Chase Elliott, last year’s Rookie of the Year, was poised for a breakout season. Winning the pole for this year’s Daytona 500, he led 39 laps and was a favorite to win before fading to 14th place. Earning eight straight top 15s to start the year, a first career victory appeared inevitable.
Some thought it would happen at the next restrictor plate race, Talladega in May. Others thought it might come at the Coca-Cola 600, the same race where the man Elliott replaced, Jeff Gordon, had his magical moment in 1994.
It didn’t happen. In fact, this sophomore crashed out of both events. The son of the sport’s former Most Popular Driver, Winston Million legend Bill Elliott is still waiting for his turn to cash in.
In the meantime, while Elliott tries to stay patient young rivals have charged ahead. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took the win at Talladega, all but clinching a playoff spot with Roush Fenway Racing. Austin Dillon, not Elliott, made a Hall of Fame connection with the No. 3 Chevrolet by winning the Coca-Cola 600.
Next came Ryan Blaney, last year’s ROTY runner-up who one-upped Elliott by reaching Victory Lane first. He slipped by two champions, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, to win Pocono last weekend and raise his NASCAR profile.
That leaves Elliott with a little extra pressure entering Michigan this weekend, a track where he ran second twice last year. It’s a place his father won a career-best seven times and established the Elliott name in the NASCAR record books.
Can his son finally follow suit? It’s hard to claim the mantle of the sport’s next “rising star” if you don’t have a shiny trophy to show for it. Elliott may sit sixth in the points standings but he’ll remain a step below some of these other rising stars until he finishes first.
FireKeepers Casino 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, Mich.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Ryan Blaney
Blaney’s first win running the No. 21 Ford was far from easy. The thrilling duel with Kevin Harvick in the closing laps at Pocono left fans on their feet and led to kudos from the racing community at large. Even legend Mario Andretti hopped on Twitter to applaud the aggressive push to Victory Lane in Blaney’s 68th career start.
It was the perfect way to stop a sophomore slump of five runs outside the top 20 in six races. Now, Blaney went from the playoff bubble to solidly in the postseason with the single-car Wood Brothers operation.
Who’s at the Back: Kasey Kahne
Three weeks. Three wrecks. It’s rock bottom for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 team as Kahne has run 35th, 17th and 35th while failing to finish those events. Brakes were the issue last week at Pocono, sending him hard into the wall on a straightaway and dropping the veteran to 21st in the Cup Series standings.
Now 88 points out of a playoff spot, the slump has done little to put the brakes on rumors Kahne could be out of this ride as soon as next year. Will HMS buy Kahne out of his contract early if they can’t find proper sponsorship?
Jimmie Johnson and sponsor Lowe’s have signed contract extensions with Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson is now set through the 2020 season, meaning he’ll have at least four more tries to earn that record-setting eighth NASCAR championship. Johnson will be 45 years old at the end of that deal, the same age as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart when they hung up their helmets. Lowe’s has also signed on as the primary sponsor of all 38 races next season.
Alon Day is set to make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut. Day will run with BK Racing next weekend at Sonoma and becomes the first Israeli to reach NASCAR’s top level. Day replaces rookie Gray Gaulding, out of the car a third straight week as his future with the organization looks increasingly in doubt.
NASCAR continues to struggle to fill its starting grid. The Cup Series has just 37 entries this weekend, the smallest field since Martinsville in September 1996. The Truck Series will be anywhere from two to four short of its 32-driver grid while the XFINITY Series needed start-and-park entries to fill its field of 40. As the sport’s Silly Season ramps up a story to watch is whether new owners can come in and buck this trend.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finishing position for Bubba Wallace in his first NASCAR Cup start Sunday at Pocono. Wallace suffered through pit road speeding penalties that doomed his chances.
Full-time drivers who have run every race this season without leading a single lap: David Ragan, Matt DiBenedetto, and Jeffrey Earnhardt.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Joey Logano enters Michigan running on seven cylinders. Five straight runs of 21st or worse after his Richmond victory was labeled an “encumbered finish” have left him teetering on the playoff bubble.
But the driver of the No. 22 Ford came to the right place to right the ship. He hasn’t finished outside the top 10 at MIS in over four years and is the defending champion of the FireKeepers Casino 400. Leading 138 laps last year in a dominating performance, Team Penske as a whole has the horsepower to pull a repeat once again.
Don’t like Logano? What about teammate Brad Keselowski? The last time the Michigan native ran outside the top 15 here was the June 2011 race, his first behind the wheel of the Miller Lite Ford.
Chase Elliott. For all the reasons listed above, his 2.0 average finish last year and 66 laps led at MIS. He may not make the winner’s circle but expect him to be a sure bet for at least a top-5 finish.
Kyle Larson earned his first MIS victory last August, leading 41 laps. The multi-groove track suits his driving style well and he’s got three career top-10 finishes here in six starts. Right now, he and Martin Truex Jr. have more than 100 points on the field and make up the front row for Sunday’s race. Expect the upward trend to continue.
We talked about the rookies last week but there’s no better time to take Erik Jones. A career-best third-place run at Pocono leaves him red hot heading to the type of track his Furniture Row Racing team excels on.
Looking for a real underdog? How about Chris Buescher. His lone victory in Cup came on fuel mileage and MIS lends itself to those types of finishes. 20th in the June race last year, his new JTG Daugherty team is a virtual unknown but could use pit strategy to race its way to the front.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson sits with 9/2 odds to win at MIS as of Saturday morning. Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. are right behind him at 13/2.
What I Think
I do think Chase Elliott will be strong this weekend. But Larson, after a few weeks of letting other young guns take the spotlight, is ready for his turn to come back around. Expect him to win a second straight race at Michigan while leapfrogging Truex atop the Cup Series standings.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)