The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Smith Finally Gains Momentum in Martinsville by Tony Lumbis -- Monday March 31, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Aric Almirola (3rd), Sam Hornish, Jr. (26th), Regan Smith (33rd), Michael McDowell (34th), Patrick Carpentier (37th), Dario Franchitti (43rd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Regan Smith (14th), Dario Franchitti (22nd), Michael McDowell (26th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (28th), Patrick Carpentier (29th), Aric Almirola (42nd)

Rookie of the Race: Regan Smith. It may be virtually impossible to have an uneventful day at the Martinsville Speedway, which often looks like a moving junkyard by the end of 500 miles. However, Regan Smith may have come close. Perhaps the rookie got all the “close calls” out of the way on Friday, when he barely snuck the Principal Financial Chevy into the field, slipping in at 33rd, the fifth of the seven “go or go home” teams that made the race. However, unlike in other events so far this season, the No. 01 Impala moved forward from the start, working his way into the Top 25 by the lap 75 mark. It was there that the team struggled with poor track position for a bit; stabilizing at or about that point in the field, he eventually lost a lap.

Regan Smith was all smiles after snapping out of his 2008 funk at Martinsville Sunday afternoon.

Smith did not give up, however, and engaged in a furious battle for the “Lucky Dog” award that continued throughout the entire event. “It was a tough race, just fighting the Lucky Dogs and stuff like that, a lot of lap down people were fighting for it and we finally got it,” the freshman explained. “And once we got it and I could go race people, the car wasn’t that bad."

Finally getting over that hump following the race’s 14th caution, the rookie never looked back from that point on. Taking the checkers in 14th position, Smith snagged a career best finish and his first Top 15 of the Cup season to date. It was his second consecutive highest finishing Rookie of the Race Award, and third overall this season for six events. That puts Smith in a tie with Dario Franchitti atop the Rookie of the Year standings; but most important of all, it boosts his team up to the 35th and final "locked in" position in the owner standings, meaning the rookie can breathe easy heading to Texas next weekend.

Tony's Take: "The car wasn't that bad" was probably one of the larger understatements of the afternoon. Smith finally showed the talent that many believed he has in the second half of the Goody's Cool Orange 500. After fighting for the Lucky Dog Award, the New York native was virtually unheard from the rest of the day as he quietly picked off competitors and fought his way to the front. It is not entirely surprising that Smith would stop the bleeding that has been the 2008 season at Martinsville, though. It is one of six tracks he raced on in the Sprint Cup series last year, and familiarity is always a good medicine for a sickly season. Perhaps Smith also performs best under pressure; not only did he rise to the challenge of having to time into the field for the first time in his Cup career, but he also turned his best race-day performance to date at this level. Hopefully for Smith’s sake, being on the points bubble will continue to fuel the pressure cooker, and he’ll whip off an equally impressive performance next week at Texas.

While it's not enough to steal the spotlight from Smith, it should be noted that rookies Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier left Martinsville with not only their career best finishes, but their first finishes in the Top 30s, on an oval for both categories. The two came home 22nd and 29th, respectively, verifying that the week off was just what some of these newbies needed.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Sam Hornish, Jr. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that short track racing didn't appear to be Sam Hornish, Jr.'s favorite activity, and Sunday afternoon confirmed that. Laying down a decent qualifying lap on Friday turned out to be the highlight of the Mobil One team's weekend. Hornish was in trouble early on lap 107, when he ran into the back of J.J. Yeley's Camry; then, in a chain reaction wreck, he found himself spun out by Mike Skinner. The former open wheeler, who had never seen anything like Martinsville on the Indy Racing League circuit, was never able to recover after that; he ran his battered No. 77 Dodge around the 30th position until spinning out again on lap 262. In the end, Hornish wound up in 28th place, not enough to save his “locked in” starting spot for Texas; ironically, that spot was earned by none other than fellow rookie Regan Smith.

Rookie Wrecks of the Day: Aric Almirola. The part-time driver of the U.S. Army Impala did an impeccable job of displaying patience en route to his Top 10 finish at Bristol two weeks ago, so much so that he did not have any left to bring to Virginia. On Friday, it looked like Almirola might continue his impressive run after a lightning quick qualifying lap placed him third on the starting grid. But on lap 59, while running in the Top 5, the rookie got into the legendary No. 43 Dodge piloted by Bobby Labonte, setting off a multi-car wreck at the front of the field. Taking out Labonte in a Petty-owned car at Martinsville is like wrecking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and Almirola would remain on the naughty list for the rest of the afternoon. He would later get into David Reutimann's No. 44 Camry, which ignited an incident that involved Michael Waltrip, seriously damaging both car’s days in the process. But the madness didn’t stop there; continuing his assault on Camrys, Almirola again nudged Waltrip's No. 55 machine with just under 200 laps to go, damaging his wounded Chevrolet machine even further. But despite driving a car that looked like it just got off the streets of a war zone, Almirola still almost pulled off another solid finish until the engine let go with just over 100 laps remaining.

Who Wasn't Here?: Nobody.

It was a grim situation for the rookies coming into Martinsville, as only Aric Almirola, Sam Hornish, Jr. and Michael McDowell had guaranteed starting spots in the field. Still, all six drivers carrying a yellow stripe on their rear bumper squeaked in, with Dario Franchitti just making the cut, qualifying in 43rd. This was probably the biggest collective accomplishment of the year for the 2008 rookies, who have otherwise stunk up the joint so far this season. Furthermore, half of them backed up their strong Friday runs with career best performances on Sunday afternoon.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Rookie Michael McDowell made his first ever Sprint Cup start on Sunday, and actually enjoyed a good day until he managed to pull off quite a feat in the closing laps…he ticked off Jeff Burton, one of the most level headed guys in the garage.

Burton, who was closing in on the leader, viewed the driving tactics of McDowell, who was three laps down, as unsportsmanlike given the circumstances.

"I thought we had something, we started coming back on him and then that kid in the No. 00, he’s going to learn some manners or I’m going to teach them to him — or he can choose it however he wants it — but it will be one way or the other.”

McDowell, disagreeing with Burton's assessment of his manners, counters by saying he was just doing his job.

"I was trying to gain a few spots, and we’re trying to keep the car in the Top 35. The No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) got by, and we were able to hang with him for four or five laps and once the No. 31 (Jeff Burton) put a nose underneath, I let him go. I’m sorry if I held him up — it wasn’t the intention, but I was racing the No. 28 (Travis Kvapil) and the No. 16 (Greg Biffle) at the time."

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 60
Franchitti 60
Hornish, Jr. 57
Carpentier 28
McDowell 9

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings
Regan Smith: 34th (+5)
Sam Hornish Jr.: 35th (0)
Dario Franchitti: 37th (+1)
Aric Almirola 44th (-1)
Patrick Carpentier 45th (+1)
Michael McDowell 48th (Debut)

Please Note: Sam Hornish, Jr. is one spot higher in the driver points than he is in owner points. This is due to the fact that he surpassed Mark Martin, who did not run the previous two events. However, that No. 8 team is still ahead of Hornish in the points (22nd) since Aric Almirola continued to run the car in Martin's absence. Since owner points determine qualifying, Hornish will have to clock in on time at Texas, as the Roger Penske-owned team just misses the cut at 36th.

Next Up: The series makes its first trip to the Lone Star State for the Samsung 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway. The good news for the rookies is that the venue is very similar to Atlanta, where they just raced under a month ago. The bad news is that they didn't exactly light the place up in Georgia, as Hornish led the pack with only a 25th place finish. Expect better results this week, as I will even go as far as to say that all five will make the show once again.

Tony's Top Finishing Rookie Pick: I thought Sam Hornish, Jr. would benefit from not having to worry about a qualifying setup this past weekend. He probably could've benefited more from a wider track and bigger fenders, though. Hornish, who was not mentioned unless he was in the spin cycle, finished in 28th, fourth among the rookies.

You Make The Pick: A whopping 50% of you thought Aric Almirola was going to continue to impress the NASCAR faithful for two consecutive events. It was looking good for you for awhile… until engine woes ended Almirola’s eventful day.

Tony's Pick for Next Week's Top Finishing Rookie: This pick is getting more and more difficult, and my 0-6 record is evidence of that. None of the freshmen have established themselves as the frontrunner yet this season. So, next week I'm going with the driver who has the best shot at becoming the "guy to beat for ROTY,” and that is Regan Smith; he’ll go for his third consecutive top rookie finish in the Lone Star State.

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
Goody’s Cool Orange 500 Martinsville Sam Hornish, Jr. 28th Aric Almirola 42nd Regan Smith 14th

Season Scorecard: Tony 0, Readers 1.

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chris
03/31/2008 10:45 AM
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Carpentier finished 22nd at The Glen last year. (Would have had a top-5 finish, possibly a win, with a little more luck/pit strategy.)

Just wanted to correct the whole “career best” of 29th thing.

Tony L. - FS Staff
03/31/2008 11:43 AM
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Hi Chris,
Thank you for keeping me honest, you are exactly right, Carpentier enjoyed quite a nice run at “The Glen” last year. I have made an update to read that Martinsville reflected career best finishes “on an oval” for these two rookies. Thanks for reading!

Douglas
03/31/2008 03:12 PM
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Hey Jeff Burton! Shut the f*** up!

Points and finishing positions are important to everyone!

You poor baby, had to race a lapped car!!!

How sad!