Rookie rallies portend greater success for 2014
November 15, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
But Ryan Blaney and Jeb Burton, two stellar rookies with deep family roots in racing, made a show of Friday night's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, each rallying from significant scrapes with the wall to apply late-race pressure and make Busch work for his fifth victory of the year.
Blaney established his strength early with his second 21 Means 21 Pole Award of the year, but his clutch surge to a second-place finish -- just .081 seconds behind Busch -- helped him become the youngest Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the series history at age 19. Burton, 21, brushed along the wall twice within the last 10 laps of regulation, but passed trucks in bunches in the ensuing three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish to wrap up an impressive third-place effort.
Both finishes added fuel and momentum for the two first-year drivers, who each scored one win this season and will renew their bids for a series championship in 2014. It also marked promise for a solid rookie class that also included Martinsville race winner Darrell Wallace Jr., Daytona pole winner Brennan Newberry and Iowa pole-starter German Quiroga.
"I knew going into this year with Jeb and Darrell and German running, it was going to be really tough," Blaney said. "All the rookie guys this year were really good, really good drivers and in really good equipment. And when you combine the two, it has good results.
"It's pretty cool to do this. You see people all the time when they win Rookie of the Year and we didn't really race against anybody, but it was so fun racing against Jeb and Darrell this year. I think we were close all year in the rookie deal, and it's really good. We're all three great friends and grew up racing each other, and it's cool to see that we've all got a good shot at it and have found really good homes at all the race shops, the race teams we're at."
Blaney led a race-high 67 laps in the Ford EcoBoost 200, but fell from the lead after inching up into the Turn 3 wall in the 94th of a scheduled 134 laps (extended to 148 by the late flurry of caution periods). With new tires and minimal damage, he regained track position into the top 10, then stormed into victory contention by making the most of the rash of late restarts.
By the time the checkered flag was unfurled, Blaney was right on Busch's bumper, diving low to make one last challenge.
"I felt like if I had one more corner, I coulda got him," Blaney said.
Burton's rally to a podium finish was even more frantic. With Busch leading, Burton closed in over the final stretch, signaling his crew over the radio, "I got this," as he whittled away at the margin. But Burton slid into the outside wall on Lap 127, then hit it harder three laps later to bring out the yellow flag that forced overtime.
Burton, who tacked on a pit-road speeding penalty as he came in for repairs, dropped to 25th in the running order, but new tires and pit stops by others inched him up a shade on the leaderboard. On the three green-white-checkered attempts to conclude the race, he pounced on the openings that came in front of him.
"It just didn't work out, man, but it was cool to race back up through there," Burton said. "I mean, we passed 22 cars in five laps. We were digging, about seemed like six-wide. That's what it's about."
Both Blaney and Burton will return in 2014 with the same teams. Blaney re-upped Thursday with the Brad Keselowski Racing team for next year, taking a load off his shoulders heading into the winter.
"It feels good," Blaney said. "It's always nice to know your plans for next season before the offseason. You know, you kind of relax and really have fun with your guys to try to practice up for next year, so I think we're just going to come back 10 times stronger next year."
Burton, returning to the Turner Scott Motorsports fold next season, also spoke with confidence that his fifth-place performance in the 2013 standings and the seven poles he won this season bode well for a potential title run in 2014.
"Definitely," Burton said. "I mean, we had a shot at it this year, if you take away a transmission breaking at a road course and then you take away Talladega. At both of those, we were a top-five truck. That's 40-some points and we're on 'em from there."