Denny Hamlin was the last rookie to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. That was in 2006.
With six races left before this year’s newly expanded 16-driver championship field is set, it’s quite possible that a rookie will be among the participants. In fact, there could be two.
After posting top-10 finishes on the same day for the first time all season on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kyle Larson (seventh at Indy) and Austin Dillon (10th) are in position to make the Chase as the last two drivers in.
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Of course, much racing remains to be done between now and when the Chase group is locked in at Richmond on Sept. 6, so the lineup can and likely will change multiple times.
But if the Chase commenced today, two rookies would be among the 16 championship-eligible drivers. That’s never happened in the 10-year history of NASCAR’s playoff.
With more finishes like Larson and Dillon had at Indy, the chances of it happening are increased exponentially.
"It was a good day for us," said Larson after posting his ninth top-10 finish of the season in his first trip to the famous 2.5-mile speedway. "We were a top-10 car the whole race. Had some good restarts there for most of the race. Then that last one we had to restart on the outside and lost a spot. Lined up fifth. Denny (Hamlin) got to third. But still a good day."
After scoring just one top-10 finish in the season’s first 17 races, Dillon has now posted top-10s in two of the last three outings.
Making Dillon’s strong run at Indianapolis particularly sweet was that it came a day after watching his younger brother, Ty, notch his first career Nationwide Series victory at the fabled Indiana oval. Both brothers compete for Richard Childress Racing, owned by their grandfather and the organization’s namesake.
"It’s great for us," Austin said. "As a team we just want to build momentum and that was a solid day. Our car had some speed in it, but it was tough to pass because when you got in traffic you couldn’t do much. I am very proud of my guys, solid day, and hard to back up that win that Ty got, but I will definitely take a top-10 in this series."
Larson and Dillon are currently the last of five drivers who could make the Chase based on their position in the standings. The first 11 Chase entrants would be the 11 drivers who have won this year.
While it’s possible that Larson and Dillon could reach the Chase without picking up a win in the next six races, their best bet is to find Victory Lane.
Larson, who finished fifth at Pocono Raceway in his first trip to the triangular-shaped track less than two months ago, returns this weekend with his sights set on a trophy.
"I’m looking forward to getting back to Pocono and seeing if we can improve on our first race there, where we had a fifth-place finish in the Target Chevy," Larson said. "I think we will be able to take away some of what we learned last weekend at Indy to help our setup this weekend, and we obviously have some good data from our test there and the previous race. I think our team is a little better since we were last there, so we’ll try to use that strength to get a Chevy into Victory Lane."
Dillon finished a modest 17th at Pocono in June, but harbors higher hopes for his second trip to the 2.5-mile Pennsylvania facility.
"I learned a lot in June that I think we can apply to the August race. We’re building a notebook we can apply to the second half of the season," he said. "All of our Richard Childress Racing cars are getting better each and every week; it’s a work in progress. We’re working hard at every level of our organization. I’m looking forward to going to tracks for the second time. Pocono Raceway is unique in that you have three different corners to set up for. One’s flat, one’s banked and one’s just a weird corner. I’m up for the challenge."