By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
The GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway was an adventure for the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year (ROTY) contenders in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Of the five ROTY contenders, two drivers, Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding, have no previous experience at Talladega. Gaulding has no previous experience at any restrictor plate track.
Ty Dillon placed his No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS 28th on the starting grid. A caution midway through Stage 2 allowed Dillon to take an alternate strategy. he moved up to the fourth position while most of the field pitted.
As the pack shuffled back and forth, Dillon dropped to 16th by the time the green and white checkered flag waved to mark the end of Stage 2. At the end of the race, Dillon finished 13th, best of the ROTY contenders.
Dillon was disappointed to not have many drafting partners in the intense race,
“Well, it was an intense 500-mile race but I think our GEICO Chevy ran well. It was tough to find cars to stay with us today, but we were able to move our way into the top ten on a couple occasions and even get out front to lead a few GEICO 500 laps. The car was a little tight, but overall it was a strong day for this Germain Racing team.”
Daniel Suarez qualified the best of the rookies this weekend, placing his No. 19 ARRIS Toyota Camry seventh on the starting grid. Suarez attempted to pit with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth just before pit road closed prior the end of Stage 1 to gain track position at the beginning of Stage 2. Suarez was unsuccessful and was penalized to the rear of the field for the restart.
A slow pit stop in the final stage caused Suarez to lose the draft. However, a caution with 27 laps to go allowed Suarez to catch up to the field. When the race ended, Suarez crossed the line in 19th.
Gray Gaulding qualified the lowest of the ROTY contenders, placing his No. 23 SunFrog.com Toyota Camry 37th on the starting grid. Gaulding’s race was relative quiet until a slow pit stop in the final stage caused him to lose the draft. As he was being lapped, Ryan Blaney attempted to squeeze between Gaulding and the middle line. An ill-timed lane switch by Brad Keselowski sent Blaney into the outside wall, bringing out the caution, and allowing Gaulding to receive the lucky dog.
Somehow, the only damage Gaulding suffered in ‘The Big One’ was from running over debris that littered the track. He came back to move up to finish a career best of 20th by the end of the race.
Of the rookie contenders, Corey LaJoie was the only one who had to qualify on time. In the only practice of the weekend, he was the slowest of the 36 teams that took time. LaJoie ultimately qualified 36th.
Three laps into the race, LaJoie took his No. 83 to the garage. By the time he returned to the track, he was eight laps down. LaJoie remained eight laps down for the remainder of the race. However, LaJoie climbed to finish 27th after avoiding ‘The Big One.’
Erik Jones started his No. 77 ToyotaCare Toyota Camry 14th. Jones finished Stage 1 in the tenth position, gaining one additional Championship point. Jones started Stage 2 where he finished Stage 1, in the 10th position.
As Stage 2 neared the end, Jones once again was in the mix, inside the top five. A last lap surge by the outside lines dropped him from fourth to ninth when the field crossed the line to end Stage 2. Jones gained two more Championship points because of his Stage finish.
As the race neared the end, Jones was swept up in the big one as Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger were turned in front of the field. He was parked by NASCAR after he continued drive after the red flag was displayed due to the carnage. Jones ended up 33rd, 20 laps down, and out of the race.
Jones was disappointed but understood that it was simply ‘The Big One,’
“It’s unfortunate, I thought we had a good running going today. I was up on the high side when I saw the 24 get loose, and there was nothing I could really do. I tried to go low but it was already too late. The radiator was busted so we were done.”
The next challenge for the 2017 rookies is the Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway where they hope surviving won’t be nearly as difficult as it was at Talladega.