The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: McDowell Has Magnificent Return With Career Best Finish by Tony Lumbis -- Monday September 8, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Qualifying lineup set by points due to inclement weather) Regan Smith (29th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (36th), Michael McDowell (38th), Patrick Carpentier (39th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Michael McDowell (20th), Regan Smith (23rd), Patrick Carpentier (25th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (38th)

Rookie of the Race: Michael McDowell. After a three race layoff, McDowell returned to the seat of the No. 00 Champion Mortgage Camry — and it didn’t take him long to make quite an impression. At first, it looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for the 23-year-old, who started in the back due to his team’s position in owner points. That poor track position appeared to be drastically affecting his Champion Mortgage Toyota, as the team fell a lap down early. However, McDowell would start to turn his race around, beginning by positioning himself for the Lucky Dog award during the day’s fifth caution — caused when Roush Fenway teammates Matt Kenseth and David Ragan spun in Turns 3 and 4.

Back on the lead lap from that point on, the call of the day for the No. 00 team was made after the 10th caution flag of the afternoon flew. Crew chief Peter Sospenzo decided to keep McDowell on the track with 13 other drivers, pulling off some strategy while the leaders all pulled onto pit road. That put the rookie in fifth place, joining his two Michael Waltrip Racing teammates inside the Top 10 with just 100 miles to go. Running strong on older tires during the next 50 laps, it seemed like all McDowell needed was solid track position to kick his car into gear. He stayed in the Top 20 for the rest of the afternoon, and wound up coming home 20th — the best finish of his young Sprint Cup career — to earn his fifth top rookie honors award of the season.

Tony’s Take: There appears to be a new phenomena in NASCAR called the “Mike Skinner Effect.” For the second time this year, the veteran stepped in as an interim driver to help a struggling team, and it appears that he may be two for two in achieving success. Maybe it’s coincidence after all, but Michael Waltrip Racing had one of their best races as an organization following Skinner’s input; and next to David Reutimann, McDowell was the biggest beneficiary. Back in the Spring, the rookie was an abysmal 40th after wrecking out at this track, so saying he’s improved since then would be an understatement. In this year of underachieving rookies, it could very well be McDowell who is positioning himself to steal the headlines in the final segment of this season.

Mother Nature was kind to Sam Hornish, Jr. at Richmond — but his car was not. The driver of the No. 77 went down a lap early and struggled at the back of the pack before finishing in 38th place.

Rocky Rookie Performance / Rookie Wreck of the Race: Sam Hornish, Jr. While Roger Penske’s current Indy Car driver, Helio Castroneves, was enjoying the fine taste of victory in Chicagoland, his former open wheeler and current stock car prospect Sam Hornish, Jr. was dealing with the bitterness of defeat. Hornish had such an awful day that I felt the need to devote both negative categories of this piece to him. The No. 77 went down a lap early, and only the competition yellow would give him a second chance to salvage a decent race. It would never happen, though, as Hornish would continue to struggle in the back of the pack — falling a lap down again all before the 100 lap mark. On lap 201, Hornish’s day would get worse when he and the No. 1 of Martin Truex, Jr. made contact and spun coming out of Turn 4. Hornish would continue, but probably wishes he didn’t have to as the team could only muster a 38th place finish — two laps off the pace.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Joey Logano and Jon Wood
Joey Logano burst onto the NASCAR scene on Friday, posting the 10th quickest time in practice while beating names such as points leader Kyle Busch, current champion Jimmie Johnson, and former titleholder Matt Kenseth. The one name he could not beat, however, was Hanna. The wind and rain canceled qualifying, keeping Logano — who needed to make the field on speed — from making his Sprint Cup debut.

Jon Wood was also scheduled to make a start in the No. 21 Ford, but was replaced by Bill Elliott in both qualifying and the race. Although no official word was given about the switch, one has to think that the Wood Brothers wanted the option of using the Past Champion’s Provisional, given the team’s position in owner points and the impending weather forecast.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Michael McDowell offers his thoughts on a great afternoon, along with an interesting perspective on racing with Sam Hornish, Jr. late in the race:

“Well, I think [20th place] proves the fact that we belong here, this No. 00 group, and got us back in the Top 35 today — so I think that’s a pretty good deal. We [actually] ran Top 15 and [just] gave up some spots there at the end. That’s really what we needed.”

“The 77 was a couple of laps down and he ran us pretty hard — [but] we’re racing for the Top 35, so I get it. Couldn’t afford to really get into him, move him, ‘cause that’d have just given him the right to move us back, and we knew we had enough points to get in. ”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 184
Hornish, Jr. 174
Carpentier 174
McDowell 161
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Sam Hornish, Jr.: 33rd (-1)
Regan Smith: 34th (+1)
Patrick Carpentier: 36th (0)
Michael McDowell: 39th (+1)
Aric Almirola: 44th (-1, DNS)
Dario Franchitti: 46th (0, DNS)

Next Up: The suspense of who will be in the Chase is over, as the “sprint” to the championship begins next week at New Hampshire. For the rookies, it means 10 races left to try to record a Top 10 finish while making a final push in the wide open race for Rookie of the Year. Earlier this season, Patrick Carpentier stole the show in qualifying as he recorded his first career pole position at Loudon. However, during the race it was Aric Almirola who took home our “Rookie of the Race” honors. Keep in mind that pit crews will be just as important as the drivers this Sunday afternoon, as track position is a huge factor at a venue where passing is at a premium.

Qualifying Next Week: Sam Hornish, Jr. dodged a bullet this past weekend as he was at the bottom of the practice charts — placing his chances to make the show in jeopardy. The rains fell and Hornish got in — but his rocky performance during the race will keep the No. 77 outside of the Top 35, putting them on the hot seat once again in New Hampshire. Patrick Carpentier will also need to make it in on speed, but that’s nothing particularly new for him. Finally, Joey Logano may be tasked with putting the No. 96 in the show for what could be the biggest challenge in his early career — although the single car team finished third in the Spring with former driver J.J. Yeley.

On the flip side, McDowell’s Top 20 at Richmond placed his team back in the Top 35, and they will have the luxury of being locked into next week’s starting field.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: I thought that Patrick Carpentier would take this race hands down, especially after his self-announced free agency this week. However, the No. 10 car could never capitalize on the track position gained after staying out following the 10th caution flag of the day. Carpentier would eventually freefall through the field, and have a late race encounter with Paul Menard that sent both drivers tumbling through the standings. By the end of the day, the Canadian was 25th; not a bad day, but not good enough to win top honors.

You Make The Pick: An overwhelming 68% of you thought that Patrick Carpentier would be the top finishing rookie of the race on Saturday night, beating second place Joey Logano by over 40%. Perhaps my recent run now has you agreeing with me. However, any chance of anyone gaining a point went up in smoke when the No. 10 and No. 15 cars hit the spin cycle simultaneously on lap 369. Carpentier made a nice recovery considering the relatively few laps remaining, but the damage was done and he could do no better than a Top 25 by the checkered flag.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: Michael McDowell may have captured rookie honors this week, but for most of the first portion of the race, it was Regan Smith that was turning in an impressive run. Although it hasn’t been officially announced, it is presumed that he too will be racing for a 2009 ride over the next 10 events, making a strong finish to the year a high priority. DEI is typically strong on flat tracks, and I think that will benefit Smith next week at the Magic Mile as he winds up coming out on top.

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
Pepsi 500 California Patrick Carpentier 18th Sam Hornish, Jr. 31st Patrick Carpentier 18th
Chevy Rock and Roll 400 Richmond Patrick Carpentier 25th Patrick Carpentier 25th Michael McDowell 20th

2008 Score: Readers 4, Tony 3.

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