The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report : McDowell Magically Maneuvers To Top At Pocono by Tony Lumbis -- Monday June 9, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Regan Smith (4th), Dario Franchitti (14th), Patrick Carpentier (24th), Michael McDowell (39th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Michael McDowell (27th), Regan Smith (28th), Patrick Carpentier (32nd), Dario Franchitti (41st), Sam Hornish, Jr. (42nd)

Rookie of the Race: Michael McDowell. The young rookie driving for Michael Waltrip Racing was barely heard from all day until it really counted – at the end. McDowell started the day in 39th and spent most the race on the tail end of the pack, trying to figure out how these Cup cars drive on the track he won at in ARCA just last year. “These cars are really easy to overadjust,” remarked an overheated McDowell after the race. “ You think you’re too tight, too tight and make a little adjustment, small adjustment, and you’re too loose. You go back the other way and you’re too tight…”

But while the 23-year-old was struggling to find a setup that was just right, his rookie counterparts were busy destroying each other, opening a window of opportunity for him to make up ground in the Rookie of the Year Standings. McDowell was, in fact, opportunistic has he passed by a fading Regan Smith to take home his second Rookie of the Race honors in a month.

Tony’s Take: Were you just as surprised as I was to see Michael McDowell listed as the Rookie of the Race? With just under 20 laps to go Regan Smith, who was restarting in 5th, appeared a virtual shoe in to finish his sixth race as the highest finishing rookie. However, we race all the laps for a reason and just 10 laps later, Smith had fallen outside of the Top 20 on old tires while McDowell was slowly picking off positions. While a 27th place finish may not look good on paper, don’t be fooled; McDowell remained focused on making his car better and staying out of trouble, something not every driver (especially every rookie) could say on Sunday. The Arizona native also had his ARCA experience to fall back on and, evidently, it paid off. For that reason, McDowell could really start gaining momentum next week at Michigan, where he has previous experience from other stock car racing series already under his belt.

I would also like to give a shout out to Regan Smith. On Friday, Smith told me that Pocono couldn’t really be compared to any other place he’s seen in his racing career. But it certainly didn’t take him long to get used to it; shortly thereafter, he turned in his best qualifying performance of his Cup career and almost backed it up with a Top 10 finishing position, looking like a seasoned veteran at the Tricky Triangle. However, in this business, you need to seal the deal, which Smith could not do in the late stages of the Pocono 500 — and that is the difference between Rookie of the Race and Honorable Mention.

Rocky Rookie Performance: It was difficult to chose a one driver for this category, since there were plenty of bad days to go around among freshmen on Sunday… and they were all caused by the same type of reason. What was that, you ask? Just read on…

Sam Hornish, Jr. does some yard work at Pocono, plowing through the grass heading down the backstretch. It was a familiar spot for Hornish, who was caught up in several racing incidents on Sunday.

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. On lap 58, Patrick Carpentier and Sam Hornish, Jr. made contact in Turn 1, sending both machines into the spin cycle; however, both rookies were able to continue without much of a problem. But eleven laps later, fans were wondering why TNT was still replaying the same wreck between the two rookies, as they showed both cars coming together and spinning around all over again. Of course, the second time was just as real; it was actually an identical but separate incident involving the No. 10 and No. 77 in the exact same corner. Both vehicles continued after sustaining further damage; the fun was only beginning, though.

Not wanting to be left out, Dario Franchitti, who was making his return to the series after sustaining an injury at Talladega, was sent into the Turn 3 wall after contact with David Gilliland. At that point seemed like multiple wrecks for the freshmen were the order of the day; but the biggest one of all was still yet to come. On lap 131, Sam Hornish, Jr. could not get his Mobil One Dodge slowed up enough in Turn 1 and nailed the back of Franchitti, essentially ending both of their days on the race track.

Wow! A review of the stats shows four different wrecks at Pocono that involved three out of five rookies — all of whom were involved in multiple incidents. You can rest assured today that these particular participants are calling Pocono by much worse names besides the “Tricky” Triangle.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Nobody.
With Franchitti back in the mix, all rookies were present at Pocono — and all five made the field.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Sam Hornish, Jr. and Dario Franchitti react to the incident between the two in the second half of the race.

Sam Hornish, Jr:
“We got involved in a couple of altercations early, and that right there was my fault. Just got in the corner and couldn’t keep the backend underneath me and got up into the No. 40 car. Not a very good weekend for us, for sure.”

Dario Franchitti:
“The Hornish deal, I don’t know. I went in there pretty deep compared to everybody else I was racing with, and braking about the same point all day — and I got to the apex and he drilled us. He must have been doing 50 miles per hour more. Maybe his brakes failed or his brain failed, I don’t know.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 137
Hornish, Jr. 134
Carpentier 99
McDowell 84
Franchitti 80

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Regan Smith: 31st (+1)
Sam Hornish, Jr.: 34th (-1)
Patrick Carpentier: 38th (0)
Michael McDowell: 39th (+1)
Dario Franchitti: 42nd (0)
Aric Almirola: 48th (0)

Qualifying Next Week: Sam Hornish, Jr. was able to maintain his “locked in” status despite his recent Pennsylvania debacle. However, Patrick Carpentier and Dario Franchitti will have to qualify in on time again this week.

Next Up: It’s time for manufacturers to fight for bragging rights when the series heads to the Irish Hills of Michigan. This could be the perfect place for tensions to ease among certain rookies; after all, with one of the widest racing surfaces on the circuit, there is enough track to go around for everyone…isn’t there?

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: I never expected Sam Hornish, Jr. to be as far off as he was on Sunday. Of course, the problems could have stemmed from his Saturday wreck in practice that sent him to the back of the field for a race where track position proved to be critical. But regardless of the reason, the Tony jinx continues for yet another week.

You Make The Pick: You also thought that the former open wheeler would ride his momentum and achieve success at the track that once hosted the Indy Car series. Unfortunately, 66% of you were just as disappointed as I was; but despite another miss, you still maintain your slim 1-0 lead heading into mid-June.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: I mentioned earlier that Michael McDowell should turn in a solid run at Michigan based on his experience in ARCA at that venue. But while I think he will do well, I don’t think he will top the performance of Regan Smith — who will bring it home as the top finishing rookie on Father’s Day.

Correction: Last week, I incorrectly stated that Sam Hornish Jr. would be running the ARCA series event at Pocono this past weekend, based on preliminary indications from the team. However, Hornish was never on the entry list and did not attempt to qualify for the ARCA 200 this past Saturday. We apologize for this error.

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
Pocono 500 Pocono Sam Hornish, Jr. 42nd Sam Hornish, Jr. 42nd Michael McDowell 27th

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0.

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