By David Morgan, NASCAR Writer
After some impressive driving from the 2016 rookie class in the first five races of the season, their biggest challenge thus far would be Sunday’s trip to Martinsville Speedway for the STP 500.
As the smallest track on the circuit, Martinsville is one of the toughest tracks, with the long straightaways and flat hairpin turns making for a long, grueling day with 39 of your closest friends. The half-mile track is tough for even the most seasoned veterans, but for rookies making their first start or two at the track, the toughness is exacerbated even more.
That continued to hold true on Sunday for the four rookies in the field, with all four failing to finish inside the top-15 by the end of the day. Of the four rookies, the two that have been stealing the spotlight, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, had reason to be optimistic heading into the race as they qualified 10th and 12th, respectively.
However, racing at Martinsville is a completely different animal and after 500 laps, Blaney finished the best with a 19th place result as the last car on the lead lap. Sunday’s race marked Blaney’s first start at the “Paperclip” and was also the first race since 2011 that the legendary Wood Brothers team returned to their hometown track at Martinsville.
“It was a long day for sure. There were some runs where I thought we were OK and other runs where I thought we were way off. At the end we were just OK and that penalty didn’t help us during that last pit stop. That probably cost us a few spots, but not a bad day for this Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion. Finishing on the lead lap isn’t too bad for coming here for our first time, so it was definitely eventful but there’s a lot we can learn from this race and we can apply it later in the year,” said Blaney.
“I was pretty courteous today. You don’t want to be the rough guy when it’s your first time and you’re a rookie, so I probably gave a little bit more than I should have took, but maybe we’ll put that in our bank and utilize that in the fall.”
Blaney may have been the best of the rookies on Sunday, but his closest rival in the Rookie of the Year race, Elliott, was hot on his heels in the finishing order, bringing home a 20th place finish as the first car one lap down. The top-20 finish for Elliott was a vast improvement over his first start at the track last season when he only managed a 38th place finish.
As far as the other two rookies in the field, Brian Scott and Chris Buescher, the two finished almost exactly where they qualified. Scott started and finished 26th, four laps down, while Buescher was able to improve on his 36th place start to finish the race in 33rd, although he was nine laps down.
“Martinsville is a tough place and we’ve got a lot of learning to do here. I felt like we got a lot better about halfway through the race and that’s exciting for coming back. We’ll have to wait until the fall and see if it all turns out the way we hope, but we’ll get better next time,” said Buescher.
Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images