The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Hornish Hopeful Coming out of Lowe's by Tony Lumbis -- Monday May 26, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Sam Hornish, Jr. (20th), Regan Smith (27th), Patrick Carpentier (34th), Michael McDowell (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Sam Hornish, Jr. (13th), Regan Smith (20th), Michael McDowell (32nd), Patrick Carpentier (37th)

Rookie of the Race: Sam Hornish, Jr. Was this the All-Star Race or the Coca-Cola 600? Chances are that it was hard for Sam Hornish, Jr. to tell, as Sunday night was almost a carbon copy of the rookie’s performance in last week’s non-points event. After a Top 20 starting position, Hornish scraped the wall on Lap 23, similar to his encounter in the opening laps of the All-Star Race. Hornish would continue to struggle from that point on, losing a lap to the leaders; however, he managed to improve enough to stay in position to receive the Free Pass. His efforts paid off on lap 296, when the former Indy 500 champ received that pass after the eighth caution flag flew for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s blown tire. From there, it was a new race for Hornish, as the No. 77 would become a mainstay inside the Top 15 for much of the final portion of the race. In fact, the Mobil One Dodge was poised to finish in the Top 10 until the crew called Hornish in on Lap 387 for a splash of fuel. Still, the freshman came home with a career best 13th place finish, his fourth highest ranking rookie honor of the season.

Tony’s Take: Coming into 2008, many thought Sam Hornish, Jr. would be a disaster on wheels after two finishes of 30th or worse and numerous DNQs in 2007. Then, the rookie showed some promise, displaying patience and perseverance as he surprised everyone with a 15th place finish in the Daytona 500. Since then, I really haven’t been sure what to think of Hornish and his mediocre finishes. Over the last two weeks, however, the Ohio native has been telling me and the world what to think of him: “The best is yet to come.” Hornish is starting to gain some real momentum, and by that, I don’t mean Top 20s. After almost stealing the show during the Showdown event and recording his best career finish during the Coca-Cola 600, Hornish looks like he is about ready to break the Top 10 and battle Regan Smith for what is starting to look like a two man race for Rookie of the Year. It will be interesting to watch Hornish at Dover to see if he truly is figuring out these stock cars, or if he just simply took a liking to the North Carolina track in particular.

It’s been hard to get a handle on Sam Hornish, Jr.’s performances this year; but over the last two weekends, he has shown that he’s heading in the right direction.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Patrick Carpentier. Two weeks ago at Darlington, Carpentier had a solid run ripped from his grasp after an illegal pit stop and blown engine relegated the team to a 40th place finish. It appears that the hangover from that awful Saturday night remained for Memorial Day weekend; while his teammate Kasey Kahne has been stealing the spotlight over the last two weeks, Carpentier has been struggling just to stay on the stage. The 36-year-old rookie just barely made the field for the Memorial Day Classic, and then found himself a lap down by the 30th lap. While there was still plenty of time to recover, Carpentier and crew chief Mike Shiplett were never able to figure out what was ailing the No. 10 Dodge. In fact, Carpentier brought out the tenth caution when he lost control of his car and sent a smoke screen through Lowe’s Motor Speedway, clearing out all mosquitoes within a mile radius of the track. Finally, just like two weeks ago, an engine problem put an end to the team’s misery as they finished 37th.

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: Michael McDowell. There was a fair share of wrecks over the course of 600 miles on Sunday night; however, very few of them involved the rookies. But during a restart on lap 193, McDowell received contact from behind and spun, bringing out the evening’s fourth caution in his No. 00 Aaron’s Toyota. However, McDowell did not hit anything in the one-car crash, and continued on to finish 32nd.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Dario Franchitti and Jon Wood
Franchitti missed his fourth consecutive race due to injury on Sunday. I bet when he was drinking milk Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Victory Lane last year, sitting home nursing an injury was the last thing he thought he’d be doing a year later. Jon Wood also did not make the show on Sunday evening, as the Wood Brothers team is outside the Top 35, and his qualifying lap was not quite quick enough to make the cut.

Rookie Quote of the Week:
The most notable rookie news of the week leading into the Coca-Cola 600 was the departure of crew chief Doug Richert from DEI. Richert, who was in his first season working with rookie Regan Smith, was replaced temporarily by Kevin Buskirk, leader of the team’s testing program. Here is a look at some of Buskirk’s early thoughts on working with Smith after qualifying 34th last Thursday evening:

“Really, everything is okay. Regan overdrove one and two just because he’s so enthusiastic now. He calmed down by three and four — he had a really good three and four, but one and two was up a little bit and he missed it… and he knows it. We don’t care because we like that he’s enthusiastic. Five weeks from now, he’ll be qualifying good and everything will be fine. It’s probably a big difference in how he has to drive everything. This is pretty much like a No. 8 car. He’s just got to get used to [the changes], that’s all. It’s not a big deal.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 117
Hornish, Jr. 116
Carpentier 81
Franchitti 72
McDowell 65

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Regan Smith: 32nd (+1)
Sam Hornish, Jr.: 34th (0)
Patrick Carpentier: 39th (+2)
Michael McDowell: 41st (+2)
Dario Franchitti: 42nd (-2, DNS)
Aric Almirola: 48th (-2, DNS)

Qualifying Next Week: Despite his strong finish, Sam Hornish, Jr. just barely missed reentering the Top 35 by three points; as a result, he will have to qualify for next week’s event at Dover. Carpentier will join Hornish in that category, along with Dario Franchitti — if he is able to make his comeback.

Next Up: Summer must be close, as the Cup guys kick off their northern tour starting in Dover, Delaware. The concrete banks of the venue known as the Monster Mile are known for producing great side-by-side racing. However, while 400 miles may seem like a sprint compared to the 600-mile marathon the drivers just completed, Dover actually presents one of the biggest physical challenges that the drivers face all year; it looks like the best way for the rookies to prepare for this event will be to hit the weight room and eat a lot of carbs!

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: I thought Michael McDowell would be able to follow up his strong Darlington outing with another top rookie finish. However, except for a wreck on a restart, his name was barely mentioned all night as the No. 00 machine could not make it out of the 30s. The “Tony Jinx” continues.

You Make The Pick: You agreed with me (surprisingly) and also thought Michael McDowell would take home his second consecutive Rookie Of The Race award. McDowell was unable to continue his momentum, though, and we still sit at 1-0 after four months of competition.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: Martin Truex, Jr. got his first career victory in this race a year ago, and I believe this track will continue to be kind to the DEI organization. I’m picking Regan Smith to master the Monster Mile and bring home the best finish of his rookie counterparts.

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 21st
Crown Royal 400 Richmond Patrick Carpentier 43rd Patrick Carpentier 43rd Regan Smith 21st
Dodge Challenger 500 Darlington Regan Smith 29th Regan Smith 29th Michael McDowell 28th
Coca-Cola 600 Darlington Michael McDowell 32nd Michael McDowell 32nd Sam Hornish, Jr. 13th

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0.

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