By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
When it comes to Darlington, the treacherous track is tough for rookies and veterans alike, with one small miscue liable to end your chances for victory in a hurry. For the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookies, Darlington was a mixed bag, as just one of them was able to score a top-10 finish, while the others weren’t as fortunate.
The best of the rookie class for the second week in a row was Chase Elliott, who started the night in 11th place, but worked his way into the top-10 and eventually the top-five in short order. Once he was able to claim his spot in the top-five, Elliott would remain in the top-five and top-10 for the remainder of the night, even fighting for the lead at certain points throughout the race. By the time all was said and done, Elliott would finish the race in 10th, a far cry from his 41st place finish in this race one year ago.
Leaving Darlington, Elliott only aided his points position as he now holds a 24 point margin over 17th place in points heading to the final regular season race at Richmond next weekend.
Starting 20th, Ryan Blaney looked to have a solid run going, but an early race caution that came out during a round of green flag pit stops put Blaney behind the eight-ball and the team wasn’t able to dig themselves out of the hole. Add in a brush with the wall a time or two in the race and Blaney and the “Lady in Black” certainly weren’t getting along on Sunday night. Blaney was able to rebound in the late stages of the race, making up two laps to finish the race in 13th. With a 69 point gap to 16th place in points, Blaney’s only hope for a Chase berth now rests with winning next weekend at Richmond.
“That’s a long race to begin with and we made it longer by having bad racing luck with that caution early in the race, which put us down two laps. Then I got into the wall in (turns) three and four that caused a flat tire, then got together with the 47 (A.J. Allmendinger) and we were down two laps. At about the halfway part of the race there wasn’t much to feel positive about but the team kept working and battling and we ended up with a decent finish,” said Blaney.
Needing a solid finish to help his points standings after an engine issue at Michigan last weekend, Chris Buescher did exactly what he needed to do on Sunday night to gain points on David Ragan and 31st place in points. Buescher started the day in 30th, but worked his way into the top-20 and later in the race was scored inside the top-15, keeping his nose clean along the way. When the checkered flag flew, Buescher was scored in 17th, while Ragan finished 21st, giving Buescher an 11 point buffer with one race remaining in the regular season.
“From that side of things it was a good points night for our Love’s Ford. At the end of the night it wasn’t a bad race for us. If we could have qualified and had a better spot maybe it would have been different. We worked hard on this thing all day and the team made good adjustments to get it rolling forward. It isn’t bad for our first Cup series race here in Darlington,” said Buescher.
“I feel like we have a good cushion right now coming out of here. That is not necessarily comforting because we still have a lot of work to do.”
As for the other two rookies in the field, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Brian Scott, the two drivers would finish 38th and 39th, respectively, for two separate incidents on track. Earnhardt spun in a single car crash in Turn 4 on lap 251, while Scott had help in his spin on lap 205. In Scott’s crash, he tangled with Tony Stewart off of Turn 2, which led Stewart to in turn retaliate and spin Scott out going down the backstretch. Scott made a hard impact with the inside wall, while Stewart escaped unscathed, but would be summoned to the NASCAR hauler at the conclusion of the race.
“I was trying to let those guys go that had newer, fresher tires. I was trying to let Tony (Stewart) go there and I think he got inside of me and got loose there. I was pointing him to the inside to let him go. Apparently he got mad at me. I want to thank Twisted Tea, Ford, Albertsons, Shore Lodge and everyone that came on board. I have a lot of respect for Tony. He has always raced me really clean. I am not sure what he thought was going on there. I am not sure if he thought I was trying to hold him up there, I wasn’t. I was trying to let him go. I even pointed him to the inside. Maybe he thought I was giving him the finger or something. I will talk with him. We will figure it out. It is a tough race. The Southern 500 is a tough race. Everybody is slipping and sliding a lot. It is getting to the point where people’s tempers are getting short,” said Scott.