By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
Entering the first race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the two rookies in the 16 driver playoffs were hoping for a solid finish to be able to propel themselves into the second round in two weeks time, while the others were hoping to play spoiler. On Sunday afternoon, both scenarios nearly came true for the rookie class.
Chase Elliott, who was making his first start at Chicago and his first appearance in the Chase, showed that he was ready to be in the postseason playoffs for the long haul with a strong performance on the 1.5 mile track outside of Chicago. Elliott took the race lead from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, at lap 121, and looked to be the driver to beat throughout the second half of the race, leading a total of 75 laps, but with five laps to go in regulation, a caution flag flew and changed everything.
Elliott brought the race leaders down pit road for service, losing one spot to Martin Truex, Jr. as the two came off of pit road. Along with the spot he lost to Truex, three others stayed out on track without pitting, forcing Elliott to restart fifth. On the ensuing restart, Elliott tried his best to make his way past the cars that stayed out to try and chase down Truex, but had to settle for a third place finish instead.
As a result of his third place finish, Elliott holds a 12 point advantage on 13th place in points heading to next week’s race at New Hampshire.
“Expect it. Nothing is yours until it’s over. That’s a part of life, man. We’ve all watched this stuff long enough; we know these races don’t go green that long. We see more cautions come out and the end of these races than we do not. That’s just part of it. You’ve got to expect it, be able to embrace it, and move forward. I feel like we did a good job of controlling things we could control today. We had a fast NAPA Chevy. I appreciate everybody’s hard work this weekend, we were strong, so that’s good to see. Like I said, there are some things you just can’t control with the amount of guys that stay out and where you line up on the restart. We played the cards we were dealt and came up short,” said Elliott.
While he did not make the Chase this season, the late race caution gave Ryan Blaney and his No. 21 team a chance to gamble and go for the race win. Starting 22nd on the day, Blaney hovered right around the top-10 to top-15 for the majority of the day and looked like he would finish there before the final caution came out.
Crew chief Jeremy Bullins made the call for Blaney to stay out on track, which handed him the race lead. The older tires that Blaney and the others had did not pan out for the race win, but he was able to hold on for a fourth place result, which was his best finish since finishing fourth at Michigan three weeks ago.
“The decision wasn’t difficult at all. We kind of made that decision before everyone else came and we had nothing to lose as far as points. I wish a couple more cars stayed out. You never know. Those guys were on me so fast. We had a really good car all day. We started way back in the field and made it up there pretty quickly. We got our car decent at the end. We gambled and I prefer to do that. I prefer to take a gamble to stay out and try to hold those guys off,” said Blaney.
“I thought we had a shot but those guys on new tires were so fast. We weren’t in contention for the win all race. We were fast, don’t get me wrong, we were probably a 5th- to 8th-place car. The last caution came out and we were seventh and thought that’s where we’d end up. Staying out was worth a shot. We had nothing to lose. Why not do it? If two more cars stayed out, we might have had a better shot.”
Chris Buescher was able to make the Chase with his underdog Front Row Motorsports team as a result of his Pocono win and finishing the regular season in the top-30 in points, but Buescher’s first race of the NASCAR postseason was not kind to his No. 34 team.
Buescher started 13th as a result of the lineup being set by points, but that would be the highest that he would run all day, falling back in the pack and unable to maintain track position for the balance of the 270 lap event. When the checkered flag flew, Buescher came home in 28th, dropping him to 16th on the Chase Grid, 12 points behind the 12th and final cutoff place to transfer into the next round.
“It was a long day. We worked hard to try to get it better. I am proud of the guys for not giving up. We had a decent day on pit road and didn’t get into anything, we just couldn’t keep the track position out there. Not the finish we wanted but we will get a little better and go get Loudon,” said Buescher.
As for the fourth rookie in the field at Chicago, Brian Scott’s rookie season struggles continued after he spun off of Turn 4 on lap 121 and was only able to manage a 31st place finish, four laps down.