“I don’t mind other guys dancing with my girl
That’s fine, I know them all pretty well
But I know sometimes I must get out in the light
Better leave her behind with the kids, they’re alright
The kids are alright”
I don’t normally go around quoting lyrics from The Who but after watching the race from Pocono on Monday, I tend to think that NASCAR’s current group of kids are, in fact, alright.
Apologies to Roger Daltry, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and, especially, Keith Moon.
Let’s start with young Chase Elliott. The 20-year-old son of Awesome Bill is in his rookie year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driving for newly minted Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick in a car vacated by surefire Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon. In 14 starts this year, Elliott has 10 top-10 finishes and two poles. Not bad for a kid who can’t buy a beer until November. With his fourth-place finish at Pocono on Monday, he matched Dale Earnhardt with the 10 top 10s in 14 races to start the rookie year.
Then there is Ryan Blaney. The 22-year old has a racing pedigree a generation over Elliott. He is a third-generation driver. While the results haven’t been quite as impressive as Elliott’s thus far in 2016, but they haven’t been too bad. Blaney, driving for the Wood Brothers in their first full-time Cup slate in 10 years, has six top 10s this year. Brightest spot for NASCAR’s oldest team since Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500.
Elliott has ridden his top-10 wave to seventh in the Cup standings, while Blaney is 15th. If the season ended today, both would make the Chase.
Elliott came awful close to picking up his first win on Monday, leading a race-high 51 laps before fading late after an overly aggressive pass attempt on teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. But what impressed me more than the laps led was Elliott’s aggressiveness. He didn’t back down from the challenge of Kurt Busch and Earnhardt with the race on the line. While it didn’t work out for him this week, it’s a trait that will serve him well.
“There were definitely times we were better than others.” Elliott said. “I wish once we had taken a couple of those green flags after the cautions we could have got going and ran some laps. That is not how the day unfolded, so we will take it and move on. Just try to be aware of the mistakes I made having a chance there at the end and not getting it done.”
I first met Elliott when he was 14-year-old racing prodigy. He dominated a late model race at Rockingham a couple years before he could legally drive on the street. His quotes then were very similar to the ones from Monday. Even though he was a second a lap faster than anyone else on the track that day, he looked at what he could do better.
Elliott is going to get his win soon. He has the top-notch team to do it in the next few weeks. Blaney will get his too. It may take him a little bit longer with a single-car team is just getting back into the whole full-time thing and running without a charter. They are getting some help (and by some, I mean a whole lot) from Penske Racing, but that’s not the same as running for Hendrick.
Save for Kyle Larson and maybe Austin Dillon, the recent crop of NASCAR rookies haven’t been much to get excited about. Since 2010, the Sprint Cup Rookies of the Year have been Kevin Conway, Andy Lally, Stephen Leicht, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Larson and Brett Moffitt. Of that group, only Larson and Stenhouse are still racing in Cup. With Gordon retiring last year, Tony Stewart bouncing out this year, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. solidly into their 40s now and Greg Biffle pushing 100, there needs to be an infusion of talent into the Cup series. I am not going to talk about Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman or Kurt Busch’s ages. They are the same age as me. It’s good to see a group of kids coming into NASCAR that has a chance to sustain the talent and star power for the future of racing.
Andy Cagle, a former spokesman for Rockingham Speedway and motorsports public relations consultant, writes about NASCAR in a weekly column.