Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney dealt huge blow to Chase hopes at Kentucky

Jul 7, 2016; Sparta, KY, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (24) during practice for the Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 7, 2016; Sparta, KY, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (24) during practice for the Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

One month ago, both Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney were sitting in a comfortable position in their rookie campaigns at the Sprint Cup level. Elliott was riding high with six straight top-10 finishes while Blaney was comfortably inside the Chase Grid.

Saturday night at Kentucky, however, continued a trend of bad luck for both young drivers.

Blaney and Elliott were bunched up in a three-wide situation heading into a turn when the No. 21 car lost control and slid up into wall, collecting the No. 24 in its wake. Both drivers headed straight to the garage for repairs before returning to the race.

“It’s so hard to get into that corner all night with a car close to behind you and outside of you, and no one lifting either,” Blaney said after the wreck. “It’s just an unfortunate spot we got put in and I hate to see two really good cars tore up.”

For Blaney, this is his fourth-straight race outside the top 10 and ultimately dropped him to 19th in points with a 35th-place finish. After getting off to a strong start, he’s recently hit a lull that could cost him a shot at becoming just the second rookie to make the Chase.

Meanwhile, Elliott is looking to accomplish the same goal, but has worse results than Blaney lately. Finishing 21st at Sonoma, 32nd at Daytona and 31st at Kentucky means the budding Hendrick superstar now falls further down the Chase Grid heading into New Hampshire.

“That’s racing, I guess,” Elliott said. “We’ll just try to go get ‘em next week. The good news is we had a fast NAPA Chevy; the bad news is that we’ve had three bad weeks in a row. So, for us, we’ve just got to go back and get the job done, bottom line.”

Elliott returned to the track to collect points after myriad other cars were wrecked due to the new low downforce package wreaking havoc on drivers. Getting back out was critical for his season overall, but Elliott knows he can solidify a Chase berth with one checkered flag.

“Well, [getting back on the track] is definitely important,” Elliott said. “It’s not as important as winning. That’s the most important thing for us at this point. That’s our goal. Just because we had a bad night tonight doesn’t mean our goal has changed.”

Blaney, who has been friends with Elliott off the track for years, later shared his thoughts on the incident.

“Last guy I wanna get in an accident with is Chase,” Blaney said. “Unfortunate deal what happened, I’ll take the blame. Sorry to all the 24 fans out there.”

Now both drivers have to pick up the pieces in order to make the Chase. Heading into the final eight races prior to the cutoff, Elliott and Blaney still have a good chance of joining Denny Hamlin as the only rookies to qualify for NASCAR’s postseason.

While Blaney finished 12th in the Brickyard 400 last season, he nearly clinched a victory at the Xfinity Series level at Indianapolis. He’ll also get another chance at Pocono and Bristol, where he finished 10th and 11th, respectively.

As for Elliott, his best chances at a win might come at Michigan and Pocono over the next two months. The rookie cruised to top fives at both tracks while leading a combined 86 laps in the two races earlier this summer.

Both rookies have long futures ahead of them and one will win Rookie of the Year, so this stretch of failure will likely serve as a minor speed bump. Expect each driver to make a run at the Chase and at least one to still join Hamlin in the record books by the time the curtain closes on the regular season.

 

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