The Frontstretch: Rating The Nextel Cup Rookies : Chicagoland Edition by Tony Lumbis -- Sunday July 15, 2007

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Rating The Nextel Cup Rookies : Chicagoland Edition

Tony Lumbis · Sunday July 15, 2007


Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Paul Menard (16th), David Reutimann (21st), Juan Pablo Montoya (30th), David Ragan (32nd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Juan Pablo Montoya (15th), David Ragan (25th), Paul Menard (42nd), David Reutimann (43rd)

Rookie of the Race: Juan Pablo Montoya. After starting 30th for Sunday's USG Sheetrock 400, Montoya used the first 60 green flag laps to guide his Wrigley's Big Red Dodge into the Top 20. Crew chief Donnie Wingo and the team did not appear to figure out the setup needed to run with the leaders, though, as Montoya would eventually lose a lap during the race's second green flag stretch. However, Robby Gordon's bad luck turned out to be the lucky break Montoya needed. The No. 7 car's untimely meeting with the wall brought out the day's third caution and granted the No. 42 team the "Lucky Dog" award they needed to get back on the lead lap. Despite this bout of good fortune, though, Montoya was never able to break into the Top 10, settling instead for a 15th place finish at the checkered flag. Still, it was the eighth time in 2007 in which Montoya was the highest finishing rookie, an achievement that puts him in a tie with David Ragan once again in that category.

Tony's Take: Even though a Top 15 is a bit of a subpar performance by Montoya standards, it was a quiet day for the "Big Red Machine," and that may be just what the doctor ordered. After his win at Sonoma, Montoya experienced a slide in performance the last two weeks that peaked with two separate incidents at Daytona, wrinkling sheet metal while angering fellow competitors with the way he was conducting himself. That didn’t happen come this Sunday; instead, the Rookie of the Year point leader kept the nose of his Dodge Charger clean, avoiding the wrath of anyone else on the track as a result. Bottom line, this team's momentum is heading back in the right direction, an important accomplishment to take into the final off weekend of the season.

One other interesting fact is that Sunday's race marked the eighth time this year that Montoya has qualified 30th or worse. Being a rookie, not much is made of that stat; however, with track position a key factor at so many races, this team's 2007 performance could go from good to great if they can just step it up on Fridays.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Paul Menard. This was a tough one to pick from, since David Reutimann had an equally miserable day en route to his last place finish after blowing an engine. However, Menard's weekend went from having great potential to being a complete bust. After earning the 16th spot on the grid, Menard backed up his qualifying effort by posting solid practice times throughout the weekend. However, following Happy Hour, the Menards / Turtle Wax Ice crew found an open valve latch and opted to replace the engine for the race, forcing the No. 15 car to start from the back. Having no practice time on their engine then cost the team big time, as they were black-flagged on lap four for excessive smoke. Menard heeded the penalty and brought his yellow Chevrolet Monte Carlo down pit road where oil from a loose line caught on fire. In the end, the team fixed the damages to the car, but not their hopes of a good finish; Menard was relegated to 42nd place in the final rundown, 135 laps off the pace.

Rookie Wrecks of the Day: None. Kudos for the rookie class for keeping their machines off the wall and away from competitors.

Who Wasn't Here?: A.J. Allmendinger. This is starting to get painful to watch for Allmendinger and company over with the Red Bull organization. With Friday’s DNQ, the No. 84 team has now missed four straight Nextel Cup races dating all the way back to Sonoma in June. It’s an unfortunate situation; those that know about Allmendinger and his career understand the level of talent this rookie possesses, making it that much more difficult to watch this new team and driver work through the growing pains of their first season together. But hope still remains; the week off will serve as a time for Team Red Bull to clear their heads and refocus, days they can utilize to figure out what has gone wrong with their qualifying package. No matter how they choose to spend it, we'll find out if their time off helped at the Brickyard in two weeks…it’s an event that Allmendinger certainly will not want to miss.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Paul Menard used the word "evil" multiple times in his post-qualifying quotes this week, which ironically became some great foreshadowing as to what the remainder of his weekend would be like. Also, notice how Menard describes the Chicagoland Speedway in these quotes as just "all right". I think the track heard you, Paul, and acted accordingly…

Q: Is it a relief just to get through qualifying?
“I hate Fridays, man. It’s a necessary evil, but it wears on your nerves for sure. Give me great race cars like Dave Charpentier [crew chief] and all the guys have and we’ll be just fine. We’ll keep chipping away at the Top-35.”

Q: Unlike Daytona, you will have the opportunity to practice on race setup.

“Yeah, hopefully it’s not pushing as bad as it was at Daytona. It was pretty evil last week, but we had to go on speed and forget about the driving part of it. We can change it and make it drive better.”

Q: Do you like this track?
“It’s alright. I’ve only raced here I think twice before, and it seems like the groove is starting to move up a little bit. It’s kind of a cookie cutter, obviously, we have a bunch of racetracks similar to it. It’s fun. You drive the car quite a bit. There’s a lot of things you can do about giving up entry to gain speed off and things like that. In three and four it’s a little bit rough. I think it was kind of rough in one last year and I think they ground it but three and four still have a few bumps in it.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:
Montoya 208
Ragan 195
Menard 132
Reutimann 118
Allmendinger 75

Next Up: The Nextel Cup Series takes a rare weekend off, giving drivers some much needed time to relax and unwind. Following that off-week, the series heads to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard on July 29th. Of course, there are a few races that every driver circles on the schedule before the start of the season…and this is one of them. Except for former Indianapolis 500 winner Montoya, none of the rookie drivers have competed at this historic track, where they will all feel a level of pressure to make the race that they have not felt since the Daytona 500.

Tony's Top Finishing Rookie Pick: I am definitely in a summer slump as for the third straight week, I failed to correctly choose the highest finishing rookie. My pick this time around, Paul Menard, was not even given the chance to earn top rookie honors, as he experienced engine problems shortly after the start of the race. I have picked Menard twice during my three-week slide, in which he has finished 39th and 42nd at New Hampshire and Chicagoland, respectively. As a result, I am expecting a letter from DEI asking me not to choose their driver for the remainder of the year. I just may comply…if I get a free case of Budweiser.

You Make The Pick: This week, 55% of you chose David Ragan to come home as the top rookie. Not a bad choice, especially given the performance of Roush Fenway at these types of tracks. However, the No. 6 bunch could never seem to get it going on Sunday, as Ragan finished 10 spots behind Montoya.

Tony's Pick for Next Week's Top Finishing Rookie: I know the cars, the distance, and the series are all different, yet I can't bet against Juan Pablo Montoya at Indianapolis, who won the 500 here back in 2000. I also think this team's headaches and queasy stomachs are finally easing from the victory hangover I referenced last week.

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
Lenox Industrial Tools 300 New Hampshire Paul Menard 39th David Reutimann 38th David Ragan 15th
Pepsi 400 Daytona David Reutimann 26th David Ragan 12th David Ragan 12th
USG Sheetrock 400 Chicagoland Paul Menard 42nd David Ragan 25th Juan Pablo Montoya 15th

Season Score : Tony 4, Readers 3.

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