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Sprint Cup Rookies Are Piling Up Top-10 Finishes

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 16 2016
Rookie driver Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers appear to have a big future together. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

Rookie driver Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers appear to have a big future together. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Throughout NASCAR’s history certain rookie classes have generated more attention than others, but it has been quite some time since the top two rookie contenders have so heavily epitomized the sport’s future.

sprint-logo-08Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney both come from racing families, having known the sound of high-powered machines since infancy. Their last names connect the past with the future as both watched their fathers compete in NASCAR as youngsters. They competed against one another occasionally as teenagers, earning their racing strips in Late Model and Super Late Model competition, but no rivalry developed between them. And now, despite their young age, both have high-profile rides with veteran teams.

In the 20-year-old Elliott’s first year with Hendrick Motorsports, he’s already captured the pole for the Daytona 500 and produced four top-10 finishes in the first seven races. He and his veteran team led by crew chief Alan Gustafson are 14th in the standings, a position that would give them a Chase berth if it started this weekend.

For the 22-year-old Blaney, driving for the veteran Wood Brothers team is a position many drivers have only been able to achieve in a dream. Granted the Wood Brothers haven’t competed fulltime in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series since 2006, but with the organization’s affiliation with Team Penske,

Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott is driving like a veteran this year. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott is driving like a veteran this year. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

it’s still an enviable position. In the season’s first seven races, the High Point, N.C., native has recorded two top-10 finishes, but that’s not indicative of the way the No. 21 Ford has run during a race.

Both admit improvement is something for which they still search.

“We have had our ups-and-downs for sure,” said Elliott, who acquired his first top-five this season last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. “We are still getting used to each other and things along those lines. Definitely, there have been lots of surprises. It’s hard to nail down one.”

Ryan Blaney has had his ups and downs in his rookie Cup season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

Ryan Blaney has had his ups and downs in his rookie Cup season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

Blaney, who was 20th in points entering Bristol, noted his team definitely wasn’t where it wanted to be.

“We’ve had some runs that have been troubling, whether it was our doing or not,” Blaney said. “Last weekend at Texas was definitely not the best of weekends. We had a really long 500-mile race there, but it’s the way you kind of rebound from those, I think, that speak about your team and how the team can come back. We had a great comeback at Las Vegas after Atlanta troubles and I think that speaks a lot for our team. We just need to find a little bit more speed and a little bit more consistency and I think that will get our season back on track.”

While Elliott, the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, inherited four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon’s crew, Blaney’s crew has continued to be a work in progress.

“We brought in a couple guys, both the front and rear changer from MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) last year and they do a great job,” said Blaney, the son of sprint car driver and former NASCAR driver Dave Blaney. “They’ve been in the sport for a really long time, and then everyone else has been a developmental team for Penske over the past handful of years, whether that was on the Xfinity car or messing around. We used to have a relationship with the 95 car, so it’s kind of a mixture of those guys.

“It’s a team deal and we have to be there for each other no matter what because no one is perfect and we’re always gonna have each other’s back. I think that’s what this team does so well is they can forgive me if I make a mistake and I can easily forgive them. It’s all about going forward.”

In qualifying for Sunday’s Food City 500, Blaney qualified 18th and Elliott 19th.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 16 2016
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