The Frontstretch: Rating The Nextel Cup Rookies : Infineon Edition (Montoya Wins!) by Tony Lumbis -- Sunday June 24, 2007

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup%: Ron Fellows (11th), Marc Goossens (21st), Regan Smith (26th), Butch Leitzinger (30th), Juan Pablo Montoya (32nd), David Ragan (37th), P.J. Jones (43rd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Juan Pablo Montoya (1st), P.J. Jones (12th), Ron Fellows (15th), Butch Leitzinger (28th), David Ragan (29th), Regan Smith (30th), Marc Goossens (36th)

Rookie of the Race: Juan Pablo Montoya. After starting a dismal 32nd, Montoya would prove to the NASCAR world that his team's qualifying problems were corrected by Sunday, as his road course expertise shined through above and beyond all expectations. Patiently moving forward from the start, Montoya guided his Texaco Havoline Dodge into the Top 20 in the race's first 15 laps, a place he’d remain for the better part of Sunday's event.

At that point, the going got tougher; faced with harder passes and difficult competition, the No. 42 would quite literally beat and bang its way to the front during most of the race’s middle portion. Montoya found himself locking horns with Jimmie Johnson and sending Kurt Busch into the spin cycle at various points of the race, stalling him outside the Top 5 while frustrating competitors all around. But things would change in a heartbeat once crew chief Donnie Wingo put his team to work for what turned out to be the final pit stop of the day on Lap 68. Pitting the car for tires and fuel under caution, Wingo had determined that this stop for Montoya would be his last, making a strategy ploy that would ultimately pay off in spades for the No. 42.

With 30 of 110 circuits remaining, Montoya had moved into third place while most of the rest of the field had peeled off on pit road for service. Now in perfect position to challenge for a win, the Columbian finally muscled his way past the former occupant of his ride, Jamie McMurray, with just seven laps to go. Montoya's road racing skills combined with encouragement from Wingo and his spotters took over after that; all he needed to do was stay smooth and save fuel, and the Colombian did exactly that. The final result? This driver cruised to his first career victory, the seventh time this season he would come home as the race's top finishing rookie.

Tony's Take: Sunday's race in the wine country of California offered an unusual ending to what began as a fairly typical road course race. I say this not because it was Juan Pablo Montoya standing in Victory Lane once the dust cleared; it’s more because of the somewhat unconventional method he used to get there. Not to anyone's surprise, it was Montoya's aggressive driving style that propelled him from the back of the field to the front, possibly making a few enemies along the way; once in position to win, he actually had that work against him, almost blowing the lead over McMurray in the late stages of the race.

In the final laps, however, the rookie resembled a Formula One veteran as he used finesse and prudence to stretch his gas tank while still maintaining a comfortable lead over second place man Kevin Harvick. The victory could not have come at a better time for this team, especially after a last place finish one week ago at Michigan that extended a Top 10 drought dating back to Texas in April. Montoya's win may change the minds of skeptics who were watching the highly acclaimed rookie underperform so far this season; any win makes it difficult for critics to put someone in the category of “underachieve.”

A Few Noteworthy Items From This Race: Montoya started further back (32nd) than any winner at both of the series' current road courses and is the first rookie to win at Sonoma. Also, when Juan Pablo took over first place on lap 104, it was the first time he led a lap in 2007, removing his distinction of being the only driver to run every event and not lead a lap this year.

With the win, Montoya also becomes the first foreign-born winner in Nextel Cup since Canada's Earl Ross took the checkers at Martinsville in 1974. The victory also makes 2007 the third year in a row, and seventh out of the past eight seasons, in which a rookie has won a Nextel Cup race. Finally, if all that wasn’t enough, the victory marked the first for Chip Ganassi’s three car organization since 2002, giving Dodge its first Cup win for 2007.

With all these accomplishments, I was wondering…couldn't Juan have shown a little more excitement in Victory Lane? The post-race interview on TV came out a little boring; maybe he was just not used to ceremonies that do not include drinking milk or spraying competitors with champagne. Well, a few more performances like the one at Infineon, and these NASCAR-style Victory Lane celebrations will become second nature for him.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Regan Smith.
While Montoya basked in the glow of victory, Smith accomplished a more meager goal of finishing on the lead lap, gaining valuable road course experience along the way. However, the driver of the No. 01 Chevrolet appeared to struggle for most of the day, hardly making it out of the 30s and coming home with the worst finish (30th) of his abbreviated season. Looks like some quality time with mentor and road course guru Mark Martin is needed before Smith visits Watkins Glen in August.

Rookie Wreck Of The Day: Marc Goossens. Goossens led a strong debut charge for Riley – D’Hondt Motorsports out of the gate, taking their part-time Toyota team and qualifying it 21st on the grid for Sunday. However, that’s where the luck ran out for the road course ace; on lap two, an accident involving Matt Kenseth and Kyle Petty popped up right in the No. 91 car’s path. With nowhere to go, Goossens slammed right into Petty’s vehicle, damaging both his splitter and any hopes to bring the car home in one piece. A handling mess after that, Goossens limped to the line 36th in what could only be described as a difficult debut for a program looking to get its feet wet in Nextel Cup.

Who Wasn't Here?%: David Reutimann, Brandon Ash, Paul Menard, Brian Simo, Klaus Graf and A.J. Allmendinger.

Michael Waltrip decided to replace Reutimann with road course ringer P.J. Jones in hopes of helping the team's points situation. The decision appeared to be a good one, as Jones finished a solid 12th in the No. 00. However, the skills of road aces Ash, Simo and Graf were simply not enough to get their under funded teams into the show (Nos. 02, 37 and 49 respectively).

The story was much different from Jones’ success for Rookie Of The Year contenders Menard and Allmendinger, whose DNQs were huge disappointments for both drivers. Menard could not continue the momentum from last week's top rookie performance, while Allmendinger's streak of making six straight races ended at what should've been his strongest outing of the year.

Rookie Quote of the Week:
Since Montoya was a little shy in Victory Lane on Sunday, here is a look at some of his more animated post-race quotes.

Q: Where does this win rate? A lot of people expected you to win today.

“I’ll tell ya the truth, I was very surprised by the level of the drivers here on the road course. In Mexico (referring to his Busch Series win earlier this year) we had a really good car and the top five or six cars were really strong but behind that it was pretty easy but here, man, the top-20 was like, whew, you had to work for your money…It’s huge. It’s hard to say this is bigger than that or that (But) I would say right now it’s the biggest thing I’ve done. It’s unbelievable, actually. In open wheel, that was what I was meant to be winning in, and in stock cars, I wasn’t.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:
Montoya 180
Ragan 165
Menard 105
Reutimann 92
Allmendinger 73
Whitt 2

Next Up: The Cup series heads to the Magic Mile in Loudon, New Hampshire for the Lenox Industrial Tools 300. The last several races at this track have offered varying types of racing; some have offered intense, side-by-side action, while others have been like watching a freight train go by for three hours. Track position at this flat track always seems to be the key to finishing well, placing more emphasis than usual on qualifying and pit strategy for the rookies attempting to conquer it.

Tony's Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Certainly, Juan Pablo Montoya came through even better than I expected Sunday with his first career win; still, it feels good to be back on track after missing the past two predictions.

You Make The Pick: There was no doubt in your mind either that Montoya would be the best, as 58% of fans who voted picked this road course expert as the top pick for Infineon.

Tony's Pick for Next Week's Top Finishing Rookie:
I'm picking Paul Menard to rebound and bring home rookie honors for the third time this season at New Hampshire. He finished fourth here in the Busch Series last year and won at Milwaukee, a track with very similar characteristics. As previously mentioned, pit strategy will play a key role, which I think that will produce a surprise top rookie finisher over the favorites of David Ragan and Montoya.

Event Track Tony’s Pick Finish Reader’s Pick Finish Top Finishing Rookie Finish
Subway Fresh Fit 500 Phoenix David Ragan 41st —- —- Paul Menard 25th
Aaron’s 499 Talladega David Reutimann 32nd —- —- David Ragan 17th
Crown Royal Presents The Jim Stewart 400 Richmond Paul Menard 16th Juan Pablo Montoya 26th Paul Menard 16th
Dodge Avenger 500 Darlington Juan Pablo Montoya 23rd Paul Menard 31st Juan Pablo Montoya 23rd
Coca-Cola 600 Charlotte Juan Pablo Montoya 28th No Pick DNS Juan Pablo Montoya 28th
Autism Speaks 400 Dover David Ragan 14th David Ragan 14th David Ragan 14th
Pocono 500 Pocono A.J. Allmendinger 39th David Ragan 26th Juan Pablo Montoya 20th
Citizens Bank 400 Michigan David Ragan 21st David Ragan 21st Paul Menard 12th
Toyota / Save Mart 350 Infineon Juan Pablo Montoya 1st Juan Pablo Montoya 1st Juan Pablo Montoya 1st

Season Score : Tony 4, Readers 2.

% – Author’s Note: While many of the road course ringers have competed in the series for years, none of the aforementioned experts have started in more than seven events during any one year, meaning that they are still technically rookies even though they are not competing for ROTY. For those of you looking for Boris Said, remember that he ran nine races in 2005 in the No. 36 Centrix Financial Chevrolet for what was then known was MB2 Motorsports (now Ginn Racing). So, as a reminder, Regan Smith will be covered in every event he runs this year, even though he is also not competing for ROTY.

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