The Frontstretch: Cup Rookies Avoid That Vegas Gambling Temptation ... And Survive by Tony Lumbis -- Monday March 2, 2009

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Cup Rookies Avoid That Vegas Gambling Temptation ... And Survive

Sprint Cup Rookie Report · Tony Lumbis · Monday March 2, 2009


Joey Logano:
Start: 20th; Finish: 13th

Summary: In the land of numbers and luck, it turned out that the number 13 was, in fact, lucky for rookie Joey Logano. After a difficult start to 2009 where the Connecticut native recorded two finishes outside of the top 25 and spun during a Shelby 427 practice session on Saturday, the 18-year-old pulled it together at Vegas to finish a career-best 13th place. The Home Depot Camry started in the 20th position and remained in and around there for most of the first half of the race, as crew chief Greg Zipadelli used multiple cautions to work on the car and make it better for his young driver. The handling did appear to improve, as Logano even led his first career Sprint Cup lap on the 53rd circuit during green flag pit stops. At one point, he even broke into the top 10 consistently during the final 100 miles of the event. The No. 20 car fell back during the late race pit strategy shuffle, but Logano was still able to record his second consecutive Rookie of the Race honor — finishing on the lead lap.

Quote: “Yeah, that was really good [smiles]. We just kept our nose clean the whole day, kept it out of the wrecks, just kind of stayed with the main plan… and that was finish.”

Scott Speed’s focus was strong this weekend after a poor start to 2009 left him looking up on most of the Sprint Cup field. A 21st place finish on Sunday was his reward — a run that was good enough to stop the bleeding for the time being.

Scott Speed:
Start: 42nd; Finish: 21st

Summary: The weekend certainly didn’t start out very well for Scott Speed, as his team was forced to change the engine on his Red Bull Camry — sending the rookie to the tail end of the starting lineup for Sunday’s race. Of course, this was not too big of a deal since Speed, who could not find any speed on his qualifying attempt, was starting in the back this race anyway. The Californian would slowly work his way up through the field on the start, but not before losing a lap early, almost eliminating his chances at a solid finish. However, this was not your normal afternoon at the races in Vegas. Attrition ran high, the cautions were plentiful, and it was the eighth one of the day on lap 145 that gave the No. 82 team new life in the form of the words “Lucky Dog.” While Speed could not remain on the lead lap until the end of the 427-miler, he was still able to hang on long enough to pick off a few spots, coming home in a very respectable 21st place — his best finish since last year’s season finale in Homestead.

Quote: “I thought I felt more comfortable going around the outside, which is good, and that the tires can change. [But we] just put on a set of tires and, all of a sudden, the whole [handling] goes away [smiles]. So, I had to prepare myself for that. It’s a little bit different.”

Brad Keselowski:
Start: 13th; Finish: 38th

Summary: The Chevrolet certainly did not go very far in Sunday’s race before running into problems. Brad Keselowski was making his first start of 2009, this time in a Rick Hendrick car after missing the Daytona 500 in James Finch’s No. 09 entry. A strong top 15 qualifying run led to high hopes for a solid finish; but on lap three, the Michigan native lost control of his No. 25 Impala coming off of turn four and tagged the wall. The contact cut a tire, launching the car into a fishtail down the front straightaway before eventually spinning out in turns one and two. The damage ended the 25-year-old’s hope of recording a third top-25 finish in as many Sprint Cup starts (the first two came at Texas and Homestead in 2008). Keselowski would need an extended stay behind the wall to repair the damage, but did rejoin the race and limped home to a 38th place finish.

Max Papis:
Start: 26th; Finish: 36th

Summary: Qualifying a very respectable 26th for Sunday’s race in many ways marked a milestone in the career of Max Papis. With his only two previous Sprint Cup starts coming on the road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen, “Mad Max” made his first career start on an oval at NASCAR’s top level. It also marked the first Sprint Cup start for Germain Racing, after the duo missed the show at both Texas and Homestead to close out 2008. For most of the race, the Italian kept his No. 13 Camry out of harm’s way, albeit towards the back of the pack. It looked like Papis and Company would go the distance and earn some much-needed experience together; however, with just under 100 laps to go, mechanical problems would sideline the team for several circuits. Papis eventually finished in 36th position, 28 laps off the pace.

Quote: Papis reiterated after Happy Hour what the goals are for both he and his team: “We’re learning. It’s like I told everyone… we need to keep in mind why we are here. Basically, we haven’t been able to go do any practice. We are racing against people that have been doing this for 10 years plus, and that’s the perspective that you keep in mind.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Joey Logano 32
Scott Speed 31
Max Papis 9

Almost Rookie Recap:
(These drivers are not official rookies because they made too many starts in 2008. For all intents and purposes, however, they are still basically Sprint Cup freshmen as they embark on their first full season in 2009)

If it weren’t for bad luck, Aric Almirola would have no luck at all. After a midpack qualifying effort, Almirola began to methodically race his No. 8 TomTom Chevy to the front of the pack. When the third caution of the day waved on lap 62 for debris, crew chief Doug Randolph elected not to bring his driver to pit road for more favorable track position, putting his driver in contention for a top 20 finish. However, crafty strategy would not be able to overcome cruel fate, as on lap 145, Almirola lost control of his machine coming out of turn four and slammed the outside retaining wall head on. Fortunately, he was OK after the wreck — but his spirits certainly were not.

On the other side of the spectrum, Marcos Ambrose can seem to do no wrong — even when he’s an innocent victim himself. The No. 47 team made life difficult starting out of the gate, as the Australian was forced to the tail end of the starting lineup after an engine change was made earlier in the weekend. Then, on lap eight, Ambrose sustained damage after contact with Elliott Sadler’s No. 19 Dodge when both drivers tried to avoid the spinning car of Todd Bodine in front of them. It wasn’t long after that incident that Ambrose found himself two laps down and out of contention. The team did not give up, however, and the 32-year-old used favorable track position on a restart to gain one of his two laps back following Denny Hamlin’s accident. Ambrose would continue to scratch and claw his way back to a 20th place finish, his third top 22 to start the season.

Tony’s Take: Plenty of people were wondering when we would see this new, bright young star called Joey Logano live up to the hype. Well, we started to get a glimpse of his talent today — but it wasn’t because of where he finished but rather, how he got there that showed it. In an afternoon full of carnage and failing equipment, Logano displayed the poise and maturity of a 10-year veteran, avoiding problems and ensuring that he stuck around until the end.

To be fair, though, if we’re going to praise Logano’s patience, we have to say the same thing for his counterpart, Scott Speed. While his finish may not have been quite as noteworthy, the former F-1 driver certainly displayed his ability to finish a race in one piece and gain valuable experience alongside his competitors. While the R.O.T.Y. competition may be off to a slow start, I think Las Vegas has shown a glimpse of what we could expect in a tight battle going down to the wire.

As previously mentioned, merely making the race was also a huge step forward for Max Papis and his Germain Racing team. While only attempting his third career Sprint Cup start, Papis put his car in the show while veterans such as Jeremy Mayfield, Sterling Marlin, and Travis Kvapil went home — certainly no small accomplishment for the Italian. And speaking of accomplishments, don’t overlook Marcos Ambrose, who finds himself 20th in the point standings ahead of such names as David Ragan, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Mark Martin. If the Aussie can improve his finishes by just a little, we’ll be hearing Ambrose’s name mentioned in the same sentence as “Chase contention.”

Who Wasn’t Here?:
Dexter Bean

The ARCA veteran was the latest driver to try his hand at putting the No. 51 Black Jack Racing Dodge into the field this past weekend. This would not be the weekend for Bean to make his first career Sprint Cup start, however, as his first qualifying lap was much too slow to make the field. Contact with the wall heading to lap two ended any chance of squeaking into the Shelby 427.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Point Standings

20th – Marcos Ambrose
32nd – Joey Logano
36th – Scott Speed
38th – Aric Almirola
46th – Max Papis
48th – Brad Keselowski

Next Up: The fastest track on the circuit is up next, as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Atlanta for the Kobalt Tools 500. This track is known for taking its toll on drivers and equipment… although the Georgia track may be a walk in the park for engine builders after this past week. In some ways, Las Vegas was a good training session for this race, as the rookies will want to spend much of it staying out of harm’s way while preserving their equipment until the end. However, in doing so they will also need to avoid becoming too conservative, as drivers can quickly fall behind a pace which approaches 200mph each and every lap.

Rookie Prediction Poll: You certainly thought that this year’s R.O.T.Y. candidates’ sluggish start to 2009 would continue, as 61% of you thought that neither Logano nor Speed could beat Sam Hornish, Jr. You were almost correct… not because of the poor performance of this year’s candidates, but because Hornish was running strong throughout most of the event. He eventually came home in 16th place, meaning that only Logano bested the 2008 R.O.T.Y. runner up.

The 2009 R.O.T.Y. candidates seem to have shifted their momentum in a positive way at Las Vegas, as both drivers recorded finishes higher than 26th for the first time this season. Will the momentum continue — or was last week just a flash in the pan? This week’s poll asks if these drivers can better their Las Vegas finishes next week at Atlanta (i.e. Can Logano finish higher than 13th and will Speed finish higher than 21st)?

Tony Rookie Prediction: I was correct in that one of this year’s R.O.T.Y. contenders would beat Hornish; but I thought it would be Scott Speed, not Logano. Therefore, you maintain your one point lead on me heading into Atlanta.

As for next week, I think it’s going to be tough for both rookies to better their Shelby 427 finishes. Speed did not perform well here in a Sprint Cup start last Fall, while Logano missed the show altogether (rain washed out qualifying). I think Logano can keep up his momentum to a certain degree — just not in the form of a top 12. Therefore, I will say that only Scott Speed will continue his upward swing in the Peach state.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 1, Tony 0.

Contact Tony Lumbis

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