Rookies Off to Strong Start

NASCAR

Chase Elliott currently leads Ryan Blaney by five points in the rookie standings. (Photo: Getty Images)

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Rookie Standings

Five races into a season that was filled with question marks going into it, the Sprint Cup Series has hit its first off-weekend of 2016.

Most industry insiders said the question of who would win the Sprint Cup championship was the biggest mystery of all. But the battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year is wide open as well.

The 2016 rookie class is full of promise, experience and legendary last names. Through five races, we’ve seen these drivers challenge for wins and top-10 finishes, and the expectation is for that to continue the remainder of this season.

Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney lead the rookie standings and have shown the most promise of the five declared Rookie of the Year candidates. Elliott, son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, won the 2014 XFINITY Series title and was named successor to the retiring Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Elliott won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500, and led early before a crash sent him to the garage for repairs and an eventual 37th-place finish. He rebounded a week later at his "home track," Atlanta Motor Speedway, with an eighth-place run. After being caught up in a chain-reaction crash at Las Vegas, Elliott put together back-to-back top-10 runs in Phoenix and last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

Third-generation driver Ryan Blaney was elevated into a full-time role with the Wood Brothers in 2016 after four years of part-time runs in the NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series. With the Wood Brothers returning to full-time competition after several years of running on a part-time basis, there was concern whether NASCAR’s oldest team - with a young driver (even with Blaney’s credentials) - would be able to compete with the powerhouse teams that have dominated the sport in recent years.

Blaney qualified for the Daytona 500 with ease and with only 39 cars entering the next four races, the Woods weren’t worried about making races. Instead, they've started the season with their first back-to-back top 10s since 2005.

Brian Scott is the most experienced member of the 2016 rookie class, entering the season with 17 Sprint Cup starts and 208 XFINITY Series starts. Scott’s No. 44 Richard Petty Motorsports team has shown steady improvement to start the season, culminating in a 12th-place effort at Auto Club Speedway last Sunday.

Chris Buescher, the 2015 XFINITY Series Champion now driving for Front Row Motorsports, and Jeffrey Earnhardt, grandson of seven-time Cup Champion Dale Earnhardt, have struggled to start the season and their teams have a long way to go to reach the upper echelon.

Elliott and Blaney have separated themselves from the trio of Scott, Buescher and Earnhardt. Elliott leads Blaney by five points in the rookie standings, regaining the lead after a career-best sixth at Auto Club Speedway.

One of the advantages for rookies this season is the new low-downforce rules package which is designed to make cars more ill-handling, playing more into drivers' strengths and closely mimics conditions seen in the XFINITY and Truck series.

Elliott seems to have gotten his hands around the package but says there’s still much to learn.

"I am by no means where I need to be," Elliott said. "I’ve got a lot of work to do."

In the past, rookies have had a hard time adjusting their cars during a race and often struggle in the closing laps. Elliott has quickly picked up on making adjustments and has jelled quickly with his crew.

"There were a lot of opportunities to move around different lines and work traffic," Elliott said following his sixth-place Auto Club finish. "We made a lot of gains on our car from when we unloaded Friday."

One of the challenges for rookies is simply getting acquainted with every track in the series.

Blaney’s part-time XFINITY and Truck schedules haven’t afforded him the opportunity to run at every track that’s currently on the Cup schedule. Last weekend marked Blaney’s first visit to Auto Club Speedway. To get a leg up, he ran both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series races, the first time he’s done the weekend double in 2016.

Blaney started 11th and finished 20th in Saturday’s TreatMyClot.com 300, and then was running near the front of the field on Sunday when a blown tire sent him into the wall and relegated him to 35th place. With limited practice in the Sprint Cup Series leading up to the race and NASCAR’s testing ban, track time at a new racetrack is precious for first-timers.

"With Cup practices, most drivers just do mock qualifying runs so we’ll probably start over with some race runs and have to switch over just to get used to the racetrack," Blaney said. "That makes more work and you’re behind the eight ball on qualifying runs."

Blaney does have experience at the next handful of stops for the Sprint Cup Series starting with the first short-track race of the season next weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Elliott made his series debut in both the Sprint Cup Series (last year) and the Camping World Truck Series (2013) at Martinsville but saw limited success in both series there. Blaney has five starts in the Camping World Truck Series with three top fives and four top-10 finishes.

The Wood Brothers, whose shops were once based in nearby Stuart, Va., will return to Martinsville Speedway for the first time since 2011.

"It’s almost like a home race for the Wood Brothers," Blaney said. "We’re gonna go there with high hopes of turning my Martinsville record around."

Buescher raced at Martinsville last year for Front Row Motorsports so the track is relatively fresh in his mind. Scott and Earnhardt both have Truck Series experience there, but Earnhardt hasn’t visited since 2011 and Scott since 2012.

"It’s a track that can test your patience," Scott said of the Virginia half-mile. "It’ll be tough. I don’t really have expectations going into it. We’ll write our on chapter when we get there."

Scott says Martinsville is tough mentally because you’re always in traffic over the course of a 500-lap race, but that it shouldn’t take long to re-learn how to get around the track.

"It’s pretty straightforward," he said. "It’s one of the easier places to adapt to."

The year-long rookie battle will likely go to the closing laps of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With Elliott and Blaney challenging for top 10s early in the season, a win for either, or any of the 2016 class of rookies could happen at any time.

Motor Racing Network - "The Voice of NASCAR" - will have live coverage of the STP 500 from Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, April 3, beginning at 12 p.m. (ET) - with live streaming at MRN.com and on the MRN App.

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