The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Regan Smith Wins! Then NASCAR Taketh Away by Tony Lumbis -- Monday October 6, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Aric Almirola (3rd), Regan Smith (4th), Jon Wood (27th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Aric Almirola (13th), Regan Smith (18th), Jon Wood (33rd)

Rookie of the Race: Aric Almirola. On Friday afternoon, rookie Aric Almirola led a DEI assault on the Top 10 in qualifying when he placed his U.S. Army car on the inside of row two. The third place effort actually tied Almirola’s career best earned at Martinsville earlier this year; but this time, he was prepared to turn a Top 5 start into a Top 5 finish with his No. 8 DEI Chevrolet. Indeed, it didn’t take long for the 24-year-old to drive his car to a familiar spot at Talladega — the front. With help from teammate Paul Menard, it was like old times again in restrictor plate racing as the Nos. 8 and 15 were leading the pack by lap 14. Almirola would be shuffled back and forth in a wild start to the race, but it almost ended prematurely on lap 68 when Brian Vickers lost a tire, igniting the first “Big One” of the day. The DEI cars of both Martin Truex, Jr. and Almirola were caught in the melee, but only the rookie was able to continue with minimal damage to his car.

Almirola would again charge to the front after the crash, this time pushing the former occupant of his seat, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to the lead. Soon thereafter, Almirola’s current DEI teammates Paul Menard and Regan Smith would find each other once again as this time, the three remaining cars would work together for the final laps of the race to remain near the front. With two laps to go, Almirola would try to hang back on the restart to gain an advantage on the front cars — but the move proved costly. Anxious drivers jumped out and passed by the Impala like it was standing still, and by the time Almirola regrouped, he was on his way to a disappointing 13th place finish. That caused him to lose the rookie of the race honors to his teammate Regan Smith… but wait. When Smith was penalized for a pass below the yellow line, he was relegated to 18th, making Almirola the highest finishing rookie in the Amp Energy Drink 500.

Aric Almirola and his DEI teammates ran up front with Tony Stewart late in the race, but in the end, only Paul Menard’s result mirrored their success.

Even though it’s probably a small consolation, Smith still took home the official Rookie Of The Race award, as he was the only such candidate in the field. It was his ninth such honor of the year.

Tony’s Take: Aric Almirola looked like a veteran racing on the high banks of Talladega on Sunday, as he seemed to make the right maneuvers at the right times to keep his Chevy up front for most of the race — even leading three laps. In fact, the only mistake Almirola made was on the final restart of the afternoon, when he held back for too long, ending his chances of a Top 5 finish. As good as Almirola was today, though, the day should have belonged to Regan Smith.

The rookie waited until the very last second to make his move and after snookering Tony Stewart to the outside, he took the only option that was left, which was sticking the nose of his Impala to the inside of the No. 20 and not backing off. Stewart, making the only move possible for him, tried to close the door, forcing the rookie down to the apron. Smith stayed in the gas and crossed the finish line, but was ultimately punished by NASCAR for not holding his line and wrecking the field.

We should have all seen this coming. The rule has been controversial since its inception, and the main reason is this paraphrased clause: “A driver will not be penalized if it is deemed that is he forced.” Suddenly, it’s not a black and white issue anymore, it becomes a judgment call… someone’s opinion. If you ask 10 different officials what they believe is considered “a force out,” you will probably get 10 different opinions. It’s just human nature… but it should not be allowed in the rule book of any sport.

But I will take this one step further and ask, why do we even have an “out of bounds” in the first place? Yes, I know, safety was the key factor behind this rule, but have the “big ones” really been stopped since the rule has been instituted? It sure doesn’t seem that way. The rulebook will never be able to stop a mistake, which nine times out ten is the reason for the mammoth accidents at restrictor plate tracks… and it should stop trying. If it’s not a bonzai move onto the apron, it will be an ill-timed bump in the corner that’ll cause the crash — as was the case with Carl Edwards on Saturday. Let’s face it, NASCAR, the only thing that will prevent the “Big One” from happening is to remove the restrictor plates. If they are not going to do that, then they have to accept the nature of the beast and keep their opinions out of trying to control it. It’s in bounds, or out of bounds. A driver can bump draft, or they can’t bump draft. As soon as you try subjecting these rules to someone’s judgment, the issue of interpretation will arise, and could possibly impact someone’s career as it did today.

When the green flag dropped, I thought I would be ranting about only one Rookie of the Year candidate making the field for this weekend’s race. Instead, the top story is, and should be, about a promising rookie who has suffered through a hellish season and is in jeopardy of losing his ride redeeming his year. Instead, Smith had a possible career-saving finish ripped from his hands because someone had the “opinion” that his winning pass was illegal.

Rocky Rookie Performance/Rookie Wreck of the Race: Jon Wood.
For the first time in 2008 on a restrictor plate track, Jon Wood wasn’t forced to bring the No. 21 Ford down pit road in the first five laps to undo an overly aggressive setup used to get him in the show. Unfortunately for Wood, the garage would’ve been the safer option. On lap 54, David Reutimann lost a tire, causing his car to dart to the inside, right into the path of Jeff Gordon. Gordon tried to miss the wounded No. 44 Camry as he drove to the outside lane, but unfortunately, Wood was right there. The Wood Brothers Ford sustained enough damage to force the team to bring the car to the garage for repairs; Wood did return to the track, but could only manage a 33rd place finish, many laps off the pace.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Michael McDowell, Patrick Carpentier and Sam Hornish, Jr.

This weekend turned out to be a disaster for the rookies before they even took the green flag. The wheels are starting to fall off of Patrick Carpentier’s qualifying efforts, who until recently has handled having to put is team in the field on time without much of a problem. However, he recorded his second DNQ in the past six races on Friday. Matters were made worse for the freshman when his crew chief, Mike Shiplett, entered into a public shouting match about the driver’s poor performance following an effort that fell just short.

Meanwhile, Sam Hornish, Jr., has been on the bubble of the Top 35 all year long — either just inside or just outside of the cutoff. The close calls finally caught up to the rookie, though, as the Penske driver recorded his first DNQ of 2008.

After Michael McDowell missed the show last week at Kansas, Michael Waltrip Racing made the decision to put veteran Kenny Wallace behind the wheel of the No. 00 Camry this past weekend. The move paid off, as Wallace finished 12th and pulled the team within 39 points of the Top 35. It is unclear at this time if and when McDowell will return to the driver’s seat.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
Regan Smith shares his thoughts on the final lap, and NASCAR’s ruling:

Were you surprised to learn that Tony Stewart won the race?:
“A little bit, yeah. I was pumping my fists like we won it because I thought we did. I still do think that we did. We’ll see what happens here.”

You were pushed down below the line?:
“I had a nose inside and my only alternative was to wreck ‘em, so next time that’s what I’ll do [laughs]. And that’s not a knock against Tony. I like Tony a lot. He’s a great guy, but I wanted to win pretty damn bad there.”

What is your understanding of the rule?:
“The rule is, that number one on the last lap, anything goes. They always tell us that in the driver’s meeting. They always say ‘Well, on the last lap it’s NASCAR’s discretion.’ I guess that was NASCAR’s discretion, but I felt like I got forced down there. We needed a good run. We needed a good run for the company. It’s been a long week for us and I’m just proud of everything everybody on the marketing side, Max [Siegel], John Story, what all those guys are doing. Everybody on the competition side, whether it be the engines, whether it be the cars, everybody at the DEI race shop… they’re all doing an awesome job. Bobby Hutchens is a great addition. Dan Stillman [crew chief] and these guys gave me a great race car today. We’ll take what they give us here.”

How was this explained to you?:
“They’re saying that I could have checked up or I wasn’t forced down there, and I don’t know how else to say it. The only alternative I had was to wreck Tony. This ain’t about him. Congratulations to those guys for winning the race. He ran a great race and did an awesome job, but I don’t think this is right.”

They are telling you that with the finish line coming up and you’re racing for the win, that you should have checked up?:
“Yeah, basically, and they’re telling us the exact opposite thing that they tell us in the driver’s meeting each time that we come to the restrictor plate places. I nearly asked that question this morning in the meeting [smiles]. I’m not enough of a veteran to ask questions in the meeting. That’s how it goes.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Smith 189
Hornish, Jr. 185
Carpentier 180
McDowell 169
Franchitti 97

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Regan Smith: 34th (-1)
Sam Hornish Jr.: 35th (0, DNQ)
Patrick Carpentier: 37th (0, DNQ)
Michael McDowell: 39th (0, DNS)
Aric Almirola: 42nd (+1)
Dario Franchitti: 47th (0, DNS)

Next Up: The Sprint Cup boys return to their “home track” in Charlotte, North Carolina for the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night. Perhaps no rookie is happier to return there than Sam Hornish, Jr. and the No. 77 team, who almost took the All Star preliminary race and finished a career best 13th in the Coca-Cola 600. It could not come at a better time for the former open wheeler as he has appeared to hit a new low this season, coming off a DNQ.

Qualifying Next Week: Same song, different verse this week as Regan Smith is the only ROTY candidate who is locked into a starting position for Saturday night. This fact has become more significant than ever, as the rookies are now struggling just to make the field as of late.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Like Regan Smith, I was also ready to take the lead, but had it taken away by NASCAR. I thought that Smith would have a solid day because of his DEI/RCR horsepower, but I never imagined a win… or … a win that wasn’t. Regardless, I have to live with the ruling, just like Regan does, and as a result I have lost out on my correct prediction.

You Make The Pick: Patrick Carpentier just barely beat out Aric Almirola by one vote and as a result, for the second week in a row, you have picked a driver that DNQed. Sounds like the ROTY candidates will be hoping they are not the “chosen one” in this weeks’ poll.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: I think Sam Hornish, Jr. will rebound from missing the show this week to crossing the finish line as the top rookie next week. As bad as things are in the No. 77 camp, based on their strong performance at this venue back in May, I am hard pressed to believe that they can’t translate what they’ve learned in the Spring into a solid finish this Saturday.

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
Sylvania 300 Loudon Regan Smith 23rd Michael McDowell 27th Michael McDowell 18th
Camping World 400 Dover Michael McDowell 29th Michael McDowell 29th Michael McDowell 29th
Camping World RV 400 Kansas Patrick Carpentier 29th Michael McDowell DNQ Patrick Carpentier 29th
AMP Energy 500 Talladega Regan Smith 18th Patrick Carpentier DNQ Aric Almirola 13th

2008 Score: Readers 5, Tony 5.

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10/06/2008 09:20 AM

It was a rookie mistake by Smith, anytime you drop below the dreaded yellow line they bust your chops. Gordons take last night on Speed was he should have maintained his position and if Tony blocked him put the bumper in him and spin him in the grass those were his only choices. I agree however with a track that wide and when they run three wide and silly all day long it does seem a little like putting a school zone on the autobahn. Maybe the yellow line infractions should be waved on the last lap since apparently everyone checks their good senses at the door anyway at that stage of the race.

10/06/2008 12:57 PM

I felt bad for Smith. Would have loved to see DEI go 1 2 3 before Aric dropped back, but if Smith wasn’t clear that the rules for the line at Dega and Daytona are different than at any other track, then it’s his mistake, not NASCARs. Ironically, if he had wrecked Tony before the start finish line, he would have won legally. Twenty years ago, Dale, DW or Rusty wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Tony would have been in the grass. Are these the same people griping that were whining earlier in the year when Jr. dropped down on the apron to save gas and win? Different track, different rules, people. NASCAR was consistant in this case. AND my Man has a win this year!

10/06/2008 06:23 PM

Stewart – 2 time cup champ

Smith – Rookie.

The End, deal with it.

10/06/2008 06:24 PM

Come on! Don’t ask for any consistancy regarding nascar’s rules because we both know they’re written in pencil. Regan Smith won the race. They just decided to give it to the big money sponsor’s driver. And don’t think for a moment that doesn’t figure in these rulings. If that had been a Hendrick driver forced below the yellow line, once again we both know who would have won the race. Sorry Regan, great win. Too bad it doesn’t county as one.

thomas dalfonzo
10/06/2008 09:23 PM

Regan Smith should have been awarded the victory. NASCAR is always playing favorites. It is whoever they want to win, not the fans. Everybody is always debating about the yellow line rule. If NASCAR had never implemented this stupid yellow line rule to begin with, this would never have happened, and Smith would be the victor. Besides, any other driver in that scenario would have done the same thing. The higher-ups at NASCAR are an absolute disgrace to the american sports landscape. That $700 billion dollars should go towards buying NASCAR and kicking Brian France, Mike Helton, Jim Hunter, and everyone else at NASCAR out on their all-powerful butts, and putting someone like me in charge of NASCAR.

10/06/2008 09:24 PM

According to the lastest version of the NASCAR rulebook, (revised 10/6/2008, Talladega, AL) Regan Smith can not pass below the yellow line. Here’s my problem, according to sources on other websites, NASCAR said in the drivers’ meeting that you can not pass below the yellow line. I’m fine with that, BUT, in the same meeting NASCAR also stated that you can not force anybody below the yellow line. I don’t have a problem with Regan finishing 18th, but Tony should have penalized and finished 17th. Paul Menard should have been awarded the win. For those of you who are waiting for NASCAR to do the right thing, forget it. The almighty NASCAR doesn’t care, Peace Out…

10/06/2008 10:20 PM

Scott, you are exactly right. Everyone seems to want to forget about the second part of that rule. Even the TV talking heads referred to it early in the race.