. All the cheers we got after we got out of the car. We have all the sponsors and employees from CSX here tonight. It is the home track for them so to be able to do this tonight with them here is awesome. They were cheering like we won a race or something. It wasn’t anything like winning a race but it is just as big in a difference sense” said Buescher.
“I knew we could get here. I knew we had a good shot at it. For as much as we had going on, I know David (Ragan) is bummed to get caught up in a wreck and that isn’t how we wanted to clinch it but it made it easier in that sense. The second part was trying to get to the top-30 in owners points and that wasn’t easy either.”
As for the other rookies, they also all had troubles of their own as the race played out on the 0.75 mile track.
Jeffrey Earnhardt moved from dead last in the field at the start of the race to finish 27th, four laps down. Brian Scott was involved in the same crash that David Ragan and an handful of others were involved in to finish 35th. And last, but not least was Ryan Blaney, who cut a tire just 11 laps into the race to finish the night in 39th, 128 laps down.