The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Almirola Breezes Through Bristol by Tony Lumbis -- Monday March 17, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Due to inclement weather, the qualifying order was determined by 2007 Owner Points): Sam Hornish, Jr. (7th), Aric Almirola (16th), Regan Smith (17th), Dario Franchitti (26th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Aric Almirola (8th), Regan Smith (26th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (29th), Dario Franchitti (36th)

Rookie of the Race: Aric Almirola. Mark Martin was not piloting the No. 8 Chevy for the first time in 2008 this past weekend, but one would never know it judging by the performance Almirola turned in on Sunday. Making just his seventh Sprint Cup start, Martin’s protege began the day from the 16th position, but once the green flag dropped, he never fell much lower than that on the scoring pylon. The young rookie, who just turned 24 last Friday, managed to avoid all of Bristol’s multiple incidents while displaying the driving skill of a veteran. In particular, he dodged a huge bullet on lap 191 when an evasive move kept the No. 8 from a six car pileup among those competitors racing directly in front of him. From that point on, confidence was high, and Almirola would rely on consistent driving and solid pit stops from his Tony Gibson-led pit crew to put the team in position for a Top 10 finish. By the time the Food City 500 concluded, Almirola was in 8th place, recording his career best performance while blowing away his previous high of 26th from Phoenix last November.

After the race, Almirola commented on the physical aspect of racing at Bristol. “I felt great in the car and never got tired,” he beamed. “I worked out hard during the offseason, and I’ve never been in better shape. I’m looking forward to Martinsville in two weeks.”

One note on this: while Almirola was the highest finishing rookie, he is not entered in the 2008 Rookie of the Year competition. Therefore, NASCAR officially credited Regan Smith as the highest finishing driver in that category.

Tony's Take: Finally, something to good to report about this week — at Bristol, of all places! I have to admit, I didn't have high hopes for this kid from Florida, and for good reasons. Almirola had only six Sprint Cup starts coming into this weekend, with only one finish in the Top 30; and his team, DEI, is struggling in 2008. Entering Sunday, the youngster’s lone claims to fame were limited; last year's Nationwide Series pole at Daytona and the "win that wasn't" at Milwaukee were the highlights of a short career resume. So, Almirola had the cards stacked against him coming into Bristol… and all he did was respond by recording the best finish for a rookie this season.

There are two things that impress me the most so far about this driver, and his finish is not one of them. First, Almirola’s U.S. Army Impala had all four fenders still on it at the conclusion of a Bristol race, something most of his rookie counterparts and some of the veterans could not claim on Sunday. Preparation through physical training, which the youngster alluded to in his post race interview, was the other noteworthy item. Let's look at this situation from a different perspective: Almirola had made working out a priority in the offseason, and he displayed incredible patience during the race… gee, doesn't that sound suspiciously like his mentor and co-driver of the No. 8 car? It might just be time to start raising the expectations for this freshman in his remaining 11 races scheduled for 2008.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Sam Hornish, Jr. It looks like short track racing may not exactly be on Hornish's list of favorite things to do on a Sunday just yet. After the washout of qualifying on Friday, the No. 77 Dodge would begin the Food City 500 in the Top 10 — but it wouldn’t remain there for long. Hornish dropped like a rock in the first 100 laps, and would have his hands full for the rest of the afternoon en route to finishing 29th, five laps off the pace. Roger Penske's rookie driver commented on how his first start at Bristol compared to his expectations: "Yeah, [it was what I thought it would be], except I probably got bumped a little bit more than I bumped anybody else just because we weren't as quick as we'd like to be." Welcome to Bristol, Sam!

Rookie Wrecks of the Day: Dario Franchitti. Judging by Franchitti's performance on Sunday, I think we can conclude that drivers must not race on half-mile bullrings in Scotland. The day's fifth caution was brought out when Franchitti's Dodge and Jamie McMurray's Ford locked horns coming off of turn four, then again heading down the front straightaway — igniting the event's biggest wreck of the afternoon heading into turn two. Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Bobby Labonte, and Ken Schrader were all caught up in the chain reaction from this incident; in the end, none of them would fully recover. Franchitti wound up soldiering on in his damaged machine; however, in an ironic twist, he was spun out by Menard on lap 280 after a cut tire caused the No. 40 to slow unexpectedly. Despite the rough performance, Franchitti still leads the ROTY standings; however, the poor finish means he will lose his “locked in” qualifying spot at Martinsville the end of the month.

It was a lonely feeling for Patrick Carpentier when he was forced to watch Sunday’s Bristol race from the sidelines; qualifying for the Food City 500 was washed out by rain, leaving Carpentier on the DNQ list and a distant fourth in rookie points.

Who Wasn't Here?: Patrick Carpentier

For the second time this year (Fontana), rain ended the No. 10 team's chances of making the race, resulting in Carpentier's third DNQ of the season to date. Mother Nature could not have come at a worse time for the Canadian, as he and his team were just starting to build a little momentum after making two consecutive races at both Las Vegas and Atlanta. Now, thanks to wicked weather and a blown tire at Daytona, Carpentier and company find themselves in a deep hole in the owner points, a hole that looms large as the series transitions to the 2008 standings in Martinsville after the Easter Break.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Bristol has a nasty reputation for rookie drivers, but it seems that Carpentier was looking forward to the challenge. Unfortunately for him, he will have to wait until August for a chance to race the high banks of Tennessee.

Q: What are your first impressions of this track?:
“I like it. It’s fun. We got one and two down there. The last run one there was pretty good, and I was so happy. I was catching Jimmie Johnson, and then I look at the sheet and he’s at the back with me there. False joy [laughs].”

Q: Can you compare racing at Bristol to anything else you've done in your career?
“I’ll be honest with you; Richmond in the IRL car was kind of similar to that, except you never lift. Here, that’s what the difference is. You’ve got to lift and play with the car; the other one, if you’ve got cajones, then you don’t lift. You’re right there [laughs]. But here, it’s a different story.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Franchitti 50
Hornish, Jr. 49
Smith 49
Carpentier 21

UNOFFICIAL Driver Point Standings
Sam Hornish Jr.: 35th
Dario Franchitti: 38th
Regan Smith: 39th
Aric Almirola: 43rd
Patrick Carpentier: 46th

Next Up: The series takes its first week off of the season for the Easter holiday; then, it’s time for more short track racing at the Martinsville Speedway, the smallest oval on the Cup schedule. As if its paper clip configuration weren't tough enough, the .625-mile facility will feature three rookies who will have to fight their way in on qualifying. Patrick Carpentier will be joined by Dario Franchitti and Regan Smith in the “go or go home” group, as both lost their “locked in” starting spots they inherited from 2007 owner points.

Don't forget that Michael Waltrip Racing's Michael McDowell will be making his Sprint Cup debut at the southern Virginia venue, too, officially adding his name into the Rookie of the Year competition. Considering how his freshman competitors have fared this year, McDowell doesn't have far to go to catch up. Also, the Phoenix, Arizona native takes over a Top 35 team, thanks to David Reutimann's solid performance in the No. 00 car. As a result, McDowell may very well make an unexpected challenge for the 2008 ROTY Award … stay tuned on this one.

Tony's Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Even though my pick, Regan Smith, was the official top finishing rookie on Sunday, this poll traditionally has referred to the highest finishing freshman regardless of ROTY status. Therefore, the shutout continues for me through five races, as Almirola took home the honors this week. It should be noted that Smith did record his best finish of the season, coming home in 26th; however, it appears that it was too little, too late, as the No. 01 team is now mired in the 39th position in owner points — forcing them to qualify on speed at Martinsville.

You Make The Pick: You're continuing to go with what works, as Sam Hornish, Jr. just edged out both Patrick Carpentier and Regan Smith in the readers’ pick for the top finishing rookie. However, Hornish could not seem to edge out anyone in the race, finishing third among participating freshmen.

Tony's Pick for Next Week's Top Finishing Rookie: It's a whole new ballgame at Martinsville now that 2008 owner points come into play for qualifying. Almirola may have properly prepared for the Goody's Cool Orange 500; however, the number of issues outside of a driver’s control are plentiful at this short track to rely on preparation alone, so I don’t believe he’ll come out on top. And while McDowell should finish the race in his Cup debut, he won’t do it ahead of all of his rookie competitors. So, who is there left to pick? I will go with the only other rookie guaranteed to make the field, and that is Sam Hornish, Jr. It's a safe bet; but at Martinsville, I wouldn't want it any other way.

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
Kobalt Tools 500 Atlanta Dario Franchitti 33rd Sam Hornish, Jr. 25th Sam Hornish, Jr. 25th
Food City 500 Bristol Regan Smith 26th Sam Hornish, Jr. 29th Aric Almirola 8th

Season Scorecard: Tony 0, Readers 1.

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