The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Scott Speed Debut Overshadowed by Almirola's Short Track Success by Tony Lumbis -- Monday October 20, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Due to rain, qualifying was canceled the field was set by owner’s points): Aric Almirola (15th), Regan Smith (30th), Scott Speed (35th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (36th), Chad McCumbee (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Aric Almirola (20th), Chad McCumbee (25th), Scott Speed (30th), Sam Hornish, Jr. (34th), Regan Smith (42nd)

Rookie of the Race: Aric Almirola. The rain on Friday worked in Aric Almirola’s favor when he inherited a 15th place starting position by virtue of his team’s position in owner points. But while the U.S. Army Chevy faded a bit early, it would be pit strategy employed by crew chief Tony Gibson that would put Almirola back up front. After pitting during the first caution of the day, Gibson made the call to keep Almirola on the track after the day’s second yellow when Kasey Kahne’s Dodge came to a halt. The move gave Almirola the lead for his second consecutive start, and this time, the No. 8 car would lead a total of 53 circuits — a career high for the rookie.

Almirola would eventually fall back in the pack once the pit stops cycled around again, but still looked to be a contender for a Top 10 finish. However, on Lap 196, he would make contact with the No. 19 Dodge of Elliott Sadler, sending the veteran into the wall. Almirola’s Impala sustained some damage and the DEI entry was never quite the same afterwards, losing ground and eventually a lap. However, by the end of the day, Almirola would earn rookie honors with his third Top 20 finish in his third consecutive start.

Note: Since Almirola is not competing for Rookie of the Year, the official honor went to Sam Hornish, Jr. with his 34th place finish. The finish also unofficially gives Hornish the lead in the ROTY standings.

Tony’s Take: The changing of the guard is starting to happen among NASCAR’s young guns, and it was evident this past Sunday. I think we can expect to hear more about names such as Almirola, Speed, and perhaps McCumbee in 2009 while other names begin to fade into the background. Almirola continued his impressive runs on the short tracks this year, with three Top 20s in four starts on tracks less than a mile in length. We’re also starting to hear his name mentioned up front a little more often. He led three laps in his last start at Talladega and then bettered that by 50 laps during the TUMS QuickPak 500. Maybe its not all doom and gloom for DEI with this driver waiting in the wings; now, if they can only find some money…

Scott Speed preps for his Sprint Cup debut at Martinsville. While the outing wasn’t a glaring success, he did manage to stay out of trouble and not make any enemies, which is a victory in of itself.

Rocky Rookie Performance Regan Smith. Regan Smith was also looking to take advantage of the early cautions in the same way Almirola and his team did. Crew chief Dan Stillman made the call to stay out during the afternoon’s third yellow flag, which put the No. 01 car in 12th position on the restart. The gain of over 20 spots in track position wouldn’t be enough to help the ailing breaks on the No. 01 car, though, as Smith drove hard into Turn 2 on lap 88 and discovered they simply were not there. The impact and brake fire was more than enough to send Smith and Company behind the wall for repairs, relegating them to a disappointing 42nd place finish.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: Sam Hornish, Jr. Well, the wreck wasn’t spectacular, but the circumstances certainly were. On lap 161, Sam Hornish, Jr. lost a right front tire at the same time and in almost the same place as Kyle Busch and Tony Raines. No piece of debris was ever located, making this incident one of the most unusual coincidences ever seen in the sport. The blown tire put on end to a somewhat promising day, as the No. 77 team could do no better than 34th after repairing the damage to their machine.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Patrick Carpentier, Michael McDowell.

Michael McDowell is supposedly included in a plan that will see him split time in the No. 00, which will change to numbers to “47,” with Marcos Ambrose. McDowell officially became a free agent this past week for 2009.

Patrick Carpenter remains on the sidelines, and no plans have been announced for the Canadian’s next move for the rest of 2008.

Rookie Quote of the Week:

Scott Speed made his Sprint Cup debut at Martinsville this past week and it turned out to be a quiet one… not necessarily a bad thing at this treacherous track. The positive thing about his run on Sunday is that he managed to avoid the wrecks and finish the race, something Speed reflects on in this week’s quote of the week.

“After practice we thought we would be able to come through the field. We really struggled today — we had brake issues all day long. This is a really long day when you have 500 laps to complete. The good thing is that we picked up some spots in the points and we completed all 500 laps.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Hornish, Jr. 193
Smith 192
Carpentier 184
McDowell 169
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Regan Smith: 34th (0)
Sam Hornish Jr.: 35th (0)
Patrick Carpentier: 38th (0, DNS)
Michael McDowell: 39th (0, DNS)
Aric Almirola: 42nd (0)
Dario Franchitti: 48th (0, DNS)
Scott Speed: 65th

Next Up: The track sometimes referred to as “Hotlanta” is next, as the series heads to Hampton, GA for the Pep Boys Auto 500. Earlier this season, Sam Hornish, Jr. lead the pack of sub-par rookie finishes with a 25th place run. This is one of those venues where a team needs speed, handling and endurance to be successful at the one and a half mile quad-oval. Drivers will reach 200 mph while the tachometer needle will remain on the upper end for virtually the entire race. Everything will need to be working right next Sunday, which will be a challenge for this year’s rookies in a season were virtually everything has gone wrong.

Qualifying Next Week: Despite his poor finish this week, Regan Smith continues to take advantage of the cushion he has on the 35th position as he is locked into the field once again. Scott Speed will also be able to rest a little easier this Friday as well, with the No. 84 car 34th in the Top 35.

It’s going to be quite crowded on the other side of the fence, however. In preparation for 2009, Marcos Ambrose will be running in a Michael Waltrip Racing entry, which will qualify with the No. 00’s points. Chad McCumbee will also need to time into the field for Petty Enterprises, while Joey Logano will be making a start in the fourth Joe Gibbs Racing entry.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Once again, Aric Almirola proved that he is the rookie to beat on the short tracks. This time, Almirola led the most laps of his career in a single event and overcame an incident with Elliott Sadler to record a Top 20 finish, giving me a two point lead with just a handful of races remaining.

You Make The Pick: For the second week in a row, just over 50% of you thought that Regan Smith would come home first among the rookie competitors. It was looking good early for Smith, as his team used pit strategy to work up to the 12th position. However, on lap 88, the rookie’s brakes failed and from that point on, he was only along for the ride as the No. 01 Chevy spun into the wall. The team would return to the track, but many laps down and out of contention.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top Finishing Rookie: I mentioned earlier that having speed is a key requirement for finishing well at Atlanta, and I believe the man that bears that element in his name will finish best among the rookies. Scott Speed’s debut was a bit of a bust at Martinsville, however, as his successes in the ARCA and Craftsman Truck series have come at the faster tracks. Teammate Brian Vickers has also been a force at the mile and half quad oval, and will be a valuable asset for Speed. Look for the California kid to run a solid race that will best the rest of the rookies in Atlanta.

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
Bank of America 500 Charlotte Sam Hornish, Jr. 22nd Regan Smith 23rd Sam Hornish, Jr. 22nd
TUMS Quik Pak 500 Martinsville Aric Almirola 20th Regan Smith 42nd Aric Almirola 20th

2008 Score: Tony 7, Readers 5.

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