The 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series had everything fans could ask for in terms of a Rookie of the Year battle, and it seems that 2017 will be no different.
The Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway this past weekend saw two rookie candidates score their first career top-10 finish, while a third finished just outside the top-15. It was a fairly strong weekend for the rookies, and it looks like we might be in for fun rookie battles all season long.
Daniel Suarez has big shoes to fill this year driving the No. 19 Arris Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Suarez is, of course, filling in for Carl Edwards, a veteran driver who abruptly left the top tier ride. The Mexican driver had been off to a slow start compared to his JGR teammates, but he picked up the speed at the end of Sunday’s race to finish an impressive seventh.
Erik Jones came into 2017 with high expectations. The former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver is thought by many to be one of the most talented young drivers in the field at only 20-years-old. Jones, driving the No. 77 5-Hour Energy Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, has run in the top-10 for much of the first four races, but was finally able to close the deal at the end of the day to score an eighth-place finish.
“It was a good day,” Jones said in a team release. “Your expectations kind of change as the day goes on. When you feel like you have a fifth place car, you want to run fifth, but it just didn’t work out at the end. We had a lot of guys take two (tires). A lot more than I thought would. A lot more obviously than Chris (Gayle, crew chief) thought would. We had a great restart and were able to get back up to eighth.
Ty Dillon also ran well throughout the day in the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet for Germain Racing. Dillon wound up finishing on the lead lap in 16th, a solid day for the single-car team that lacks the resources JGR and Furniture Row have.
“The GEICO Chevy was good for most of our runs today. We just couldn’t fire off as well as we needed to on the fresh tires,” Dillon said. “The heat today was certainly tough. We made some great adjustments to the car throughout the race. I think we are really working great as a team. I can’t wait to see what we have next week in Fontana.”
For the other two rookies out of the BK Racing stable, it wasn’t so great of a day. Gray Gaulding in the No. 23 exited the race with crash damage, as did Corey LaJoie in the No. 83. Gaulding and LaJoie finished 36th and 38th.