The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Regan Wrecks ... But Still Finishes Strong by Tony Lumbis -- Monday April 28, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Jon Wood (12th), Patrick Carpentier (17th), Michael McDowell (24th), Aric Almirola (28th), Regan Smith (29th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (37th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Regan Smith (21st), Michael McDowell (26th), Patrick Carpentier (31st), Aric Almirola (33rd), Sam Hornish, Jr. (35th), Jon Wood (36th)

Rookie of the Race: Regan Smith. Smith had the precarious task of starting in the eye of the storm when he rolled off the grid 29th for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499. However, the first three quarters of the race were fairly uneventful as far as wrecks were concerned, and that proved to be a good thing for DEI’s rookie driver. While Smith bided his time in the pack, both he and crew chief Doug Richert were able to adjust the No. 01 Chevy to the point where Smith would have a machine capable of heading to the front when it counted. The improvements stuck, the No. 01 remained solidly in contention, and the team’s plan was working …. it just came up one lap short. For as it turned out, it wasn’t Smith’s position at the beginning of the race that proved to be treacherous; it was his position at the end. The rookie was in the midst of a late race surge when chaos erupted in the pack of cars he was running with on the last lap. Caught up in the carnage, Smith’s No. 01 had nowhere to go; but despite witnessing his car turned into junk in the matter of seconds, he was still able to manage a Top 25 finish, benefiting from NASCAR’s “Freezing The Field” rule when a yellow flag comes out. As a result, Smith snagged his fourth highest finishing rookie award this year, giving him the lead in that category.

Tony’s Take: The DEI Chevrolets have always been stout on the restrictor plate tracks, so it was no surprise that Regan Smith bested the rookies this week. In fact, it looked like his corporate teammate Aric Almirola would take the honors early on, until a flat tire and subsequent pit road speeding penalty ended those hopes of finishing well. Still, Smith capitalized on a solid run and the misfortunes of others to earn his fourth career Top 25 finish in 16 starts.

It was actually a very typical Regan Smith type of day, where nobody even heard the New York native’s name mentioned all day long. But even on one of his better days, Smith still was involved in the last lap “Big One,” a sign of just how tough of a year it’s been to date for the freshman. With the way this year’s rookie class has been running, though, these mediocre “twentysomething” finishes may be all a driver needs to take the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award. The same can’t be said for keeping his job, however; and that is why Smith, whose contract expires at the end of this season, desperately needs to capitalize on the momentum taken out of this past weekend, no matter how strange the circumstances surrounding it were.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Sam Hornish, Jr. As has been the case many times this year, there were several candidates for this category on Sunday. Jon Wood, making his second career Sprint Cup start, was forced to pit on the second lap as his team worked in part to reverse the aggressive setup used to get the No. 21 Ford in the show. However, Wood stayed out of trouble all day long, so he did the best he could given the circumstances. Patrick Carpentier hit the wall and spent the day as a backmarker, while Almirola had his share of bad luck, too; but it was Sam Hornish Jr.’s 35th place run that was the most disappointing after more was expected of him than his rookie counterparts this weekend.

After a strong and surprising 15th place finish during the season-opening Daytona 500, many believed that Hornish could duplicate this superspeedway success once again come Talladega. However, Lady Luck had other ideas. After breaking into the Top 10 around lap 50, the former Indy 500 champ experienced a vibration that forced him down pit road for an unscheduled stop. As if that weren’t enough, the Mobil One Dodge later dropped a cylinder, a paralyzing problem at one of the circuit’s fastest tracks. “It definitely could have been a better day for us,” remarked Hornish following the event, in what was the understatement of his season to date. That poor finish now puts the No. 77 team near the bubble in owner points heading into May. The timing is notable, as the Indy 500 festivities will soon begin; if Hornish falls out of the Top 35, will that leave an opening for him to head back to Gasoline Alley? The IRL convert is rumored to make another run at the historic race, something he and car owner Roger Penske have repeatedly denied.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: Regan Smith. Very rarely does the same driver who finishes as Rookie Of The Race also take home the Rookie Wreck Of The Race as well. However, it happened at Talladega and honestly, the way 2008 has been going, this odd combination doesn’t surprise me. On the final lap, all hell broke loose in turns one and two following contact between the Ford of Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Chevy. It appeared that Smith, who was riding on the low end, would make it through the mayhem unscathed — that is, until the spinning car of Joe Nemechek came down across the track and into the No. 01. From that point on, Smith was simply along for the ride, as his Impala was catapulted up the track and into traffic — where it became racing’s version of a pinball. Still, if it’s possible to do so, Smith wrecked in the right place at the right time; the field froze, and all the rookie had to do was limp his battered car back around to the finish line to be credited with the 22nd position.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Dario Franchitti

Franchitti overcame his “Go Or Go Home” status on Saturday by qualifying in the 43rd and final slot in the field; however, his chances of running the Aaron’s 499 ended during the Nationwide Series’ Aaron’s 312 later that same day. On lap 12, Franchitti cut a tire, which sent his No. 40 Dodge into the outside retaining wall. As the Fastenal machine slid down the track in turns 3 and 4, it fell right into the path of Larry Gunselman’s No. 91 Ford, which plowed into the side of Franchitti. The Scotsman suffered a fractured ankle as a result, and was forced to miss Sunday’s Sprint Cup event.

Ironically, it was David Stremme, who Franchitti replaced, that took over the Chip Ganassi ride. Franchitti is expected to miss at least next Saturday’s race at Richmond, with the possibility he may be out as long as six to eight weeks; stay tuned to Frontstretch.com for the latest updates on Franchitti’s injury and who will pilot his ride in his absence.

Aric Almirola was downtrodden after a blown tire kept him from being a factor at Talladega.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:

Aric Almirola on his disappointing day and what could have been:

“It’s really disappointing, because the U.S. Army Chevy Impala SS was strong from the start. I felt good in the car, I could pass, and it was a lot of fun out there. But the tire issue and the pit road speeding penalty pretty much killed our day. We’ll bounce back. We’re like our soldiers — we never quit.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 86
Hornish, Jr. 86
Franchitti 72
Carpentier 57
McDowell 36

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Sam Hornish Jr.: 33rd (0)
Regan Smith: 34th (0)
Dario Franchitti: 38th (0)
Patrick Carpentier: 41st (0)
Michael McDowell: 44th (+3)
Aric Almirola: 46th (0)

Qualifying Next Week: Patrick Carpentier will have to qualify on time next week. The No. 40 car is also outside the Top 35 in owner points; however, Dario Franchitti will not be driving due to injury.

Next Up: The two annual Saturday night visits that the Sprint Cup Series makes to the Richmond International Raceway usually produces some of the best racing of the year. However, door-to-door short track competition doesn’t mean it’ll be easy for our first-year competitors. Richmond presents a unique blend of challenges, including a tricky turn two that tends to shoot drivers into the outside wall on every lap. Still, rookies have experienced a good degree of success here in the past. David Ragan came home with a career best third place finish here last Fall, Denny Hamlin captured a pole and a second place finish at the Virginian track during his rookie year in 2006, Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked up the second win of his young career in 2000, and Tony Stewart got the first of his 32 Cup victories at Richmond in 1999… just to name a few recent freshmen successes. Perhaps this will be the race where one of the ROTY candidates experiences a breakout performance.

Bryan’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Two weeks ago, my colleague Bryan Davis Keith filled in for me, and thought that Aric Almirola would continue the hot streak that the No. 8 team has been on as of late. Unfortunately, Bryan also inherited my luck, or lack thereof this year. Almirola worked his way up to the Top 10 from his 28th starting position in no time; however, the U.S. Army car cut a tire and scraped the wall early in the event, forcing the Floridian to pit under green. The team and driver were unable to recover, and had to settle for a dismal 33rd place finish.

You Make The Pick: The majority of you also thought that Sam Hornish, Jr. would repeat his Daytona success at Talladega; but as previously noted, it was simply not meant to be. The score remains a woeful 1-0 in favor of the readers.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: The Gillett Evernham Motorsports team has been strong at the three-quarter mile track located in the capital of Virginia. Everyone remembers Jeremy Mayfield’s dramatic victory in the Fall of 2004 that propelled him into the inaugural Chase field; but the very next year, Kasey Kahne won his first career victory at the same track. This team seems to have this place figured out, so Patrick Carpentier should benefit on Saturday and bring home the top rookie finish.

2008 Rookie Prediction Table

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
Samsung 500 Texas Regan Smith 35th Michael McDowell / Regan Smith 33rd / 35th Patrick Carpentier 28th
Subway Fresh Fit 500K Phoenix Michael McDowell 34th Michael McDowell 34th Sam Hornish Jr. 20th
Aaron’s 499 Talladega Aric Almirola 33rd Sam Hornish, Jr. 35th Regan Smith 22nd

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0.

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