The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Ambrose Gains Positions and Respect at The Glen by Tony Lumbis -- Monday August 11, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Due to rain, the starting lineup was determined by car owner points) Aric Almirola (15th), Ron Fellows (32nd), Sam Hornish, Jr. (34th), Michael McDowell (36th), P.J. Jones (38th), Patrick Carpentier (39th), Max Papis (42nd), Marcos Ambrose (43rd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Marcos Ambrose (3rd), Ron Fellows (13th), Patrick Carpentier (20th), Michael McDowell (25th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (32nd), Aric Almirola (35th), P.J. Jones (37th), Max Papis (43rd)

Rookie of the Race: Marcos Ambrose. When the green flag was waved for the Centurion at the Glen, Ambrose found himself tasked with having to overtake 42 Sprint Cup drivers at one of the toughest tracks on the circuit to pass — nearly an impossible feat. However, after running near the top of the practice charts and taking home his first career NASCAR victory in the Nationwide Series race the day before, the Australian had a little bit of confidence in his fuel tank; and boy, did it pay off.

Marcos Ambrose rounded off a near perfect weekend at Watkins Glen on Sunday, finishing third in the Cup race after winning the Nationwide race the day before.

The Little Debbie Ford did not stray far from the top of the speed charts throughout the day, as Ambrose methodically worked his way through the field. By the race’s halfway point, he was in the Top 20, picking cars off as if they were standing still. The driver would need a little help from the pit box, however, and that is where crew chief David Hyder — who became the head wrench at the Wood Brothers just two weeks ago — would employ the right pit strategy to place the No. 21 Ford in the Top 5 with twenty laps remaining. Taking fuel only, Ambrose would then quickly dispose of Martin Truex, Jr. and fly by a spinning Ryan Newman to position himself for a Sprint Cup victory with only a handful of laps remaining. That epic run would stop there, however, as the 32-year old began battling brake issues, playing defense against a hungry Juan Pablo Montoya, and attempting to avoid taking out Chase contender Tony Stewart — who was running in second. Still, it was a career day for Ambrose, who finished on the podium and gave the popular Wood Brothers their first Top 5 since the August Bristol race in 2005 with Ricky Rudd behind the wheel.

Note: Patrick Carpentier was the first Rookie of the Year contender to cross the finish line, so he takes home rookie honors for the fifth time this season. It was the fourth consecutive time that the Canadian won the award for races that he entered (he did not start at Pocono last week) and the third Top 20 finish in his last four starts.

Tony’s Take: Marcos Ambrose was downright impressive Sunday at the Glen. There is no other way to put it for a driver whose average finish this weekend was second place. Several times, the rookie mentioned how he wanted to gain the respect of his competitors and not ruffle anyone’s feathers, especially those who are contending for the Chase. This is a hard promise to keep while passing 41 cars on the winding turns of Watkins Glen, yet Ambrose did just that. Using the right balance of aggressiveness and finesse, he worked his way through the field without becoming involved in a single incident, and that says a lot about this future Rookie of the Year contender. With plans to run full-time for JTG Daugherty Racing in 2009, Ambrose is now going to have to try hard to shed the label of road course ringer if he is to be considered a serious contender next year. The first chance to do that will be next week, when the driver from down under will be piloting the No. 21 at Michigan.

Once again, we should not overlook Patrick Carpentier, who has now taken home the top rookie honors in each race he has entered dating back to the Coke Zero 400 on July Fourth weekend. If he continues this streak, it is Carpentier who could become the man to beat for the 2008 Rookie of the Year title.

Rocky Rookie Performance: P.J. Jones. Even though he is technically a rookie due to his lack of starts, P.J. Jones actually has had years of experience on the road courses in the Sprint Cup Series, making spot starts since 1993. However, fifteen years could not prepare Jones — who was subbing in the Hall of Fame Racing Toyota — for what he endured on Sunday afternoon. The trouble started on lap 16, when Jones was trying to fend off the hard-charging Carpentier into turn one. The Canadian got in too hot with the No. 10 car and slid right into the No. 96, catapulting both into the kitty litter. Both would continue on the lead lap — but it was just the first of numerous instances for Jones.

After a fairly quiet middle portion of the race, the final 25 laps become eventful once again for the road course ringer. While battling back in the pack with Jeff Gordon (how many times do we say that?), the No. 96 and the No. 24 car got together going through the chicane on the backstretch. Gordon, appearing to blame Jones for the incident, gave the Camry a bump exiting the chicane to show his displeasure. Just as the road course ringer got his senses back, another Rookie of the Year candidate, Sam Hornish, Jr. would attempt a dive bomb move on the DLP Camry, and it had the same outcome as when Carpentier attempted the same maneuver earlier in the race — sending Jones off course once again. When all was said and done, he found himself in 37th place, one lap down.

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: (Michael McDowell, Max Papis, Sam Hornish, Jr.)
The “Big One” does not often happen at a road course event, but that was certainly not the case on Sunday afternoon. In the late stages of the race, Michael McDowell, the rookie star of the first road course event of the season, gained notoriety for an entirely different reason at The Glen. McDowell drove into the final corner hard trying to gain a position from David Gilliland and slid into the No. 38 Ford, sending both cars into the wall. The incident was far from over, however, as Gilliland bounced back into traffic and collected a slew of cars, sending Sam Hornish, Jr. into the barrels at the end of pit road as well as collecting a heartbroken Max Papis. Papis was done for the day following the event, but McDowell and — even more impressive — Hornish were able to continue, demonstrating how the new car is able to withstand even the worst of impacts.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Brian Simo

Road racing specialist Brian Simo was attempting his second race of the season in the Front Row Motorsports Chevrolet (Simo qualified the No. 34 car in 43rd position at Sonoma), but the rain kept the California native from even attempting a qualifying lap, as he was one of two drivers forced to go home due to a poor position in owner’s points.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:

There was a lot of action that involved the rookie drivers this past Sunday, for better or worse, translating into several quote machines for this segment. Marcos Ambrose talks about the final laps in his charge to the front and how proud he is of the opportunity to drive the Wood Brothers Ford. Michael McDowell explains his view of what happened in his incident with David Gilliland, which set up a multi-car wreck on the frontstretch; and finally, P.J. Jones offers his opinion on the run-in he had with Jeff Gordon.

Marcos Ambrose
“It’s just a great weekend all around. I thought yesterday was great, but when I wound up there on that red flag, I realized where I was. I was behind Tony and in front of all those other great drivers. We came up out of the truck so well yesterday, in practice we were too scared to change anything, and the car was flopping around a lot during the race. It had a lot of grip… it was just real tough to drive. So, I just tried to stay clean as best I could there and pass cars cleanly, and just pick away at it. You know, I really had no idea where we were at until the last pit stops. We cycled through about sixth place, so it’s just a great day all along. I’m just so proud of the Wood Brothers for giving me a piece that I could get out there and give it my best, and Little Debbie and the McKee family for giving me the chance to go Cup racing. I don’t want to be labeled a road racer, by the way, too. I am 10th in the Nationwide series points, so I’m trying to make it as a NASCAR driver full stop, not just a road racer. I’m just really excited that I’ve been given an opportunity and I’m able to be making the most of it. You know, you don’t get many chances in life to do something special like this, and today I’m going to look back at very fondly – the whole weekend, to be honest with you. I’m just really proud of both my times, and I hope it can give the Wood Brothers a shot in the arm that they need to really get the momentum to move forward.”

Michael McDowell
“I’m going to have to go back and look at [the wreck]. I had a run and I went underneath [Gilliland] and he just didn’t give me a whole lot of room. Maybe I shouldn’t have been in there, but we’re racing hard to stay in the Top 35 in owner points and try to get back into the Top 35 — that’s what we needed to do with our Champion Mortgage Toyota. It’s unfortunate, and I’m sorry for the fans and all the cars that got wrecked there and had to wait through that red flag. I was just racing hard, and really, it doesn’t look much different than how it was with Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton yesterday — but I’m sure they’ll make a big deal out of it.”

P.J. Jones
“We were held up in a little traffic and we were racing for position toward the end and he got beside me. I gave him room on the outside, but he didn’t give me any room coming back to the left. I was already in the dirt, but I wasn’t trying to bounce off of him — that was the only choice I had. Then he got his feathers all ruffled up and decided he wanted to play. At that point, I just let him go. We just didn’t have a great car, and that’s just how it goes.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 176
Hornish, Jr. 173
Carpentier 167
McDowell 156
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Sam Hornish Jr.: 33rd (0)
Regan Smith: 34th (0, DNS)
Patrick Carpentier 36th (+1)
Michael McDowell 40th (-1)
Dario Franchitti: 43rd (0, DNS)
Aric Almirola 46th (+1)

Qualifying Next Week: Sam Hornish, Jr.’s efforts to soldier on in a wounded race car following a vicious wreck helped to keep his team in a locked in position for next week’s event in Michigan. On the other hand, Michael McDowell fell further outside the Top 35 due to his aggressive attempt to pass Gilliland with eight laps remaining. Patrick Carpentier and the No. 10 car continue to scratch and claw their way back after a slow start to the 2008 season, but are still on the outside looking in. Marcos Ambrose’s third place finish was not enough to dig the Wood Brothers out of their points hole and he will have to qualify on time as well. Finally, Brad Coleman will be making his first Sprint Cup start this weekend and will be challenged with putting the No. 96 Camry into the field on time.

Next Up: The series returns to the Irish Hills of Michigan for the final time this season for the 3M Performance 400. Back in June, Sam Hornish, Jr. stole the show while battling for the lead with defending Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson and overcoming a late race spin to take home top rookie honors. Look for the Ohio native to make another strong run next week, but don’t expect the other rookies to let him run away from the field — they’ll return with notes from their June experience.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Patrick Carpentier had overcame an early incident with P.J. Jones to finish 20th; however, it wasn’t near enough to overcome the strong run of Marcos Ambrose, who was virtually unbeatable for the entire weekend.

You Make The Pick: After a week off, you were right back on the Patrick Carpentier wagon, going with the tried and true rookie over the past month over some of the road course specialists at The Glen. While Carpentier had yet another solid run, it was not enough to capture our rookie of the race honors this week — but you still remain up by four points.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: Marco Ambrose has a chance to continue his momentum, as he has a second consecutive start in the Wood Brothers Ford at Michigan. However, the last time Ambrose was in this situation, he followed up a strong run at Sonoma with a DNQ at New Hampshire the following week. So until he is more consistent, I’m going to stay away from him and go with Sam Hornish, Jr. to keep the nose of his Charger pointed in the right direction — finishing best among his rookie counterparts at Michigan.

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
Centurion Boats At The Glen Watkins Glen Patrick Carpentier 20th Patrick Carpentier 20th Marcos Ambrose 3rd

2008 Score: Readers 4, Tony 0.

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