The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Hornish Continues Momentum at the Monster Mile by Tony Lumbis -- Monday June 2, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Sam Hornish, Jr. (16th), Regan Smith (29th), Michael McDowell (32nd), Patrick Carpentier (36th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Sam Hornish, Jr. (18th), Regan Smith (21st), Patrick Carpentier (29th), Michael McDowell (30th)

Rookie of the Race: Sam Hornish, Jr. The Rookie of the Year race remained tight coming out of Dover, as Hornish overcame a lap 68 pit road speeding penalty to record his second consecutive Top 20 finish — continuing to capitalize on momentum achieved following two weeks at Lowe’s. Hornish and crew chief Chris Carrier would make several adjustments throughout the event, as they tried to keep up with a car that fluctuated between loose and tight during long green flag runs. But even as both the track and the Penske Truck Rental Dodge would undergo several changes, the driver remained cool, calm and collected, as Hornish never fell far from his 16th place starting position. In the end, the freshman crossed the finish line in 18th position for his fifth top finishing rookie honor of the year. That’s a performance which puts him in a tie with Regan Smith in both that category and atop the ROTY standings.

Tony’s Take: In his post-race interview, Hornish commented about how his team has always been capable of these types of strong finishes, but “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” has kept them from sealing the deal. You can probably add “shooting themselves in the foot” as a reason, too; this week, it was a pit road penalty that could have made the difference between a Top 20 and a new career best finish for this rookie. But on a positive note, if a pit road violation is the worst thing that happened at the track they call the Monster Mile, chances are the day wasn’t all that bad.

These types of incidents are only minor mistakes that a rookie will learn from over time, and I have every reason to believe that Hornish will learn from his error this past Sunday. In fact, don’t be surprised if he turns in some solid performances over the next few weeks at tracks that would fit the skill set of a former open-wheel driver.

The only memorable performance by Michael McDowell this season has been one he’d like to forget — tearing his car to shreds at Texas in one of the most spectacular crashes in NASCAR history.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Michael McDowell. If pit road penalties represent learning experiences for rookie drivers, then Michael McDowell just gained a wealth of knowledge on Sunday. The rookie got a firsthand look at how difficult it is to navigate pit lane at Dover, as both he and his team got slapped with two violations during the race. The first was on lap 152 for excessive speed leaving the pits, while the second got handed down on lap 328 when his crew let a tire roll outside his pit box. By the end of the day, McDowell found himself in 30th place, seven laps off the pace and — more importantly — a mere 11 points ahead of the 35th and final spot in the owner standings that guarantee a starting position in the field. That alone may serve as enough motivation for the No. 00 team to work on their pit stops this week.

Rookie Wreck That Wasn’t of the Weekend: For the second straight year in this event, all of the rookie participants survived the Monster Mile without an incident, a very impressive feat for one of the more difficult tracks on the circuit. However, there could have been a much different report here if it weren’t for a great save by Patrick Carpentier just before the halfway mark. Jeremy Mayfield, filling in for the injured Dario Franchitti, demonstrated how eight tires are better than four as he leaned heavily on the No. 10 car through turns three and four. But Carpentier made a great save to keep his Dodge from being plowed into the wall, illustrating he’s starting to get the hang of this stock car deal after all.

Unfortunately for the Canadian, though, the great save did not keep Lady Luck from biting him once again. His left rear tire punctured as a result of the contact with Mayfield, forcing the team to make an unscheduled pit stop to fix the problem. Carpentier would continue to finish the race, but his Auto Value / Bumper-To-Bumper Dodge could do no better than 29th.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Dario Franchitti and Chad McCumbee
If the reports are true, expect Dario Franchitti to be back behind the wheel of Chip Ganassi’s Dodge next week at Pocono following five weeks on the sidelines with a fractured ankle. Meanwhile, Chad McCumbee continues to struggle with putting Kyle Petty’s ride into the show, as he was one of just two drivers to fail to qualify for Sunday’s race. Looks like he isn’t the answer to the No. 45 team’s problems… at least, not this year.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Sam Hornish, Jr. and Regan Smith comment on the physical demands of racing at Dover Downs.

Sam Hornish, Jr.
“Well, the red flags never help. I understand red flags when there’s 10 laps to go and the fans are going to see a good finish. But when we’re only 20 laps into the race, I say we keep going and put laps on the board, because to sit there for 25 minutes in the car — whatever it is, and just bake — it makes the day really long for you. It’s hot, it’s physical. This is the most physical place I’ve been in a stock car. I had a lot of fun out there today, but the neck muscles are going to be a little bit sore tomorrow.”

Regan Smith
“Tough place, man. I picked up my workout program this year. I’ve got to pick it up more, evidently.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Hornish Jr. 127
Smith 127
Carpentier 90
McDowell 73
Franchitti 72

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Regan Smith: 32nd (0)
Sam Hornish Jr.: 33rd (+1)
Patrick Carpentier 38th (+1)
Michael McDowell 40th (+1)
Dario Franchitti: 42nd (0, DNS)
Aric Almirola 48th (0, DNS)

Qualifying Next Week: Two solid finishes have catapulted Sam Hornish, Jr.’s team into the Top 35, leaving Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier as the two rookies who will need to time into the field at Pocono.

Next Up: The NASCAR brigade heads for the “The Tricky Triangle” in Pocono, Pennsylvania for the first time this year. This venue is known for having three distinct corners and three straightaways, all featuring different lengths. There are also various forms of wildlife that have been known to graze on the track, and bizarre weather patterns — as last year showed, the track can be sunny in turn three while a monsoon is coming down over in turn one. It’s a lot for any driver to consider, let alone a rookie — but Denny Hamlin was the latest to prove that a freshman can conquer the Pocono wilderness. However, look for the 2008 rookies to spend most of this Sunday afternoon simply trying to figure out how to get around this place… and avoid the deer.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Regan Smith and new crew chief Dan Stillman almost pulled a rabbit out of the hat late in Sunday’s race. After playing second fiddle to Sam Hornish, Jr. for most of the day, Smith briefly pulled ahead of the No. 77 car with approximately 100 laps to go. However, he could not hold on, and I will have to wait another week for my first point of the 2008 season.

You Make The Pick: You are staying consistent with your picks of late, as forty percent of you thought Michael McDowell would best the rest of the rookies this past weekend. However, McDowell was never much more than a rolling chicane at the Monster Mile, as the No. 00 team struggled to come home in 30th.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: Roger Penske has always enjoyed great success at the Pocono International Raceway. Rusty Wallace took home the checkers four times at the track, two of Jeremy Mayfield’s five career victories came at Pocono while driving for “The Captain,” and Kurt Busch dominated the Pennsylvania 500 last July in the blue deuce.

So, not only does Sam Hornish Jr. have team history on his side, but he’s also scheduled to run the ARCA race on Saturday, which will give him valuable experience on one of the circuit’s most unique tracks. Therefore, not only will I predict that the No. 77 will finish higher than his rookie counterparts, but I also believe this team will record their first Top 10 finish of the year.

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 Lowe’s Michael McDowell 32nd Michael McDowell 32nd Sam Hornish, Jr. 13th
Best Buy 400 Dover Regan Smith 21st Michael McDowell 30th Sam Hornish, Jr. 18th

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0.

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