Pocono’s tricky layout is notorious for giving rookies in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series a hard time, but for the stellar rookie class of 2016, Sunday’s Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 at Pocono was a walk in the park. In this week’s “Rookie Report”, we’ll recap just how well the rookies did at the “Tricky Triangle”.
Chase Elliott has been the class of the rookie field for much of 2016 and his first career trip to Pocono was one of his best showings of the season. Starting 13th, Elliott quickly moved into the top-10 and made his way up the leaderboard in a hurry, moving into the lead over Matt Kenseth at lap 66 for a 21 lap stint at the front of the field.
Though he would give up the lead to Kyle Busch for three laps, he quickly gained the lead back at lap 90 for another 29 laps at the point. A flurry of cautions between laps 119 and 126 saw Elliott lose the lead, but on the final restart at lap 127, he was able to take over the lead once more. However, Elliott’s 51st lap in the lead would be his last of the race, as a battle with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. saw Earnhardt take over the lead and then get passed by eventual winner Kurt Busch.
Elliott would have to go into fuel conservation mode over the final 30 laps as he dropped to fourth place when the checkered flag flew, marking his fifth top-five finish of the season and leaving Elliott seventh in points headed to Michigan next weekend.
“I’m just really proud of the car we had today. What a fast NAPA Chevy and had a car that could compete for the lead all day. There were definitely times we were better than others. I wish once we had taken a couple of those green flags after the cautions we could have got going and ran some laps. That is not how the day unfolded, so we will take it and move on. Just try to be aware of the mistakes I made having a chance there at the end and not getting it done,” said Elliott.
“I feel like we had a car that could do it today. I wish I had been just a little more patient behind Dale (Earnhardt, Jr.). I felt like I made a big mistake there in the Tunnel (Turn) and it gave Kurt (Busch) a big run. Biggest thing is just learn and just be really proud that we had a super-fast car, a car that could lead all day and a group of guys that are willing to fight to try to get to Victory Lane.”
Elliott’s closest rival in the Rookie of the Year race, Ryan Blaney, was also able to leave Pocono with a top-10 finish, utilizing strategy to be able to make his way to 10th in the closing stages of the race.
Blaney started 14th and cracked the top-10 for the first time at lap 70, but fell back to 12th by the time the ninth caution of the race flew at lap 119. Under that caution, Blaney and his No. 21 team elected to come down pit road to top-off with fuel to make sure they had enough to make it to the end of the race before his tank ran dry. Though Blaney fell back to 19th as a result of the pit stop, he was able to make it back inside the top-10 with six laps to go to clinch his sixth top-10 finish of the season.
“We were really close to being able to make it (on fuel). We felt like we were far enough back to take a gamble and top off. We gave up a few spots to do that but we were able to get back where we needed to be at the end,” said Blaney’s crew chief, Jeremy Bullins.
“There were a lot of guys who were saving at the end and we passed a few of them. We just ran out of time to get to the rest of them. You come out of here with a top 10 in your first trip here with a Cup car and that’s not bad. We had a couple of things we’d do differently looking back, but all in all we’ll take it and feel like we’ll be stronger when we come back in the fall.”
As far as the other two rookies in the field, Chris Buescher started 18th and made it as high as sixth place as a result of staying out when the leaders pitted around lap 120, but fell back to 25th when the checkered flag flew. Brian Scott had the toughest outing of the rookies, losing control of his No. 44 car on lap 23 and making contact with the outside wall in Turn 1. Scott would be forced to the garage for repairs, ending the race in 39th, his worst finish of the season.