Around this time last season, both of these young drivers were already making a name for themselves in their first season in NASCAR’s premiere which is now Monster Energy. Chase Elliott replaced the retiring Jeff Gordon, even though Gordon returned to drive Dale Earnhardt Jr’s car while he was out with a concussion, and Ryan Blaney took over as full time driver for Wood Brothers Racing as an open driver, this was when charters were put in place to secure qualifying spots.
It was what you call a rare occurrence of two rookies who would become good drivers and battle for the 2016 Rookie of the Year honors. The debate was brought up as to who would become Rookie of the Year in NASCAR, which went to Elliott at the end of the season with teammate Jimmie Johnson winning his record tying seventh championship. Around the same time he was the first rookie to qualify for what was formerly known as the Chase and finish tenth in points.
Blaney had to earn every qualifying spot since WBR had just returned to full time racing since 2006. Though he never cracked the top ten in points, he still stayed competitive and earned nine top ten finishes, three of those in the top five. Blaney was one spot away from becoming eligible for the Chase while sitting in 17th, but finished 39th at Richmond dropping him to 21st afterwards. He had earned only two top tens during the 10 race Chase.
Both of them now in their sophomore seasons, thanks to the new stage format there has been better competition among the young drivers and have began to disrupt the flow of the veterans. Elliott is second in points after seven races and has scored three top fives and five top tens. His closest to winning so far is third twice at Las Vegas and Martinsville. Average finish is eighth while around this time last season was 17th, which is a huge improvent nine spots to the good.
Blaney on the other hand was runner up to Kurt Busch in this year’s Daytona 500, but only scored two top tens in the last six races. He won both stages during the race at Texas but due to a screw up on pit road finished 12th, which led Johnson to snap what was probably the biggest early slump of his career. Thanks to that finish, Blaney only has an average finish of 13.7, which is a very far cry from his 2016 average of 24.7.
With both former rookies improving, who will win their first race? Elliott looks to have a huge edge in this case, but with the new formats now making an impact, it is now more unpredictable than ever.