The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Ambrose Steals the Show, but McDowell Tops the Rookies at Sonoma by Tony Lumbis -- Monday June 23, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Marcos Ambrose (7th), Sam Hornish Jr. (17th), Ron Fellows (22nd), Max Papis (28th), Michael McDowell (34th), Patrick Carpentier (37th), Aric Almirola (40th), Brian Simo (43rd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Michael McDowell (21st), Patrick Carpentier (24th), Aric Almirola (28th), Ron Fellows (29th), Sam Hornish Jr. (31st), Max Papis (35th), Marcos Ambrose (42nd), Brian Simo (43rd)

Rookie of the Race: Marcos Ambrose. It was a wild weekend for the young Aussie who made his first career Sprint Cup start in the famed Wood Brothers Ford. On Friday, the road course ringer from down under impressed everyone with a Top 10 qualifying effort after leading first practice. Saturday was more of the same as Ambrose once again topped the charts in happy hour despite slapping the wall when he ran out of track. The No. 21 crew made repairs to the car while Ambrose flew to Milwaukee where he recorded a 16th place finish in his regular Nationwide ride…and all this was all before the main event had even stared.

Sunday lived up to the hype, however as the Ambrose faithful were treated to a top 10 run throughout most of the day. In fact, the only time the Little Debbie Ford was not near the front was during the first round of pit stops when the team was shuffled back as far as 18th after an untimely caution flag. Ambrose would quickly dispose of those in front of him, and make his way back into the Top 10 where an eventful finish would soon play out after final pit stops were made.

Ambrose found himself in the catbird seat when the second caution of the day came out on lap 70. Crew chief Mike Smith had already brought his driver in for the final pit stop of the race, allowing Ambrose to climb up to fourth for the next restart when numerous cars pulled onto pit road. Just one lap after the restart, Ambrose made a dive bomb move under Jamie McMurray going into turn 11 and got more than he bargained for. The Australian got such a good run that he not only overtook McMurray but started moving in on the second place car of Juan Pablo Montoya. The race’s defending champ did not expect Ambrose to be on the inside of him when he made his entrance into the corner and the two collided, sending the No. 42 car into the spin cycle.

Ambrose continued on in second, but his epic run was about to come to an end. Shortly after the Montoya incident, the No. 21 began to lose ground and eventually encountered transmission trouble. As the car slowed going into the final turn, Elliott Sadler nailed Ambrose and ended his day for good, finishing 42nd.

Tony’s Take: Marcos Ambrose certainly did not finish as the event’s top rookie, but he had by far the best performance throughout the race, which I believed earned him the honors for this week. Sure, Ambrose has a road course background, which gave him the advantage over some of his rookie counterparts, but Ambrose also outperformed the “ringers” who have been running this event for years…with a struggling team no less. I’m not ready to hand a full time Sprint Cup ride over to Ambrose just yet as his year and a half on the Nationwide Series has been good, but not great. I’m very interested to see what the rookie can do on an oval and I won’t have to wait long as Ambrose is expected to make his second career start next week at New Hampshire.

Ambrose may have been the star of the show on Sunday afternoon, but we absolutely should not overlook the guy who took home the official rookie honors of the race. The Rookie of the Year candidate who finished best was not Patrick Carpentier or Sam Hornish Jr. who have road racing experience on their resumes. No, instead it was Michael McDowell, who recorded a career best 21st place finish at a road course no less! I mentioned last week that the No. 00 team would have to step it up after falling onto the Top 35 bubble and boy did they ever. Congratulations to McDowell and on his third top rookie finish of the season.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Sam Hornish Jr. Other rookies may have finished worse than Sam Hornish Jr. on Sunday but certainly the Ohio native had to be the most disappointed given the good runs this team has had lately. The No. 77 team could not carry the momentum to the west coast however as they could never quite get the handle needed for both left and right turns.

“Pretty awful day for us. We kept it on track all day until it counted there at the end. Just old tires and way too loose and that’s what we fought all day long. I couldn’t get the car to get off the corners” remarked Hornish about his 31st place run. This team will certainly be looking to regain some of the magic they had at Michigan when they go to New Hampshire next weekend.

It’s good that Ron Fellows got his face time in early in the weekend. After his lackluster finish, there wasn’t a stampede to get a follow up interview.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: Ron Fellows. Ron Fellows was poised to finish as the highest “rookie” in the field after Ambrose’s misfortunes. Fellows, who filled in for Regan Smith this past weekend, is no stranger to the DEI organization as he ran the No. 1 car in both 2003 and 2004. He almost earned the team another strong finish, running solidly in the Top 10 until Kevin Harvick lost control of his No. 29 machine and took out Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart, leaving no room for the No. 01 Chevy that was in close pursuit. Fellows was forced to limp home to a 22nd place finish in his damaged car, left only to wonder what might have been.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Dario Franchitti, Brandon Ash and Regan Smith
Dario Franchitti and company couldn’t quite figure out how to navigate the road course at Sonoma and the result was arguably one of the weekend’s more shocking DNQs. “We were just loose, very, very loose and that was it. The other guys complained about it a bit but I think we were maybe a bit looser even this morning. We felt we got caught out with it. I’m kind of shocked right now that we come to a road course and didn’t qualify,” Franchitti said with disbelief after learning that his time was not fast enough to make the show.

Brandon Ash was attempting to make his fifth career Sprint Cup start and third at Sonoma, but the Oregon native was way off the mark as he recorded the slowest speed during qualifying and thus, missed the show at his home track.

As previously mentioned, Regan Smith did not make the trip to California to give road racing guru Ron Fellows a chance to solidify the No. 01 team inside the Top 35 in the owners points.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Marcos Ambrose explained what happened in the heartbreaking end to his phenomenal run on Sunday and how despite the poor finish, he still had a lot of fun living out his dream.

“It’s just very unfortunate. We were racing really good there. The Wood Brothers and the whole crew gave me a great car. We were fighting with Elliott [Sadler] pretty hard; he got into the back of us, spun us out, but that wasn’t the problem – I was actually just selecting first gear on the downshift when he hit me. It’s just unfortunate, one of those deals. But, we leave here with our heads held high. We raced hard and we raced well at the front there, and it was just a lot of fun.”

Q. You must be satisfied with your debut? “I couldn’t believe it, you know? Here I am passing Jeff Gordon and racing with Earnhardt – it’s just fantastic. It’s what I dreamed about, dreamed what it would be like, and it’s certainly like that. It’s just fantastic. It’s just a shame we couldn’t finish the race.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Hornish Jr. 154
Smith 146
Carpentier 119
McDowell 103
Franchitti 88

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Sam Hornish, Jr.: 31st (+2)
Regan Smith: 33rd (-2, DNS)
Patrick Carpentier: 37th (+1)
Michael McDowell: 39th (0)
Dario Franchitti: 42nd (0, DNS)
Aric Almirola: 47th (+1)

Qualifying Next Week: With a career best finish, Michael McDowell gives the No. 00 some breathing room as they move into the 31st position in owner’s points. However, Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier continue to sit on the outside looking in, and will have to time into the race next week at New Hampshire.

Next Up: It’s the first of two trips to the “Magic Mile” in Loudon, New Hampshire as the series makes its way to New England for the LENOX Industrial Tools 301. Traditionally, the drivers have difficulty passing at this facility as cars sometimes will run side by side for many laps before one drivers finally pulls off a pass. That means track position and pit strategy could play a factor in the race for the third straight week.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: After riding in the back of the pack for most of the race, and at one point, the tail end of the lead lap, Patrick Carpentier made a run into the Top 25 in the closing laps of Sunday afternoon’s event. However, the rookie could not repeat his road course magic from Montreal last year and missed the top rookie spot by two spots.

You Make The Pick: The voting was spread out this week as many of your gave Patrick Carpentier and Marcos Ambrose a chance of besting the rest at Sonoma. However, in the end, 35% was all the votes Sam Hornish Jr. needed to become the favorite of the readers. Unfortunately, success in the poll did not translate into success on the track as the Penske driver could do no better than 31st, the fifth rookie to cross the finish line. The score remains 1-0 in favor of the readers.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: I’m not quite sure why I bother to continue picking, but despite my failures this year, I’m still within striking distance, sadly enough. It certainly has been a challenging year and I don’t expect next week to get any easier. For next week, I will go with Regan Smith to finish as the highest finishing rookie based on the experience he gained making two Sprint Cup starts at the venue last year while splitting time with Mark Martin.

  • Note that Ron Fellows certainly is not a rookie at the Sonoma race track and if you noticed, did not even carry the yellow stripe on the back of his car. However, on an overall basis, NASCAR will consider a driver as a rookie if they have not made more than seven starts in any one season. Since Fellows has not made more than two starts in a single season, we consider him a rookie for this piece.

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
Save Mart 350K Infineon Patrick Carpentier 23rd Sam Hornish, Jr. 31st Michael McDowell 21st

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0.

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