The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Almirola Ascends To The Top At New Hampshire by Tony Lumbis -- Monday June 30, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Patrick Carpentier (1st), Dario Franchitti (7th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (20th), Regan Smith (25th), Michael McDowell (38th), Aric Almirola (39th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Aric Almirola (23rd), Regan Smith (27th), Patrick Carpentier (31st), Dario Franchitti (38th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (39th), Michael McDowell (42nd)

Rookie of the Race: Aric Almirola. It was a dismal start to the weekend for Almirola — making his second consecutive start in the U.S. Army Chevy — as the rookie could do no better than 39th in qualifying on Friday. Two days later, it looked like the struggles would continue throughout the race at New Hampshire. The No. 8 team fell a lap down early, and crew chief Tony Gibson couldn’t find the right combination needed to give Almirola the setup he needed to take his car to the front. However, the duo soon figured out what adjustments were needed to successfully race the “Magic Mile,” and with the help of the “Lucky Dog” during the race’s third caution, started moving toward the front of the pack. But Almirola would soon find out that, ironically, the Top 20 was not the place to be.

Soon after the 200th circuit around the New Hampshire Motor Speedway was completed, Almirola was forced to jam on the brakes after just tapping the No. 44 of David Reutimann in front of him. However, in a chain reaction event, Jamie McMurray collided with the back bumper of Almirola once he slowed — a move which caused the rookie to make the save of the day in order to keep his Impala off the outside wall. Just a few laps later, the No. 9 Dodge of Kasey Kahne slid up into Almirola, causing the Floridian to almost make another amazing save between turns one and two; but this time, he couldn’t quite keep his machine from just ever so slightly touching the turn two wall. That could have led to a disastrous ending, but persistence paid off for the 24-year-old; despite all the drama, he still managed to beat the rest of the rookies on Sunday with a 23rd place — a career second best for Almirola.

Other Notes: Regan Smith officially came home as the highest Rookie Of The Year finisher in 27th place. And for those of you wondering what happened to Patrick Carpentier after capturing the pole and running in the Top 10 for the first segment of the race, the brakes failed on the No. 10 Dodge, forcing the Canadian to limp around the track for the remainder of the event en route to 31st.

Patrick Carpentier charged to the pole on Friday, but his race was less than stellar after suffering brake problems.

Tony’s Take: In the past week, Aric Almirola had become a key player in this year’s version of “Silly Season” when DEI officials stated their intentions of running Almirola full-time in the No. 8 car in 2009. During much of the Lenox Industrial Tools 301, I was wondering if this was the right move, as the rookie struggled to find the fastest way around the New England track. However, Almirola would prove me wrong after an amazing “save and a half” in the face of two certain encounters with the wall — as well as an overall recovery to earn a creditable Top 25 finish. We won’t see him in the car again until Watkins Glen in August, but keep your eye on this kid when he does appear. If the organization decides to limit his starts the rest of the season in anticipation of a full-time run, we could see Almirola establishing himself as the early favorite in the 2009 Rookie of the Year contest. In the meantime, wouldn’t it be great if DEI could put together a Nationwide ride for their driver so he’s not sitting idle during the next month?

Rocky Rookie Performance: Michael McDowell. After a surprising Rookie Of The Race performance at Infineon, Michael McDowell seemed out to lunch on the flat oval in the Granite State. The No. 00 car was at or near the tail end of the pack for two-thirds of the race, as the driver battled a relentless tight condition. Crew chief Bill Pappas continued to make adjustments that would free up the car, but eventually, the racing gods had pity on McDowell. On lap 209, the engine let go on the Toyota Camry after he missed a shift on the restart.

“We all got bunched up. Don’t know quite what happened, just missed a gear — went from third to second instead of fourth,” said McDowell. “It’s nothing that Toyota did. Our Toyota engines have been great. It was just a mistake on my part. I feel real sorry for the No. 00 Champion Mortgage guys. It’s definitely going to hurt our points [the team is 35th in the all-important Top 35 in the owner standings].”

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: Sam Hornish, Jr. On lap 280, Hornish, Jr. — who was not on the lead lap — found himself in a melee of lead lap cars sprinting to the finish and trying to beat the rain. As the pack entered turn three, the No. 77 got into Clint Bowyer’s Jack Daniel’s Chevy as Hornish tried to avoid cars on the inside of him. The contact sent the No. 07 into the wall and the Mobil One Dodge spinning through the grass — causing the yellow flag to wave. That was the most significant consequence of all, as rain soon followed during cleanup of the incident; without the crash, we might have seen the race make it closer to lap 301 instead of being stopped for good on lap 284 under red flag conditions.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Marcos Ambrose.
Ambrose went from the penthouse to the outhouse in a matter of a week. Last week at Infineon, the Australian was the “feel good story of the race,” as he put the Wood Brothers Ford in contention to steal the win until a faulty transmission eliminated the team from competition. But it was an entirely different story at New Hampshire, as the Australian could not even make the field. In fact, he recorded the slowest time of all 45 drivers who attempted to make the show. Given this recent dose of reality, I would wait a bit until naming Ambrose as the solution to the No. 21 team’s problems. He will have a chance to redeem himself next month at Indy, where the rookie has been named the driver of the No. 47 Ford for JTG Racing — the team for which he drives in the Nationwide Series.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Patrick Carpentier won his first career pole in only his 17th start Friday afternoon, a highlight of the week for this freshman class. The Canadian, who becomes only the second foreign driver to win the top spot in the series (the first was Lloyd Shaw from Toronto in 1953 at Langhorne, PA), commented on what the award means to him and how special it is to win it so close to home.

“It’s amazing,” he said after capturing the top spot. “There’s going to be a busload of people coming to watch this one from up north this weekend. It’s great. I love this sport, I love driving these cars, and I want to do it for many years.”

Q: How does winning the pole stack up to your other accomplishments in racing?”

“It’s the biggest thing in my career by far. I want to stay here. I lived in the U.S. for a long time, and my kids are born here and we go back and forth from Montreal to the U.S. — and this is what I want to do. I’ve always enjoyed it, and since I’ve been here, I love driving these cars and I realized I never really enjoyed the other things I did before. For me, this is where I want to be, and to get a pole today is the biggest thing in my career because I enjoy driving these things — so that’s great.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Hornish, Jr. 162
Smith 157
Carpentier 129
McDowell 110
Franchitti 97

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Sam Hornish, Jr.: 33rd (-2)
Regan Smith: 34th (-1)
Patrick Carpentier: 38th (+1)
Michael McDowell: 39th (0)
Dario Franchitti: 41st (+1)
Aric Almirola: 46h (+1)

Qualifying Next Week: Patrick Carpentier will have to qualify on time once again next week, although that certainly seems to be the least of his problems this year. Joining him in the “go or go home” category next weekend will be Dario Franchitti. But keep an eye on Michael McDowell, whose No. 00 is on the bubble for the second time in three weeks. The last time this team was in the 35th points position, their rookie driver responded with a career best finish in Infineon; he’ll need a similar type of run Saturday night, as the No. 66 car is just 25 points away from knocking him out of the Top 35.

Next Up: It’s time to celebrate our nation’s independence this weekend, which means the Sprint Cup series is retuning to Daytona for the Coke Zero 400. This event, which bares a new name in 2008, marks the traditional halfway point of the season — something that should be a welcomed sign of relief for the rookies. In the next several months, they will start to see tracks for the second time, which should translate into higher expectations for both the driver and the teams. Speaking of lofty goals, Sam Hornish, Jr. raced to an impressive 15th place finish in the season-opener here in February, and he’ll be looking to better that by bringing home a Top 10 this Saturday night. Stay tuned to see if one of the other freshman can upset him in this high speed crapshoot.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Regan Smith. Out of the Rookie Of The Year candidates, Regan Smith finished best with his 27th place finish; however, the poll is open to all rookies in the field, meaning that Aric Almirola’s late race charge will once again keep me from earning my first point of the season.

You Make The Pick: It was a close race between Marcos Ambrose and Michael McDowell for the Rookie Of The Race this week, as most of you thought the stars of Infineon would ride their momentum into New England — in the end, Ambrose came out on top. However, the Australian was unable to replicate his road course success on an oval, as he recorded the second DNQ of his career (the first came in Robby Gordon’s second entry at Watkins Glen last year).

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: Michael Waltrip Racing made headlines during Speedweeks earlier this year when the car owner started on the outside of the front row and all three entries made the field, following a miserable season in 2007. But one driver who was not a part of the mix in February was Michael McDowell, who took over for Dale Jarrett following his retirement. I think McDowell will experience some of that same success his teammates enjoyed earlier this year, and will use his Toyota power to upset his rookie counterparts in Daytona.

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
Lenox Industrial Tools 301 New Hampshire Regan Smith 27th Marcos Ambrose DNQ Aric Almirola 23rd

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0.

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