Since NASCAR’s playoff format started in 2004, Denny Hamlin has been the answer to this NASCAR Sprint Cup trivia question: Who is the only rookie driver to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship?
A decade later – after Hamlin’s accomplishment in 2006 – a new pair of youngsters are giving it a go.
Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney entered Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway holding spots in the chase — barely.
Elliott, 20, the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer and 1988 champion Bill Elliott, was No. 12 in the 16-driver Chase grid. Blaney, 22, the son of Dave Blaney, is No. 16.
The top 11 Chase qualifiers have wins that nearly guarantee their spot. With eight races remaining after Kentucky, that’s eight more chances for a winless driver to score a victory and bump the rookies down the list. Providing they don’t win themselves.
“We’re not going to be conservative,” Blaney said. “I want to win races.”
Both Elliott and Blaney are known among Miami Valley race fans for more than their NASCAR success.
Elliott won the Winchester 400 at Winchester Speedway in 2010.
Blaney’s father is a sprint car legend who won the Kings Royal at Eldora Speedway in 1993 and 1995. The younger Blaney also raced at Winchester.
“I think it would be awesome for the sport to have a couple rookies in it, and some young guys,” Blaney said. “Austin Dillon is sitting in a good spot and Kyle Larson is starting to come back up to a spot, so that would be great if we could get … into the Chase.”
As if Elliott needed more pressure considering his father’s success, he found it by replacing four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet for Hendricks Motorsports. His teammates next to him in the garage are six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, 13-time Most Popular Driver winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 17-time race winner Kasey Kahne.
“He’s far superior to what I was when I got up to the sport,” Gordon said during a public Q&A session Saturday. “He has a bright, bright future.”
Gordon added, with a sly smile: “I know when you’ve watched any of the FOX broadcasts you’ve never heard in my voice any bias toward Chase and the No. 24 team.”
Elliott – already NASCAR’s first rookie to win a national series championship with his 2014 Nationwide Series title – has a season-best Sprint Cup finish of second at Michigan International Speedway on June 12. He had 11 top-10 finishes entering Kentucky.
Blaney’s best finish was fifth at Kansas Speedway on May 7. Entering Kentucky he hadn’t finished better than 10th in his previous five races.
“We are about two to three stickers short of where we want to be,” Elliott said of the decals race winners receive to place next to their name on the car. “I feel like I have a team that can do that. You can sit around and talk about it all day long, but until you do it really doesn’t matter.”
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