By: Jeff Wackerlin – @JWackerlin Twitter and Instagram | MRN.com on September 17, 2016 | 10:55 A.M. EST
Elliott, who comes into Chicago with a 54-point lead in the rookie standings over Ryan Blaney, enters the Chase as the 14th seed. (Photo: Getty Images)
JOLIET, Ill. – For the first time since its inception in 2004, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field will feature two rookies.
Rookie of the Year candidates Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher will both start their quest to win a championship when Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 takes the green flag at Chicagoland Speedway. Prior to this season, Denny Hamlin was the only rookie to qualify for the Chase when he accomplished the feat, and finished third, in 2006.
Elliott, who comes into Chicago with a 54-point lead in the rookie standings over Ryan Blaney, enters the Chase as the 14th seed. He made the Chase on points after capturing the eighth most top 10s in the regular season.
“I’m definitely proud to be here,” Elliott said. “I’m excited about it. I think it’s a great opportunity. You know, we want to try to do the best job we can each week, like we always say. But I’m proud of it nonetheless.”
Although he has yet to visit Victory Lane, Elliott has contended for multiple race wins – most notably at Pocono Raceway in June and both races at Michigan International Speedway.
“We’ve given ourselves a couple opportunities to contend for a couple wins, which I think is good,” Elliott said. “Not so good to not be able to capitalize on those opportunities. As I’ve said before, that’s disappointing.
“I think you have to look at the positives of the fact that we were able to, you know, be a contender some this year, which I think is good. Other weeks, we’ve had our struggles, like anybody else. But I think we’ve got to put the positives together and get ready for these next few weeks.”
Buescher made the Chase after winning the weather-shortened race at Pocono in August. Since then, he had to make his way into the top 30 in the standings and maintain that mark to make the playoffs. Buescher finished the regular season 29th in points, 21 ahead of 31st.
“In just excited to be here,” said Buescher, who is currently third in the rookie standings. “It’s been a wild ride with a roller coaster of emotions through the past several weeks.
“We’ve got three weeks to perform well, be consistent, but be aggressive and go back to more of a hard racing scenario versus a defensive points racing situation and I’m really excited about that part.”
Buescher knows he’s the underdog in the Chase, but he likes what he’s seen as of late with his Front Row Motorsports team.
“We are a long shot and we know that and we know we have a lot of work left to do, but our program has been really strong over the past couple of months,” Buescher said. “I have a lot of confidence that we are going to be able to move through this thing and get to that second round after Dover.”
Both rookies have experienced crew chiefs when it comes to the Chase. Alan Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief, is making his ninth post-season appearance while Bob Osborne will call the shots in his seventh career Chase. Gustafson previously made the Chase with Jeff Gordon (5), Kyle Busch (2) and Mark Martin (1). Osborne led Carl Edwards in the Chase at Roush Fenway Racing and finished second in 2011 based on the tiebreaker rule.
Motor Racing Network – “The Voice of NASCAR” – will have live coverage of Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 from Chicagoland Speedway, beginning at 1:30 p.m. (ET) – with live streaming at MRN.com and on the MRN App.