Continuing a theme that has swept over the sport, NASCAR’s youth movement was on full display Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway. Twenty-four-year-old Ryan Blaney and 22-year-old Chase Elliott each won their Duel qualifying races in advance of Sunday’s Daytona 500, positioning themselves as viable contenders in the Cup Series season opener.
It wasn’t just Blaney and Elliott winning, with neither triumph considered all that surprising. It was how Blaney and Elliott reached Victory Lane, as both utilized a combination of poise and timely execution to outduel a pool of veterans.
Learning from his mistake in The Clash preliminary earlier in the week where an ill-timed move at the inopportune time cost him a potential win, Blaney showed no hesitation nor a lack of aggression when the opportunity arose to pass Team Penske stablemates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski late in the first Duel. With momentum on his side, Blaney darted to the inside of Logano down the backstretch to snatch the lead.
Another key moment occurred on a subsequent restart setup by Keselowski crashing on the backstretch just as Blaney passed Logano. Again, Blaney could’ve again stumbled yet never faltered. He quickly jumped ahead with an assist from good friend Darrell Wallace Jr., 24, in the form of a shove and never looked back.
“That’s the same spot I made the move in the Clash, and it didn’t work,’’ Blaney said. “Almost didn’t work tonight. I was coming with such a head of steam, I had to. Brad laid back so much from whoever was behind him, I kind of laid back to Brad off of four because I didn’t want them to get a huge run. It just propelled me so fast to Joey, I had to turn left or I would have ran him over.
“I didn’t really want to make my move right there because it didn’t work. It really shouldn’t have worked. I was trying to plot where to do the move better. I was thinking about that all week after it didn’t work in the Clash. That was not the spot I wanted to do it. I was coming with such a head of steam, I had to turn left or run (Logano) over.’’
How Elliott won was far less dramatic, though much more resounding. After taking the lead away from Denny Hamlin on Lap 27, he led the final 33 circuits. The final few laps then saw Elliott hold off a charging Kevin Harvick to secure the win.
“The one on Sunday is the one we want, the one that counts, the one that everybody is after,” Elliott said.
It was a night for the kids, possibly setting the table for the kind of winner NASCAR needs to emerge on Sunday. Amid a period where a host of big names have retired — a list that includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards — NASCAR is counting on Blaney, Elliott, and a cavalcade of youngsters to carry the sport into the next generation.
They certainly possess the talent, and a good case can be made that NASCAR is awash with more young talent than ever before. But it takes more than talent to be a transcendent superstar, the kind of driver who can win on Sunday and have the chops to co-host a daytime talk show like Gordon and Edwards once did, or mainstays on late night shows like Earnhardt and Patrick were throughout their careers.
And thus far, NASCAR’s future generation has more potential than tangible results. Blaney has just a lone Cup Series victory to his name, while Elliott remains winless. But with each entering his third full season, expectations are high that they’ll break through in a big way, a reasonable expectation considering both are with two premier organizations and driving top-shelf equipment.
Perhaps that marquee, splashy win occurs Sunday. Blaney finished runner-up to Kurt Busch in this race a year ago; Elliott was leading when his fuel tank went dry with three laps remaining.
“Last year was a bummer,’’ Elliott said. “Unfortunately, the beginning of many bummers throughout the season. I hope that’s not the trend this year. I hope tonight is more the trend.’’
And if it’s not Blaney or Elliott, maybe Wallace or Erik Jones (age 21) will ascend onto the big stage. Wallace, the first African-American to compete full time in the Cup Series since 1971, is as charismatic as they come and also happens to drive for NASCAR’s king, Richard Petty. Jones is with powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, and garage insiders rave about his ability. Both finished third in their Duel Thursday night.
“Got through tonight,” Wallace said. “Didn’t get in any wrecks, didn’t make any dumb moves. Hopefully earned some respect from the veterans out there. It’s a big reset button on Sunday.”
NASCAR is hoping that reset button isn’t found. It’ll gladly take a Daytona 500 finish resembling the ones Blaney and Elliott produced Thursday night.