Young NASCAR drivers find their groove early in 2017 – Nascar
Kyle Larson stood alone on the far end of pit road in the moments after the season-opening Daytona 500, feeling gutted that he had brought the field to the white flag in NASCAR’s biggest race, only to run out of gas and sputter around the superspeedway on the final lap. He finished 12th instead of hoisting the big trophy.
And still, for all the understandably immense disappointment of having come so close, Larson was also upbeat and optimistic after climbing out of his bright red Target Chevrolet. The performance proved to him and his Chip Ganassi Racing team — and to all his competitors — that the 24-year-old was ready to rumble. Now.
And he’s not alone. The 25-and-under club is high-achieving in the sport right now.
Larson and 21-year old Chase Elliott are ranked second and third, respectively, in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings entering this weekend’s race at Phoenix Raceway.
Ryan Blaney, 23, is sixth in the standings. Joey Logano, 26, is fifth and Trevor Bayne, 26, is ranked 11th.
RELATED: Series standings after Las Vegas
Thanks to back-to-back runner-up showings after Daytona — at Atlanta and Las Vegas — Larson, driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing, is at a career high in the points standings, a single point behind leader Brad Keselowski with some good tracks for him coming up on the schedule.
Larson finished third at this week’s venue, Phoenix, the last time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series raced there in November. And he finished runner-up in his 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut at Auto Club Speedway, where the circuit heads next week.
Elliott sits just behind Larson in the points standings, only three points out of the lead.
After winning the pole position for the season-opening Daytona 500, Elliott posted the longest consecutive streak out front in the race — 23 laps. However, like Larson, his No. 24 NAPA Chevy ran out of gas on the final lap and he ended up with a frustrating 14th-place finish.
Elliott, son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, has not-too-surprisingly proven to be a quick study. He was fifth at Atlanta and third at Vegas over the weekend, further establishing himself not only as a race contender but also a viable championship player.
He finished eighth in this Phoenix race last year (he has two top 10s in two starts there) and sixth the next week at Auto Club.
“I’m really proud of the way we have performed,” Elliott said. “Our pit stops have been great, our car has been good, we have been able to run solidly in the top five the past couple of weeks, which is great for me and our team. We’ve just got to keep that going and find that next little bit.”
Wood Brothers Racing’s Blaney trails fellow Ford driver Keselowski by 26 points heading into the second stop of the three-race West Coast Swing. He was an impressive runner up in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 18th at Atlanta and seventh at Vegas.
“Just need that little more,” he tweeted after his Las Vegas top 10.
He has top-10 finishes in both his previous Phoenix starts, including an eighth-place result last November. He was collected in an early-race crash in his only start at Fontana, Calif. last year.
Both Monster Energy Series rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are working their way through a learning curve. However, Jones is surely looking forward to arriving in Phoenix. He won his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race ever at the 1-miler in 2013 and then won again there — from the pole — the next year. He was the polesitter for the 2015 truck race as well.
In the XFINITY Series he has five top 10s — two top threes — in as many starts there. He won the pole and finished runner up there last March.
Jones has started from the front row — including the pole position in his Auto Club debut — and finished third and 15th in the XFINITY Series at Fontana.
Suarez considers Phoenix his “home track,” considering its proximity to his native Mexico. And he likewise must be looking forward to his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut there thanks to a solid record at the oval.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver won the truck race there last November and has three top-five finishes in four XFINITY Series starts — a best of third last spring. He won the pole and finished fourth at Auto Club last year.
The good start for these drivers is just that. A start.
“Super happy with how our season has gotten started,” Larson said following his runner-up effort Sunday. “Way better than where I have ever started a season, so I’m really happy about that, proud of our team. I had fun. The stages were really exciting or the ends of them, because of the way the cautions fell and different pit strategies and stuff, people staying out made it exciting taking off. Really liking the format change and all that. Hopefully we can keep these top five’s rolling and maybe get a win or two here shortly.”
RELATED: Stage lengths for Phoenix
Not only does the legitimate boost in competition help those young drivers, it is good for the whole sport. It broadens the intrigue and frankly keeps those long-time “favorites” on their toes. Nothing is more motivating than trying to score your first — your first win, your first playoff berth, your first championship.
The future of this sport has arrived. Everyone’s on notice. And everybody wins.