The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Pocono Shocker - McCumbee Bests Freshmen Field In Pennsylvania by Tony Lumbis -- Monday August 4, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Sam Hornish, Jr. (26th), Chad McCumbee (34th), Michael McDowell (35th), Regan Smith (36th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Chad McCumbee (17th), Michael McDowell (24th), Regan Smith (25th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (26th)

Rookie of the Race: Chad McCumbee. The 23-year-old Craftsman Truck series veteran managed to qualify for his first Sprint Cup race in 2008 this past weekend, after failing to make the field at Texas and Dover earlier this year. And when all was said and done, it turns out the third time’s the charm for what could be the future of Petty Enterprises.

After failing in his two previous attempts to qualify this year, McCumbee came to Pocono more focused than ever — and that concentration paid off with a surprising performance in the No. 45 Petty Enterprises Dodge.

Indeed, Pocono proved to be just the shot at redemption this rookie needed; however, after starting 34th, the loss of practice time on Saturday proved to be costly to McCumbee the following day. After all, he was making only his third career start at the Cup level — all of them coming in the No. 45 Dodge. But regardless of the reasons, the beginning of the race was clearly a struggle, as both rookie and team fought through brake issues while losing a lap to dominant early leader Mark Martin.

However, the Lucky Dog award received during the afternoon’s sixth caution, combined with some key adjustments by crew chief Stewart Cooper, put this driver in position to make a final dash towards the front in the last laps of the event. With those changes in hand — along with a little extra fuel that left him out on the track with one less stop than several others — allowed McCumbee to rise to the occasion. When all was said and done, he brought the Marathon American Spirit Motor Oil Dodge from a low of 42nd into a solid Top 20 finish. In fact, McCumbee’s 17th place run was a career best at this level — as well as the second-best finish for Petty’s No. 45 this season.

Note: Since McCumbee is not running for Rookie of the Year, the official award went to Michael McDowell for his 24th place result — the second straight time he’s won the honors at Pocono. It is the fourth time McDowell has topped the ROTY candidates in 2008.

Note: There was another Sprint Cup rookie at Pocono this weekend, as Aric Almirola was driving the No. 29 DEI entry in the Pennsylvania 200 ARCA race on Saturday. Almirola ran competitively in the Top 10 throughout the event, and even led for 10 laps before retiring with transmission problems. Despite the disappointing finish, DEI remains serious about grooming Almirola. In talking with Mark Martin this weekend, he said Almirola’s will be a name you’ll remember 10 to 15 years from now, and is clearly the future of the organization as it reshapes itself for 2009.

Tony’s Take: Considering Chad McCumbee’s struggles to even make a race this year, it comes as no surprise that he really was not on anybody’s radar to finish well at Pocono. In fact, many may be wondering why McCumbee is being utilized by Kyle Petty as an interim replacement when drivers with much more experience are available. But his performance this past Sunday may have provided us with a glimpse of what Petty sees in this kid; and it’s easy to see after this one that McCumbee is a quick learner. Keep in mind that one of his previous two Sprint Cup starts came at the June Pocono event in 2007, where he also won the ARCA event that very same weekend. So, McCumbee certainly is no stranger to the Tricky Triangle, and that experience behind the yellow stripe on his bumper clearly made a difference.

Now, if I were Kyle Petty or any of the executives of new investment partner Boston Ventures, I’m not ready to dub McCumbee as the new face of the organization. However, his performance at the 500-miler on Sunday should catch the attention of any team in the garage area looking for a driver to add to their development program, as McCumbee certainly possesses the potential to be a force in this sport one day.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Sam Hornish, Jr. While the event’s other rookies were struggling mightily throughout most of the long afternoon at Pocono, Sam Hornish, Jr. appeared poised to take top rookie honors with ease — and possibly earn a career best finish. A pit strategy call by crew chief Chris Carrier had the No. 77 Dodge running in the Top 10 when the red flag stopped the event for rain on Lap 131. However, racing did resume, and Hornish would need a bump from a wrecker to get restarted; and while he was able to regain his position under the caution flag, perhaps the close call was just an omen of what was to come. Soon after the restart, Hornish bounced his Mobil One Dodge off the wall while battling amongst a hornet’s nest of cars. The impact seemed minor, but the car never appeared to be the same after the incident. Adding insult to injury, since the team did not pit before the red flag for rain, they found themselves in the group of cars that had to pit twice before the end of the race. That led to a disappointing 26th place for Hornish, certainly not reflective of where the rookie was running all day.

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: Nobody. Well, I didn’t quite see this one coming, but after rookie wrecks dominated the Pocono headlines back in June, not one single freshman was involved in an incident during the 500-mile event the second time around (other than Hornish’s brief bounce off the wall mentioned above). Of course, that could also be due to the fact that two of the three June culprits (Carpentier and Franchitti) were not even at the track on Sunday.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Patrick Carpentier

Despite my pleas last week, the executives at Gillett Evernham Motorsports still pulled Patrick Carpentier out of his Sprint Cup ride this weekend so the Canadian could run the Nationwide NAPA Auto Parts 200 in this native country. While the move brought the momentum of the rookie and his No. 10 team to a grinding halt, he still fared well in Montreal. Competing in the first ever NASCAR points race in the rain, Carpentier came home with his second straight runner up finish at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Sam Hornish, Jr. talks about how the unique layout of Pocono Raceway should actually be beneficial to him given his past experience.

“It was really frustrating that I struggled here [back in June], just because of the tracks that this place is supposed to remind you of. I’ve heard different things. I heard it was Trenton and Indy and Milwaukee and Phoenix, [and] those are the places that I’ve always had the most fun at and always seem to run well at. That’s why I was really frustrated. I’m like, why can’t I get this? It’s [a combination of] three tracks that I love running at. It’s nice to come back [to Pocono] and [at least] be able to be a lot more competitive than what we were.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 176
Hornish, Jr. 171
Carpentier 162
McDowell 146
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Sam Hornish Jr.: 33rd (0)
Regan Smith: 34th (0)
Patrick Carpentier 37th (-1 – DNS)
Michael McDowell 39th (0)
Dario Franchitti: 43rd (-2 – DNS)
Aric Almirola 47th (0)

Qualifying Next Week: Patrick Carpentier and Michael McDowell will need to make the race on speed next week at Watkins Glen, which should not be a problem considering their previous road course performances earlier this year. Also, be on the lookout for other road course ringers such as Ron Fellows, Max Papis and quite possibly Jacques Villeneuve, which I’ll be covering in this report next week.

Next Up: The second and final road course race on the Sprint Cup circuit is next week at Watkins Glen International. One would think that these types of races would be beneficial to this year’s rookie class, which has plenty of experience turning both left and right. However, that was not the case at Infineon back in June, where Michael McDowell surprised everyone and took the rookie honors away from favorites Patrick Carpentier, Sam Hornish, Jr., and Dario Franchitti.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: I thought Regan Smith would close the deal this time around at Pocono after a strong run fell apart in the final laps in June. It didn’t look good for Smith during much of the event, as he lingered around 40th position, but some late race pit strategy gave the No. 01 team a chance at a solid finish. However, in the end, Smith landed up in the same position he was in at the end of the Pocono 500 — one spot behind Michael McDowell.

You Make The Pick: Patrick Carpentier’s absence also ended your streak of correctly choosing him as the top finishing rookie in three straight races. In his absence, you went with Sam Hornish, Jr. as the top rookie at the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500. You almost made it a four-peat, but late race woes for Hornish ended his strong bid for Rookie Of The Race honors.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: Carpentier just missed the rookie award at Infineon earlier this year, but I believe his experience at Watkins Glen will be enough to propel him above the rest of his freshmen counterparts next week. While sitting out at Pocono ended a streak of three top rookie finishes, I believe that returning to what could be his best track on the circuit will help him pick up right where he left off at Indy.

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
Coke Zero 400 Daytona Michael McDowell 25th Patrick Carpentier 14th Patrick Carpentier 14th
LifeLock 400 Chicagoland Michael McDowell 25th Patrick Carpentier 30th Patrick Carpentier 30th
Allstate 400 Indianapolis Sam Hornish, Jr. 37th Patrick Carpentier 18th Patrick Carpentier 18th
Sunoco Red Cross 500 Pocono Regan Smith 25th Sam Hornish, Jr. 26th Chad McCumbee 17th

2008 Score: Readers 4, Tony 0.

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