The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Almirola Amazes Again at Bristol! by Tony Lumbis -- Monday August 25, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Regan Smith (4th), Aric Almirola (23rd), Sam Hornish, Jr. (35th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Aric Almirola (13th), Regan Smith (14th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (37th)

Rookie of the Race: Aric Almirola. For the second time this season, Almirola was behind the wheel of the No. 8 DEI Chevy at the Bristol Motor Speedway. The rookie came into this weekend on a mission: hoping to duplicate the Top 10 run he turned in at the half-mile back in the spring. “Bristol is my kind of track. You bump, you grind, and just battle for 500 grueling laps. It’s a blast,” remarked an enthusiastic Almirola leading up to the race.

As it turned out, the weekend’s events would leave this driver just as excited.

At first, it seemed like Almirola may have lost his magic from his previous run here when he could only muster a 23rd place qualifying effort Friday afternoon. The U.S. Army would not hang in midpack for long, however, as the 24-year-old driver would carve his way through the field and into the Top 10 by the race’s halfway point. From there, it was de ja vu all over again as the rookie would battle with the leaders through the rest of the evening — just as he did five months ago. In fact, the only thing that could slow this kid down turned out to be himself. After running as high as seventh, Almirola bounced his Impala off the wall late in the race, forcing an unscheduled pit stop under yellow to repair the damage. The rookie would not lose too many positions due to the incident; however, it was too late to work back into the Top 10, and the team would have to settle for a 13th place finish. But even though the final result may have been a bit of a letdown, Saturday night’s race represents Almirola’s second best career finish.

Often Bristol’s rough and tumble style can intimidate rookies… but not Aric Almirola. After finishing eighth here earlier this year, he backed that finish up with a 13th place run on Saturday night.

Note: The Rookie of the Year candidate to win the official honor went to Regan Smith, who took advantage of a late race Lucky Dog award to capture a 14th place finish. The result represented his seventh Rookie Of The Race award in 2008, and tied his career best finish overall (Spring 2008 – Martinsville).

Rocky Rookie Performance / Rookie Wreck of the Race: Sam Hornish, Jr. Little did Hornish know that his disappointing 35th place qualifying effort would translate into his race ending before it even began. But when you start in the back at Bristol, bad luck seems to find you — and that’s exactly what happened to Hornish. On Lap 95, Hornish attempted to slide in front of the No. 09 driven by Sterling Marlin, but the two made contact, which ripped the back bumper cover off of the No. 77 and sent it into the wall. The incident also collected Jeff Burton and Joe Nemechek and brought out the second caution of the evening.

Hornish was able to continue, but probably wished he had retired for the night given what was in store for him. Just 21 laps later, Casey Mears and Michael Waltrip would tangle down the frontstretch and collect a slew of other drivers, including Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson, Robby Gordon, and yes… Hornish. The rookie had nowhere to go but right into the pile of sheetmetal in Turn 1, reducing the front of his car to a twisted pile of rubble. The No. 77 would return to the track in “modified” fashion to run a handful more laps, but would eventually retire and finish a disappointing 37th, spoiling the debut of new crew chief Travis Geisler.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Patrick Carpentier, Brad Coleman, and Michael McDowell

Patrick Carpentier never got a chance to turn in a lap in race trim at Bristol earlier this year when qualifying was rained out and the No. 10 team was sent home. Apparently, that lack of experience hurt the Canadian as he was way off the pace in qualifying — resulting in a shocking DNQ. Missing the show puts a temporary halt on his amazing charge through both the rookie and owner’s points over the past two months. “I was just really loose getting into one and two. The car slipped up the track and I had to catch it,” Carpentier stated after his qualifying laps, as he could explain what happened — but was at a loss for words as to why.

On another note, Brad Coleman is scheduled to run seven races for Hall of Fame Racing; but apparently, Bristol was not one of them. The team opted for veteran Ken Schrader instead, and considering Coleman’s lackluster performance at Michigan, that was probably a good move. There is no word on when Coleman is scheduled to drive the No. 96 again; however, the latest rumor is that Joey Logano will make his Sprint Cup debut in this ride at some point before the end of the season.

Last but not least, rookie contender Michael McDowell continued his three-race sabbatical while Mike Skinner drives the No. 00 Camry. Expect him to return at Richmond in two weeks.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Sam Hornish, Jr. tries to explain what happened in his second wreck of the night; but, as is usually the case at Bristol, that is easier said than done.

“I don’t know. It looked to me like the 5 and 55 got together. Everybody is running so close after the restart that it just looks like there’s nowhere for anybody to go once that all breaks loose. I just wish that the Mobil 1 Dodge, you know, had been able to make it to the end. It just looked like everybody kind of got together. Everybody was pushing each other real hard, not a lot of room out there, and when everybody gets together and runs that tight, you know you get one car sideways and there’s not a whole lot of room for everybody to go. Yeah, we’re running at a half-mile, we’re running on some of the slower speeds that we’re going to run all year long — but when things start to happen, there’s not a whole lot of time to make adjustments for it.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 181
Hornish, Jr. 179
Carpentier 168
McDowell 156 (DNS)
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Sam Hornish Jr.: 33rd (0)
Regan Smith: 34th (+1)
Patrick Carpentier 37th (-1, DNQ)
Michael McDowell: 40th (0, DNS)
Dario Franchitti: 43rd (0, DNS)
Aric Almirola: 45th (+2)

Next Up: There’s a reason why Bristol is put right in the middle of Michigan and California, and that is the drivers need a race on a wide, sweeping track to both prepare for and recover from the track. OK, that’s not really the reason; but for the drivers, it’s kind of nice that it works out that way. The trip out West will be a test of concentration for many, as they will be spending much of a 500-mile race running by themselves as the field tends to get strung out. Expect another strong run from Hornish — who was the top rookie in both races at the sister track in Michigan — as well as Carpentier, who is looking to rebound from a miserable weekend in Tennessee.

Qualifying Next Week: Patrick Carpentier and Marcos Ambrose will have to qualify on time to make the Pepsi 500 this Labor Day weekend. If Brad Coleman starts in the No. 96, he will have to do the same.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Last week, I finally broke through for my first point this season; and now, it’s two in a row! Aric Almirola proved that his 2008 debut was not a fluke and came through with another strong performance at Bristol. As the Rolling Stones said, “Once you start me up… I’ll never stop…” well, for two races anyway.

You Make The Pick: The voting was widespread this week, meaning that 37% was all that was needed for Sam Hornish, Jr. to be chosen as the top finishing rookie this weekend. Many of you may have thought that a new crew chief was exactly what this team needed to turn their season around; but as I documented earlier, Hornish endured the night from hell as he never had the opportunity to show his stuff in the Mobil One Dodge.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: Sam Hornish, Jr. may be the rookie king of the D-shaped ovals so far in 2008, but Patrick Carpentier had an excellent run going for the first half of the 3M Performance 400 at Michigan last week. Couple that with the fact this team has a giant chip on their shoulder after DNQing at Bristol, and I think they will be back with a vengeance in Fontana. Therefore, Carpentier is my choice for the top finishing rookie on the left coast next Sunday evening.

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
3M Performance 400 Michigan Sam Hornish, Jr. 22nd Marcos Ambrose 43rd Sam Hornish, Jr. 22nd
Sharpie 500 Bristol Aric Almirola 13th Sam Hornish, Jr. 37th Aric Almirola 13th

2008 Score: Readers 4, Tony 2.

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