The Frontstretch: 2008 Sprint Cup Rookie Report Cards: Economic Woes and Poor Performances Leave Their Mark by Tony Lumbis -- Monday November 24, 2008

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Looking back on the 2008 season, many fans will notice a lot of similarities between this year and 2007. The most obvious comparison, for example, involves the complete dominance by three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson during both Chases. But the 2007 season also saw the emergence of a new trend in NASCAR, involving the transition of open wheel stars joining the stock car scene. After a successful freshman campaign by Juan Pablo Montoya which included a win at Infineon, that trend set the tone for the freshman class of 2008, as four out of the six Rookie of the Year candidates were open wheel converts.

Just nine months later, there is a very real difference for those open wheelers that debuted in ’08 as compared to ’07 — just one of them appears ready to survive for a second season. What went wrong, and could their mistakes have been corrected? It’s now time for Professor Lumbis to grade their performance throughout the season, and take a look at the other new faces that emerged onto the scene and what the future may hold for them.

No. 00 – Michael McDowell
2008 Basic Stats: 20 Starts, 0 Top 10s.
Average Finish: 30.2
Best Finish: 20th (Richmond – Fall)
DNQs: 1 (Kansas)

Michael McDowell’s entire season had to feel much like his horrific wreck at Texas back in April: up, down, over, under, around and, by the time it was all done, he had no idea which end was up. McDowell was thrown into the seat of Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 00 Camry with virtually no experience in NASCAR’s top three divisions. With that in mind, the Phoenix, Arizona native really didn’t have all that bad of a season. In fact, he surprised everyone with a top rookie performance at Sonoma, when he brought home a 21st place finish. McDowell couldn’t capitalize on his strong run on the left coast, however, and soon the dreaded Top 35 point rule would impact his early career.

Following the Watkins Glen race, McDowell was “benched” in favor of veteran Mike Skinner, who was tasked with bringing the team back into the Top 35 while helping the organization understand what they could do to improve the No. 00. Skinner appeared to do just that, as McDowell returned to the seat at Richmond in September and promptly recorded a career best 20th place finish.

The euphoria was short-lived, however, as three races later, McDowell missed the show at Kansas and was out of the seat once again… this time, for good. As owner points again became MWR’s top priority, McDowell lost his status as the future of their organization almost as quickly as he gained it for his inability to keep the car inside the coveted group of “locked in” qualifying spots. Still, the former ARCA winner has shown great potential at times this year. He just needs time to develop, a concept lost to most car owners these days. McDowell’s goal for the offseason will be to land a ride, and I think a year in the Nationwide Series would greatly benefit this kid if someone in that division would give him a chance.
GRADE: D

No. 01 – Regan Smith
2008 Basic Stats: 34 Starts, 0 Top 10s.
Average Finish: 28.2
Best Finish: 14th (twice)
DNQs: None

The AMP Energy Drink 500 at Talladega this past Fall pretty much summed up the entire season for Regan Smith. During that race, the 25-year-old was enjoying one of his strongest runs of the season when he suddenly found himself in position to win, trailing only Tony Stewart with just one lap remaining. With the checkered flag in sight, Smith made a daring move to the inside to pass and when the No. 20 came down, the No. 01 went lower … too low. While Smith felt like he was forced below the yellow line and should have been credited with the win after crossing the finish line first, NASCAR officials had a different story. Instead, the rookie was relegated to 18th position, the final car on the lead lap.

Nothing has really gone right for Smith during the rest of 2008, either. The New York native entered the season as a favorite to win the Rookie of the Year title, and Smith had every reason to be confident after spending a year under the tutelage of veteran Mark Martin, having a championship crew chief in Doug Richert on top of his pit box, and entering the year as the only rookie to have significant stock car experience. It was a struggle from the start, however, as the No. 01 team stumbled out of the box. Recording only one Top 20 finish in the first 11 races, both driver and car hit a slump that lead to the dismissal of Richert. The problems soon revealed themselves to go deeper than that, though, as the entire DEI organization struggled throughout the season — and it appeared to hurt Smith the most.

By the time November rolled around, Smith had only four Top 20s to his credit. It was still enough, however, to earn him the Rookie of the Year title, almost by default as only he and Sam Hornish, Jr. were left with rides for all 36 races this season. While that award is certainly a great honor, it is probably a small consolation to Smith right now, who faces great uncertainty as his team is without a sponsor and he is without a contract. At the moment, the rising sophomore is hoping to be considered as the fourth candidate in the newly formed DEI/Chip Ganassi organization; but with the way things are in the sport today, even the defending ROTY will be lucky to be behind the wheel of any car in 2009.
GRADE: C

Aric Almirola was one of the few rookies to keep his head above water in 2008, but even he is struggling to find sponsorship to stay in the sport after a miserable year for freshmen in the Sprint Cup Series.

No. 8 – Aric Almirola
2008 Basic Stats: 12 Starts, 1 Top 10.
Average Finish: 24.8
Best Finish: 8th (Bristol – Spring)
DNQs: None

It was almost as if Aric Almirola used up all his good stuff in the first race after he recorded an impressive eighth place finish in his 2008 debut at Bristol. It wasn’t that Almirola had a terrible season after that — in fact, he recorded five Top 20s in 12 starts, one more than his teammate Regan Smith who ran the entire season. Unfortunately, Almirola also appeared to fall victim to driving for a struggling organization. The good news for this kid is that he did enough to impress DEI officials and will be one of the few 2008 rookies to have a ride when Daytona rolls around in February. Almirola will be tasked with trying to bring the new organization back to Victory Lane in 2009, something neither DEI nor Chip Ganassi Racing did this past season.
GRADE: B

No. 10 – Patrick Carpentier
2008 Basic Stats: 24 Starts, 0 Top 10s.
Average Finish: 29.6
Best Finish: 14th (Daytona – July)
DNQs: 5

February certainly wasn’t kind to the Patrick Carpentier who started out with two DNQs (one due to rained out qualifying). Keep that in mind, as that spat of bad luck would prove to be the Canadian’s downfall in 2008. Carpentier actually made a nice recovery from that disastrous start, as the No. 10 team would only miss one other race through the next six months; that, too, was also due to rain.

In fact, Carpentier almost brought his team back within reach of the Top 35 in owner points after a Spring slump, in part due to a hot streak he went on through the summer. Well, I use the term “hot streak” loosely, but the former open wheeler certainly does deserve kudos for an eight-race stretch beginning with the Coke Zero 400 in July. During that time period, Carpentier recorded five top rookie finishes and four Top 20s. Who said Canadians don’t like the warm weather!?

Things quickly turned sour for Carpentier as the series headed into its stretch run. The rookie’s season ended, just as it began, with a DNQ — this time at Talladega. Soon after his failed qualifying run, Carpentier was involved in a well-documented dispute with crew chief Mike Shiplett and was let go soon thereafter. I truly believe that this is a case of what might have been, for Carpentier was arguably the most overachieving rookie in the field this year. Hopefully, he will be picked up somewhere in 2009 so he can finish what he started in 2008.
GRADE: C

No. 40 – Dario Franchitti
2008 Basic Stats: 10 Starts, 0 Top 10s.
Average Finish: 34.3
Best Finish: 22nd (Martinsville – Spring)
DNQs: 2 (Texas – Spring, Infineon)

If Carpentier overachieved the most out of the rookie class, then Dario Franchitti was perhaps the biggest underachiever. Following a somewhat successful NASCAR debut with open wheel star Juan Pablo Montoya the year before, Chip Ganassi was anxious to take his chances again when he signed then-defending Indianapolis 500 winner Franchitti. Unfortunately, the Scotsman looked out of place from the start as the No. 40 Dodge became a mainstay at the back of the field for the first portion of the season. Eventually, the economy had pity on Franchitti, as Ganassi was unable to sign a full time sponsor for his team and just like that, the driver was sent to the sidelines until funding could be secured. That never happened, though, and Franchitti will be back in familiar territory next year as he will be driving for Ganassi in the Indy Car Series in 2009.
GRADE: F

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose
2008 Basic Stats: 11 Starts, 1 Top 5, 1 Top 10.
Average Finish: 29.1
Best Finish: 3rd (Watkins Glen)
DNQs: 1

The 2008 season certainly started a lot differently than it ended for Marcos Ambrose. Entering the year, the thought was that Ambrose would make spot starts in the Wood Brothers Ford and prepare for a full-time Sprint Cup ride with JTG Racing. Ambrose shined at times for the legendary team when he threatened to win at Infineon before losing a transmission, made the Brickyard 400 field in a team car and finished a strong third at Watkins Glen — all in the Wood Brothers Ford. However, in a somewhat surprising move, it was Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing that JTG aligned itself with, paving the way for the Aussie to finish up the season in the No. 00 car (as the No. 47). Ambrose finished the year with two Top 25s in gratitude, almost getting the team into the Top 35 in owner points. His eleven starts this season means that he won’t be eligible for the Rookie of the Year award in 2009, but I think we can still expect a solid year from Ambrose, especially on the road courses.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish, Jr.
2008 Basic Stats: 34 Starts, 0 Top 10s.
Average Finish: 28.0
Best Finish: 13th (Lowe’s – Spring)
DNQs: 2 (Talladega – Fall, Homestead)

After a slow start, Sam Hornish, Jr. and his Mobil One team appeared ready to make a serious run at the ROTY award last May. At that point, he had almost won the Nextel All-Star preliminary event and was the fastest car on the track during the end of the All-Star race itself. Hornish followed that performance with a career best 13th during the Coca-Cola 600 the very next week. Oddly enough, however, the momentum never translated beyond that event. Besides his 18th place performance at the June Dover race, the team never recorded another Top 20 finish for the rest of the year — ultimately costing Chris Carrier his job as crew chief.

Despite his lack of production, Hornish was somehow still in contention for the ROTY award going into the final 10 races of the season. All he had to do was finish ahead of the only other rookie remaining, Regan Smith, for the majority of the races and the crown was his. Instead, the team got worse, starting with their first DNQ of the year at Talladega. Not even a return trip to the Lowe’s Motor Speedway could jumpstart the team, as they could only muster a disappointing 22nd place finish. Still, Hornish went into the final race of the year with a lead in the ROTY standings and the team did the worst thing they possibly could have done…missed the race. Give Hornish credit for not giving up though, as he is the only ROTY candidate who still has a full-time ride for next season. Hornish supposedly turned down chances to return to the open wheel ranks to give it another try in NASCAR — we’ll see how long that decision sticks.
GRADE: C-

Other Rookies:
Jacques Villenueve – The 2008 season could not have differed much more than originally planned for Jacques Villenueve. Coming off a solid performance at Talladega for Bill Davis Racing late in 2007, Villenueve was poised to make a run at the Rookie of the Year Title in 2008. However, after missing the Daytona 500, the Canadian was forced to the sidelines when the proper funding could not be secured for this team. Villenueve would run only one race the entire season, and that would be with Bruan Racing in the Nationwide Series at Montreal. There has been no word on the rookie’s plans for 2009.

Jon Wood – The Wood Brothers legacy appears to be in jeopardy in NASCAR as Jon Wood appears to be on shaky ground when it comes to his future in the sport. Wood made three starts for his family team, in which he was forced to the pits early in two of them for lengthy adjustments needed to reverse the overly aggressive qualifying setup that put the team in the show. The 27-year-old also recorded two DNQs at Richmond and Lowe’s back in the spring. Wood has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the No. 21 next year, but I wouldn’t expect to see this rookie in a full-time ride anytime soon.

Brad Keselowski – Perhaps the most impressive of the rookie “spot starts” this year belonged to Brad Keselowski, who recorded two Top 25 finishes at Texas and Homestead for Rick Hendrick. Of course, the Michigan native also had the benefit of driving some of the best equipment in the garage area. If his first two races are indication, Keselowski could be the perfect candidate to keep the Hendrick legacy alive, especially when you consider the stable of drivers available to mentor him as he works his way to the top.

Scott Speed and Joey Logano – The 2009 ROTY contenders both made their Sprint Cup debuts a little early, and both have started in a relatively quiet fashion. High expectations are set for these two, though, as Logano was labeled the sport’s next best star before he was old enough to drive in it while Speed represents another talented open-wheeler convert — one who has actually been given an opportunity to develop. One thing’s for sure: you can definitely expect these two make the next year’s rookie race a heck of a lot more interesting than this year’s sleeper…I don’t think it could get this much worse.

When I gave my mid-year grades back in July, I ended on the sarcastic note that I hoped there would still be rookies left to report on by the time Homestead rolled around. Unfortunately, my cynical comments proved to be a reality. Never before has a rookie class been haunted by such poor performances and economic conditions, all of which whittled down the class of 2008 from six to two. One also has to think that this year has to mark the end of the open wheel convert era, or at least the trend of throwing the IndyCar veterans into the cockpit of a stock car with no experience. Even though the odds were against him, Regan Smith beat out four open wheel veterans, — including two Indy 500 champs — for the ROTY battle, and did not need a stellar season to do so. Let’s hope that team owners have learned that drivers need experience to race these cars, no matter how accomplished they are in other series, and we will avoid another painful rookie race like the one we had to endure in 2008.

Contact Tony Lumbis

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