Rookie Report: Elliott bests rookies at Auto Club Speedway

By David Morgan, NASCAR Writer

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 Auto Club Speedway edition of the “Rookie Report,” Chase Elliott finds himself at the top of the rookie mountain once again.

With his sixth place finish in the Auto Club 400, Elliott posted his best finish of the season and throughout the 200 lap event, he showcased just how strong he can be behind the wheel of his No. 24 Chevrolet. Starting eighth, Elliott made his way to the lead for one lap on lap 83 and spent the day slicing and dicing through the field, making daring passes and giving the veterans all they could handle.

“We were able to get up to third. I thought we had a really good car. Just need to get going a little bit better on those restarts and try to maximize that opportunity. Jimmie (Johnson, race winner) did a great job. Congrats to him.  It’s good to see Hendrick in Victory Lane. We’ll try again at Martinsville,” said Elliott.

Though Elliott was the only rookie to end the day in the top-10, another rookie also posted his best finish of the season on Sunday. Brian Scott, who has struggled in the first four races of the season, was able to find some redemption at Auto Club Speedway with a 12th place result.

Scott started 21st and fell as low as 30th at one point in the race, but his No. 44 Richard Petty Motorsports team buckled down and got their ship righted as Scott drove his heart out in the closing laps, coming up just short of his first top-10 finish.

“I was proud of the finish we got.  I was one corner and one little having to check back out of the throttle away from a top 10.  I’m proud of my guys.  We went down a lap early.  We made a bad adjustment on pit road and we fought it for a long run, but we rebounded.  The guys did a great job on pit road and we were able to get a solid finish out of it,” said Scott.

“We had a couple of hard weeks, so to have a good finish here – not only for the team but for our sponsors, Albertsons, Ritz, Triscuit, Shore Lodge, White Tail, Twisted Tea, everybody that’s on board this program – because we sold it and pushed it to them.  We said, ‘We’re gonna do good things this year.’  The first part of the year was tough, but we had to get through and now we’re bringing some new cars to the track and our performance is picking up.  It’s great.”

Of the three remaining rookies, Chris Buescher, Jeffrey Earnhardt, and Ryan Blaney would all find themselves in trouble as a result of the treacherous Auto Club Speedway surface and end up in the wall at one point or another in the race.

Buescher started 16th and hung tough in the top-20 before his brush with the wall at lap 28 sent him to pit road to repair the damage and put him behind the eight-ball for the remainder of the day, where he would finish 33rd, one lap down.

“It’s unfortunate we had the flat tire there because we had a lot of speed in our Love’s Travel Stops Ford Fusion.  I had a lot of fun today.  We’ve made a lot of really big gains in a short period of time.  If we hadn’t had that happen, we would have been in the top-20, no doubt, and probably a little bit better than that.  It’s a bummer that it happened the way it did, but I’m really proud of the guys.  We made a huge step in the right direction and if we have more days with a car like we had today, we will get the finishes,” said Buescher.

Earnhardt struggled once again on Sunday, just as he has done throughout the season, starting 39th and ending the day in 34th, five laps down.

As far as Blaney, the driver of the No. 21 Ford, he looked to be poised to have another strong finish on Sunday, as he maintained a position in the top-15 for the majority of the race before a blown tire with five laps to go in regulation sent him into the outside wall and ended his day prematurely.

The late race incident relegated Blaney to his worst finish of the season with a 35th place result. His finish brings him even with Elliott in the Rookie of the Year battle heading into the first off weekend of the season.

“We blew a tire.  I don’t know what happened.  There was no warning and the tire just exploded into three.  That stunk.  We were good on some runs, but at the end of the race we weren’t very good.  We really struggled bad on restarts, really bad.  It would take about 20 laps to go back forward, but we just lost all of our track position and then got in the wall and that really hurt our race car.  We were gonna salvage a decent day, and then the tire exploded,” Blaney said.

Image: Jeff Gross/Getty Images

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.