NASCAR: April Rookie of the Year Update

Apr 22, 2016; Richmond, VA, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (24) during practice for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 22, 2016; Richmond, VA, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (24) during practice for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports /

We have now reached the end of April, and a few drivers in the 2016 NASCAR Rookie of the Year class have already established themselves well as contenders week in and week out.

Chase Elliott each week continues to improve and impress, and compete with NASCAR’s best. While we are only nine races into the 2016 season, Chase Elliott has advanced as a Cup driver far sooner than anyone but maybe he and Rick Hendrick could have imagined. The rookie already has two top-fives and five top-tens in the opening swing of the season, and currently stands 11th in the points standings, currently occupying a spot in the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Now there are still 17 races remaining until the Richmond Chase cutoff, so a lot can happen, but Chase has certainly established himself as a force to be reckoned with, and do not be surprised if he pulls into Victory Lane in the summer months.

The relationship with Alan Gustafson appears to be progressing well, as Chase posted career-best finishes in three races of a four race stretch from Fontana (6th) to Bristol (4th). There may not even be a “growing pains” stretch for Elliott, with his already fantastic performance coupled with his diverse driving talent and the success of the No. 24 team. If Chase can continue this pace, he will be a shoe-in for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and may run away with the Rookie of the Year title.

The other driver in the hunt for the Rookie of the Year title is Ryan Blaney, driver of the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford for the Wood Brothers. This team started off strong, posting top-ten finishes in two of the first four races of the season, but the team has struggled of late. The past five races have resulted in three sub-25th place finishes and only one finish inside the top-15. Likewise for Elliott’s success, it is still early in the season, so there is plenty of time for the No. 21 team to progress.

An explanation for the early season ups and downs for this team can be attributed to the lack of recent experience for the Wood Brothers team. Having not run the full schedule since 2006, the No. 21 team has been racing on tracks they have not raced at consistently in over ten years, if they have even raced there at all in that period. This coupled with Blaney’s inexperience will mean the team will certainly have its struggles. The two early top-10s are still a source of encouragement, and the team is not far off in the standings, with Blaney sitting solidly in 20th place currently.

The three other 2016 rookie contenders have certainly had their struggles as well. Brian Scott (28th), Chris Buescher (34th), and Jeffrey Earnhardt (38th, not running full season) have all had rough starts to their 2016 campaigns. That is understandable given the strength of the teams that they are on and their inexperience. Scott had a great run at Auto Club Speedway (12th), but has failed to finish better than 26th in the races since. Buescher’s best finish has been a 21st at Bristol, and Earnhardt is not running the full season in the No. 32 car, so struggles are expected for the Go Fas Racing team.

With the series heading to Talladega this weekend, the race could be an equalizer for these struggling rookies, and an opportunity to steal a win, like Chris Buescher’s No. 34 team did with David Ragan in 2013. That would be a huge moral booster and qualify any of these young rookies for the Chase, which would be huge for their careers and teams.

More racing: NASCAR: Five Drivers Most Likely To Win At Talladega

Here is a look at the Rookie of the Year standings through the first nine races:

Driver                             Points
Chase Elliott                    116
Ryan Blaney                     94 (-22)
Brian Scott                       81 (-35)
Chris Buescher                79 (-37)
Jeffrey Earnhardt           44 (-72)

Chase Elliott has begun to break away at the top of the standings, despite many people projecting Ryan Blaney to win the honor. Of course it is still much to early to predict a winner, but the No. 24 team is on a roll. The team has looked just as good if not better than the performance of the No. 24 team at the beginning of 2015, with Jeff Gordon behind the wheel. With the team and the cars being built for Chase ready to contend for wins from the get-go, Chase has succeeded early in the season despite his lack of Cup experience. Look for the No. 24 team to pull into Victory Lane before the summer ends, or even sooner.

More racing: NASCAR: Five Things To Look Forward To In Talladega

Ryan Blaney will continue to progress as well, and will be right of Elliott’s heels for Rookie of the Year, and also could be on the cusp of getting the Wood Brothers their first ever Chase berth. Beyond the Flag will continue updating the Rookie of the Year campaign at the conclusion of each month as the season progresses.