The Frontstretch: From Franchitti To Carpentier, Vegas is Vicious to Rookies by Tony Lumbis -- Sunday March 2, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Patrick Carpentier (12th), Sam Hornish Jr. (20th), Regan Smith (28th), Dario Franchitti (42nd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Dario Franchitti (33rd), Regan Smith (34th), Patrick Carpentier (40th), Sam Hornish Jr. (41st),

Rookie of the Race: Nobody. I have decided that I am not going to award the “Rookie of the Race" to any driver unless one of them cracks the Top 30; so, for the second week in a row, I will not acknowledge any freshman for this category.

While Sam Hornish, Jr. showcased early potential, he was once again the victim of bad luck early in the race, as he cut a tire on the tri-oval around the lap 50 mark. He would wreck and finish in 41st — only two spots higher than his last place performance a week ago. With Hornish forced to the sidelines, it was actually Patrick Carpentier who was having the most successful weekend in Las Vegas. He made his first race of the season with an impressive 12th place qualifying run on Friday; then, on Saturday the Canadian piloted the Wisk Dodge to an eighth place finish in the Sam's Town 300 while filling in for the ailing Kasey Kahne. It looked like the hot streak would continue on Sunday, as Carpentier held the top rookie spot for much of the race until he was forced into the wall coming off of turn two on lap 163 — sending the No. 10 Dodge to the garage.

For the third week in a row, Dario Franchitti and Regan Smith looked out to lunch for the entire race. Neither driver appeared to make it out of the 30s except during pit stops, continuing their frustrating beginning to the 2008 season. Smith's lackluster performance had even his veteran crew chief Doug Richert scratching his head: "It was a terrible day. We thought that we had a car that was way better than we showed today. And I don't understand." Franchitti, meanwhile, struggled right off the truck, and even resorted to utilizing teammate Reed Sorenson's setup in order to improve his performance; it clearly didn't help. Still, the Scotsman took home his first career highest rookie finish, making him the third different newbie to do so in three races this year; and combined with his first career Top 10 in the Nationwide Series race the previous day, the weekend wasn’t all bad for Franchitti.

Tony's Take: Other than Hornish's 15th place finish at Daytona, no rookie has finished better than 31st (Regan Smith at Fontana), and I have to admit that I'm at a loss for words to explain this lethargic start for the Rookie of the Year candidates. Sure, three out of the four rookies are competing in their first ever full season in a stock car, but they are also with well-financed teams that are deep with talent. Smith's performance — or lack thereof — is perhaps the most perplexing of all. He has the most experience in this kind of race car, and is paired with one of the best crew chiefs in the business in Richert. Perhaps Smith’s slump is a sign of DEI's early struggles, as their four teams have only two Top 10s amongst them so far in 2008.

I'm certainly not expecting Top 10 performances from these drivers every week, but I did not anticipate most of these teams starting out flat. I will say this however; it is still early, and while that excuse won't be around for much longer, perhaps all these rookies need is just a few more starts under their belts before they begin to impress us. Otherwise, they may find themselves as one of the early components of the 2008 Silly Season, which is never a great start to a NASCAR career. Just ask Jacques Villeneuve.

Rocky Rookie Performance/Rookie Wrecks of the Day: Regan Smith, Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, and Sam Hornish Jr.* Yes, each rookie participating in the UAW-Dodge 400 was involved in some sort of altercation, resulting in a rocky performance for all four of them.

For the second week in a row, Sam Hornish Jr.'s hopes of a solid finish were wiped away early in an incident not of his own doing. While the first green flag pit stops of the day were occurring, the right front tire on the No. 77 Dodge blew, sending the car straight into the wall. I was excited to see what this kid could do after his strong Daytona performance, but the racing gods have had other plans for the Mobil One driver since then.

Later on, Sunday's fifth caution of the day happened when Patrick Carpentier tried to go high around Ryan Newman coming off of turn two. Carpentier had a run, but Newman had a block — not a very good combination. The result was a torn up Valvoline Dodge that had Carpentier frustrated and in the garage.

Finally, with just under 100 laps remaining, Regan Smith made slight contact with Jeremy Mayfield, sending the No. 70 Haas Automation Chevy into a slide; but fortunately, the veteran was able to hang on. Shortly thereafter, Mayfield's teammate Scott Riggs, wasn't so lucky — he lost control of the State Water Heaters Chevy coming off of turn four, blocking the track for Dario Franchitti. He clipped the No. 66 as his No. 40 Dodge unsuccessfully tried to miss the wreck; that left his car slightly crippled over the race’s final portion.

Who Wasn't Here?: Burney Lamar

The No. 08 Dodge driven by Burney Lamar did not make a qualifying attempt for the UAW-Dodge 400. But since Lamar is not running for the 2008 Rookie of the Year title, all drivers who are competing for that award and on the entry list made the race for the first time this season.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Patrick Carpentier explains his side of the accident that ended his chances of being the top-finishing rookie of Sunday's race.

"The car was getting better and better, and at the end there we made a change and it was pretty good, actually. I could run outside and I was trying to pass Ryan Newman — and he used the whole track like he was by himself. Normally, I should be doing that because I'm the rookie [smiles], but I guess he's allowed to or something. I checked up two or three times before so I don't hit him and in four; I had a really good run one time, and I had to check up and I went back three, four cars behind and came back up to him and thought after all these times he would see me. I had a really good run out of two, and we were pretty much back down the straightaway, and he kept coming up and just came up to me and there was nothing that I could do."

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Franchitti 31
Smith 30
Hornish Jr. 28
Carpentier 10

UNOFFICIAL Points Standings
Dario Franchitti: 36th
Sam Hornish Jr.: 38th
Regan Smith: 39th
Patrick Carpentier: 46th

Next Up: The Kobalt Tools 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway is next up on the schedule for the Sprint Cup tour. This is good news for fans who are usually treated to some of the fastest speeds on the circuit and side-by-side finishes at this venue. Atlanta could also be the site for good finishes for the struggling 2008 rookies, since last year, Juan Pablo Montoya earned his first career Top 5 in the Sprint Cup Series at this very event.

Tony's Top Finishing Rookie Pick: My gamble almost paid off as Patrick Carpentier held the top finishing rookie position before the aforementioned wreck. It's too bad almost only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes.

You Make The Pick: You are riding the Sam Hornish Jr. bandwagon, as over 50% of you picked the former Indy 500 champ as Las Vegas’ highest finishing rookie. But just like last week, we never got a chance to see what the No. 77 had as an early accident took Hornish out of the running. I can't say I blame you for continuing to choose Hornish, though; he is the only rookie who has shown any sign of competitiveness to date.

Tony's Pick for Next Week's Top Finishing Rookie: The way this season has been going so far, it's hard for me to predict a good finish for any of the rookie contenders. However, one of these drivers has to outfinish his freshman counterparts; and with that in mind, I believe Dario Franchitti will break through this week, based on the success of his teammate last year.

Event Track Tony’s Pick Finish Reader’s Pick Finish Top Finishing Rookie Finish
Daytona 500 Daytona Regan Smith 37th Dario Franchitti 33rd Sam Hornish, Jr. 15th
Auto Club 500 California Sam Hornish, Jr. 43rd Sam Hornish, Jr. 43rd Regan Smith 31st
UAW-Dodge 400 Las Vegas Patrick Carpentier 40th Sam Hornish, Jr. 41st Dario Franchitti 33rd

Season Scorecard: Tony 0, Readers 0.

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