The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Hornish Spins, But Wins Rookie Honors At Home Track by Tony Lumbis -- Monday June 16, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Starting order set by owner points due to rain) Regan Smith (31st), Michael McDowell (33rd), Sam Hornish, Jr. (35th), Dario Franchitti (41st), Patrick Carpentier (43rd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Sam Hornish, Jr. (22nd), Patrick Carpentier (24th), Regan Smith (32nd), Michael McDowell (37th), Dario Franchitti (43rd)

Rookie of the Race: Sam Hornish, Jr. It didn’t take long for the Defiance, Ohio native to make his presence known at the venue he considers his home track on the NASCAR circuit. By the race’s one-quarter mark, Hornish, Jr. was running consistently in the Top 20 after starting well back in the pack. But as it turns out, the Mobil One team would be the strongest performer out of the Roger Penske stable, running in or near the Top 15 for Michigan’s middle segment while his teammates floundered with poor handling cars and engine issues. However, things would get even more interesting for Hornish as the race entered its final stages.

Sam Hornish Jr. looked to be in the catbird seat at times in Michigan on Sunday, only to have fuel strategy and a loose race car late spoil their day.

When the fourth caution of the race flew on lap 148, crew chief Chris Carrier opted to keep his driver on the track in order to gain track position. Fourteen laps later, that driver was battling Jimmie Johnson, who was also on the same pit strategy, for the lead. Hornish would eventually take over the number one spot from the defending Sprint Cup champ for one lap before falling back to second once again. The No. 77 team never saw the caution they needed to stay up front, however, and were forced to pit with just 20 laps to go for two fresh tires and fuel. Hornish’s late race misfortunes would not stop there, though. With only three laps remaining, the rookie’s loose race car got the best of him when he lost control of his Dodge in turn three. The car went for a ride in the grass, but never hit anything, causing the race’s green/white/checkered finish. Still able to bring it home on the lead lap, Hornish was able to salvage a 22nd place finish to best his rookie rivals for the sixth time in 2008.

Tony’s Take: Sam Hornish, Jr.’s hometown is a mere 100 miles away from Cedar Point Amusement Park, dubbed the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World.” I mention this because Hornish’s season over the past month has included as many ups, downs, twists and turns as the park’s 17 coasters. Following their surprising Top 15 finish at Daytona, this team had been in a free fall towards the bottom of the standings with consecutive subpar finishes. Then, during the All-Star weekend in May, Hornish began his climb back to the top after almost winning the preliminary race and following it with a Top 10 finish in the night’s main event. The rookie used that momentum to rattle off two Top 20s, including a career best 13th at the Coca-Cola 600. But a disastrous Pocono 500 had the delivered an unexpected twist, one which has been quickly remedied after Hornish led the first two laps of his NASCAR career.

I expect this rookie’s wild ride to take yet another turn next week as he hits the road course in Sonoma, which should be a strong suit for this former open wheeler. But Hornish’s up and down season is nothing new for a rookie at this level. In fact, it’s better to experience some inconsistencies containing solid runs than to consistently run in the back of the pack, as was the case for most of Hornish’s first four months in the series. This team will still experience many more highs and lows throughout the remainder of 2008, so let’s just hope Honrish doesn’t suffer from a queasy stomach!

Rocky Rookie Performance: Dario Franchitti. Franchitti’s race was basically over before it began early on Sunday afternoon. On lap 25, the No. 40 pulled onto pit road for an unscheduled stop and the crew diagnosed his ailing machine to have a broken valve. They sent Franchitti back out to limp around the track, but to no avail; his Dodge Charger was retired soon thereafter after breaking a piston, and Franchitti was credited with a last place finish.

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: Sam Hornish, Jr. and Patrick Carpentier. For about 394 miles, the wide racing surface of the Michigan International Speedway was a welcomed relief for the rookies after the Demolition Derby last week at Pocono. Not one incident involved a member of the 2008 freshman class. Then, Hornish and Patrick Carpentier, who tangled twice last week, would change all of that in separate incidents. Their wrecks are notable not for their intensity but also for the significant impact they would have on the race. With three laps remaining, Hornish lost control of his No. 77 Dodge, which forced a green/white/checkered finish that made an already tight fuel situation for many teams even worse. Then, on the final lap, Carpentier became an innocent victim when the No. 1 and No. 55 cars of Martin Truex, Jr. and Michael Waltrip tangled on the front straightaway. Carpentier had nowhere to go but into Waltrip, bringing out the caution flag that would seal the victory for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Nobody. Usually when the field is set by points, it spells bad news for those teams, especially with rookie drivers that are sitting outside the Top 35. But this time, all first year drivers made the cut, even if it was just barely — as was the case with Carpentier.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Sam Hornish, Jr. recounts the frustrating end to the LifeLock 400, which had a lot of potential for the rookies throughout much of the race.

“It’s a tough way to end the race. We made a decision to take on two tires during our last pit because we were so loose the last 20 laps. Every time that I tried to touch the gas, the backend was coming around and it almost felt like that [a tire] was going down or something. It’s unfortunate. The guys on the Mobil 1 team have been working hard to get our car better on race day, and I’m real happy with the progress that they’re making. We just need to keep the driver calm and get a little bit of luck on our side.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 145
Hornish, Jr. 144
Carpentier 108
McDowell 91
Franchitti 86

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Regan Smith: 30th (+1)
Sam Hornish, Jr.: 33rd (+1)
Patrick Carpentier: 38th (0)
Michael McDowell: 39th (0)
Dario Franchitti: 42nd (0)
Aric Almirola: 48th (0 – DNS)

Qualifying Next Week: Patrick Carpentier and Dario Franchitti will once again have to time into the field at Sonoma. Also, keep your eye on the No. 00 this weekend, as they are in the 35th and final locked in position with no margin for error.

Note that road course veteran Ron Fellows will be driving the No. 01 car in place of Regan Smith for the Save Mart 350.

Next Up: The series heads back to the west coast for the first road course event of the season when the Sprint Cup boys head to Sonoma. This translates into left and right turns on the track and wine and cheese during happy hour (not the final practice), usually oddities in NASCAR. However, it will be a homecoming of sorts for three rookie contenders who have open wheel backgrounds. I don’t think we’ll see a repeat of Juan Pablo Montoya’s performance last year when the F-1 and Indy Car veteran took home his first victory; however, don’t be surprised if some of this year’s freshmen turn in a career best performance this Sunday.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Regan Smith hasn’t had the year he expected at Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated, and another edition of the “Tony jinx” isn’t helping. One week after displaying some strength in Pocono qualifying, Smith struggled all day long in the Irish Hills, slumping to 32nd and well out of contention for top finishing rookie. Oh well!

You Make The Pick: You thought that McDowell would benefit from his previous ARCA experience in the Irish Hills of Michigan, as over 40% of you picked the driver of the No. 00 to finish better than his rookie counterparts. However, the rookie looks like he needs a lot more stock car experience before making any more noise on the senior circuit.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: Patrick Carpentier made his Sprint Cup debut last year on the road course in Watkins Glen, New York, where he finished a solid 22nd and led seven laps in the process. I don’t think that performance was a flash in the pan, and I expect the Canadian’s previous stock car experience on a road course to pay off this Sunday.

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
LifeLock 400 Michigan Regan Smith 32nd Michael McDowell 37th Sam Hornish, Jr. 22nd

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0.

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