The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Speed Provides 2009 Preview as 2008 Freshman Candidates Fizzle by Tony Lumbis -- Monday November 17, 2008

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Scott Speed (2nd), Regan Smith (26th), Chad McCumbee (28th), Brad Keselowski (31st), Aric Almirola (40th), Marcos Ambrose (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Scott Speed (16th), Brad Keselowski (23rd), Regan Smith (34th), Aric Almirola (35th), Chad McCumbee (39th), Marcos Ambrose (42nd)

Rookie of the Race: Scott Speed. In an attempt to secure a starting position for Scott Speed in the first five events of 2009, Team Red Bull elected to put veteran Brian Vickers in Speed’s No. 84 team, while the rookie drove the No. 83 normally driven by his teammate. The move paid off, as not only did Vickers put his teammate’s car back into the Top 35 in points, but Speed enjoyed the best weekend of his short career in sunny South Florida.

It all started on Friday, when Speed put his Red Bull Camry on the outside pole for the start of the Ford 400. However, the young rookie fell back a little at the start of the race and in typical Scott Speed fashion this year, stayed off of everyone’s radar for virtually the entire event. But this time, the California native quietly hung around in the front half of the pack; and as day turned into night, Speed’s Toyota tightened up and finally drove to his liking. When the evening was over, Speed had crossed the finish line 16th, a career high that obliterated his previous best of 30th at Martinsville during his Sprint Cup debut.

Note: Regan Smith was the only Rookie of the Year candidate in the field on Sunday, thus bringing home the top rookie honor by default. It was his 11th such honor of 2008, tying him with Sam Hornish, Jr. for the most this season.

After a front row start and a 16th place finish, Scott Speed’s chances at winning the 2009 ROTY battle are looking bright.

Writer’s Take: It looks like all Scott Speed needed was a little change in scenery, as the start in his team car this past weekend resulted in what was by far his most successful race to date in the Sprint Cup Series. This is what we all expected from the brash rookie who has patiently waited out his run in the ARCA series to get his chance — a division which he once claimed was a “piece of cake.” In his first four events in NASCAR’s top series, it appeared that the heavy stock cars in Cup might be a little more than Speed expected, as each of his finishes were 30th or worse. He ended the season in style, however, with a solid run straight off the truck, giving his competitors and fans a glimpse of what I think they can expect in 2009. Even more importantly, his No. 84 team is now in the Top 35 in owner points and will be guaranteed a spot in the first five events next season, giving the R.O.T.Y. candidate a great opportunity to start out 2009 on the right foot.

Oh, yeah; it’s almost easy to forget that this year’s R.O.T.Y. battle has come to a close. Unofficially, Sam Hornish, Jr. leads his rookie counterpart by two points in the standings. However, the final call is made by the panel of experts who will judge the candidates based on performance as well as behavior in the garage and off the track. I think this panel will face a difficult decision, but for all the wrong reasons. Several months ago, the Frontstrech Newsletter pointed out that no Rookie of the Year Candidate had finished in the Top 10, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished so late in the season in decades. Unfortunately, the 2008 Rookie Class will now carry the distinction of never finishing in the Top 10 for the entire year. While the winner of this prestigious award can still be proud, they will accept it knowing that there is a lot of work to be done in 2009; that is, if there is even a 2009 to work towards in the case of Regan Smith. Stay tuned to for the official word on who will win the award this season.

Editor’s Note: The award was given to Smith following the conclusion of the Ford 400 race at Homestead.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Chad McCumbee. McCumbee was auditioning for the No. 45 ride in 2009 one last time on Sunday, and it certainly did not go well. The young rookie could not get a handle on a consistently loose race car on Sunday, and came home in 39th position, four laps off the pace. No word on who will be in the famed Petty ride next season — but McCumbee is still considered a candidate.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: Marcos Ambrose. The Australian has enjoyed a run of solid finishes since taking over the No. 47 Camry (formerly the No. 00) for Michael Waltrip Racing. Unfortunately, he could not end the season on a high note. That’s because on lap 168, Ambrose made contact with the No. 41 car driven by Reed Sorenson coming off of turn two. Sorenson had a run on the outside, but Ambrose did not appear to see him as he moved up the track and into the Target Dodge. The contact turned the Little Debbie Toyota into the wall, destroying the front right corner of the car and ending Ambrose’s hopes for a strong finish. The damage forced the team to take the car behind the wall for extensive repairs; they would return to the event, but due to the lack of attrition could only manage a dismal 42nd place. The most damage was done in the owner points, however, as the accident and resulting finishing position left Ambrose and Co. just one spot outside of the Top 35.

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

Sam Hornish, Jr.’s No. 77 Dodge was a lot tighter in qualifying than he expected, leading to a slow speed which resulted in the rookie’s second DNQ of the season (the first was at the second Talladega event). Hornish, who had virtually clinched the Rookie of the Year points battle coming into Homestead, made the R.O.T.Y. panel think twice about crowning the former open wheel star with the award after missing two events in 2009 (compared to Regan Smith, who did not miss any). What had to be more disappointing for Hornish is the fact that the intermediate tracks had been his strong suit all year long. Instead, the entire team will have to think about a disappointing end to this frustrating season until February.

Meanwhile, Michael McDowell and Patrick Carpenter ended the season as they started — on the outside looking in. McDowell wasn’t scheduled to start until the season’s sixth event following the retirement of Dale Jarrett. Unfortunately for McDowell, the executives at Michael Waltrip Racing soon changed their mind on making the former ARCA star the future of the organization.

Meanwhile, it was a blown tire in the Gatorade Duel 150 that ended Carpentier’s chances of making the Great American Race. Ironically, it was this DNQ for the final restrictor plate race of the season that sealed his fate with Gillett-Evernhamn Motorsports.

No word on the future of either of these rookies.

Rookie Quote of the Week:
Scott Speed on his career best finish:

“We had a really good car all night. The first half of the race we were a little loose getting into the corners, but as the sun went down and it got cooler out, the car tightened up a bit. This was a good race for us. We finished every lap, stayed out of trouble, and came home with a good finish. I felt like I had a really good feel for the car and learned a lot, so it was a nice to end the season on a high note.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Hornish, Jr. 200
Smith 198
Carpentier 184
McDowell 169
Franchitti 97

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Regan Smith: 34th (0)
Sam Hornish, Jr.: 35th (0, DNQ)
Patrick Carpentier: 38th (0, DNS)
Michael McDowell: 40th (-1, DNS)
Aric Almirola: 42nd (+1, DNS)
Marcos Ambrose: 45th (+1)
Dario Franchitti: 49th (0, DNS)
Chad McCumbee: 52nd (+2)
Scott Speed: 55th (0)

Next Up: Yet another season has gone by, as 2008 came to a close on Sunday night in Homestead. The next event will be the Daytona 500, which will be here before we know it. As of right now, there are only two candidates that will be running for Rookie of the Year next year — but they are good ones. Former Formula One star Scott Speed will go head-to-head with young sensation Joey Logano, who takes over the legendary No. 20 Home Depot Camry as Tony Stewart moves on to run his own team. So far, the field competing for this award may be small in quantity — but should be high in quality.

Qualifying Next Year: Brian Vickers may have only had a subpar 32nd place finish, but it was enough to get the No. 84 team back into the Top 35 after Marcos Ambrose had problems. Therefore, Scott Speed will have a guaranteed starting spot for the first five races of 2009 — including the prestigious Daytona 500. Of course, owner points were never an issue for the No. 20 team, where Logano will inherit a car that is in an enviable ninth position in owner points.

Tony’s Top Finishing Rookie Pick: It’s a good thing I clinched the win over you last week, because my pick of Sam Hornish, Jr. for Homestead didn’t exactly pan out. I never thought Hornish would DNQ on the type of track that has been his strong suit; but I shouldn’t be entirely surprised, either. This season has been one of disappointment for all drivers who entered 2008 as a rookie candidate. It seems only appropriate that Hornish ended his season on such a low note, perhaps giving the entire team a reminder of the work they have to do in the offseason.

You Make The Pick: You didn’t want to risk your pick with either of the R.O.T.Y. candidates, as the majority of you went with Brad Keselowski, who had a surprise top rookie finish a few weeks ago at Texas. Keselowski almost pulled off the feat again — but his 23rd place finish ended up second to Scott Speed.

So, after you dominated for most of the season, my “Jimmie Johnson-esque” late season charge gave me the win by two points. After two seasons, it’s all tied up between you and I at one “championship” apiece. Thank you again to all the readers for your support this year. The poll numbers hit record numbers this season, and I truly appreciate your involvement. It’s not over yet, however, as the year-end rookie reviews (as depressing as they will be) will be out next week. Then, we’ll do it all over again starting in February!

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
Pep Boys Auto 500 Atlanta Scott Speed 34th Regan Smith 30th Sam Hornish, Jr. 24th
Dickies 500 Texas Sam Hornish, Jr. 23rd Sam Hornish, Jr. 23rd Brad Keselowski 19th
Checker / O’Reilly Auto Parts 500K Phoenix Marcos Ambrose 18th Marcos Ambrose 18th Marcos Ambrose 18th
Ford 400 Homestead Sam Hornish, Jr. DNQ Brad Keselowski 23rd Scott Speed 16th

2008 Score: Tony 8, Readers 6.

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11/17/2008 12:36 PM

Once back in the 84, Scott Speed will have the car out of the top 35 again, it only took him 4 races to knock it out this year.