The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: The Lady in Black Can't Take A Bite Out Of "Sliced Bread" by Tony Lumbis -- Monday May 11, 2009

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Joey Logano:
Start: 5th; Finish: 9th

Summary: On Friday afternoon, Joey Logano turned in his best career Sprint Cup qualifying effort, surprising observers when he clocked in with the fifth quickest time. On Saturday night, their eyebrows were raised once more as the rookie proved his Home Depot Camry was fast for more than just one lap. Logano spent most of the first half of the race in or just outside of the top 10 despite battling a race car that wouldn’t quite handle the way he wanted it to.

Even with those complaints, when the seventh of an event record 17 cautions waved on lap 186 crew chief Greg Zipadelli elected to put only two tires on the No. 20 machine in an effort to gain track position. Normally, anything other than four stickers would mean a one-way ticket to the back of the pack at Darlington. However, new pavement and a caution-filled race allowed crew chiefs to get as creative as their imagination would let them in terms of pit strategy.

With his ninth place finish, Joey Logano led the way for Joe Gibbs Racing Saturday night in Darlington.

Zipadelli’s call put his young driver in the sixth position for the ensuing restart. Logano, who had received lessons on driving the treacherous speedway from the legendary Cale Yarborough, proved to be a quick learner from that point forward, as he battled side-by-side with the veterans who were pacing the field while maintaining a spot up front with older tires. His pit crew also stepped up their performance as well, eventually getting Logano out in the lead on lap 278 during the evening’s 12th caution — again using two tires to gain ground on the track. The Connecticut native would respond by leading the next nineteen laps, the most in any one event so far in his young career, before pitting under caution on lap 297.

The teenager would eventually be shuffled back during subsequent pit stops; but when all was said and done, he showed the “Lady in Black” that he would not be intimidated by her. Logano’s ninth place finish ties his career best set just two weeks ago at Talladega, and is also the best finish for a rookie at Darlington since Denny Hamlin took the checkers in 10th in 2006. Logano’s second top 10 run of the season also gave him his eighth Rookie of the Race honor of 2009.

Quote: Coming in, this was the one place I thought I was going to stink horribly. I thought I was going to be worse than we were at Texas this year. [Then,] I was happy. We qualified good. We ran top 10 all day, top 5 for a while. We just [got] too tight… [these cars are] so aero-dependent. It showed when I got out front: I was “see ya.”

It is what it is. I’ll take a top 10. Realistically, the way I look at it, that’s our first top 10. Talladega doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s a top 10, yeah, but it’s Talladega. This is a hard-earned top 10. No luck played into it. It’s where we ran, where we deserved to run, and it’s great for these guys. It’s huge.”

Scott Speed:
DNQ
Started in the No. 87 Car
Finish: 26th

Summary: On Friday afternoon, it looked as if Scott Speed would be watching his second race of the season from the sidelines when he could not find enough speed in his Red Bull Toyota to make the show. The track “Too Tough to Tame” lived up to its name for the rookie, whose practice times got him no higher than 40th on the charts.

However, on Saturday Team Red Bull brokered a deal with NEMCO Motorsports and owner Joe Nemechek which put Speed in the No. 87 Camry, allowing him to make his first career Southern 500 start. It was an ominous beginning for the California native, however, who got into the back of the No. 13 car driven by fellow rookie Max Papis in turn 1. The contact sent both cars into the spin cycle on just lap 4; however, each driver was able limp away from the scene of the accident. Left with minimal damage, the crash still left Speed a lap off the pace, and his night appeared to be over before it even began. However, when simply surviving would be considered a small victory, Speed kept the nose of his Camry clean for almost the entire rest of the race and salvaged a respectable 26th place finish out of what could have been a complete disaster.

Brad Keselowski:
Start: 31st; Finish: 7th

Summary: When Brad Keselowski began the Southern 500, he could not even see the front of the pack from this 31st starting position. The Sprint Cup series’ most recent first-time winner would not stay back there for long, though. He spent the entire first half of the event methodically working his neon green and black GoDaddy.com Chevy through traffic, somehow avoiding the wreckage around him that seemed to be everywhere on this particular Saturday night.

Keselowski wasn’t the only one on the team that was doing his part to bring the No. 25 to the front, however. Crew chief Lance McGrew made calls from atop the pit box that put his team into the top 10 by lap 200, taking two tires when needed to gain track position. But no matter how old the Goodyears were on his race car, Keselowski would remain in contention for the final 200 miles, eventually muscling his machine to the finish line in seventh place. The run marked the rookie’s second career top 10 in Sprint Cup, coming just two weeks after the win in his last start at Talladega.

Max Papis:
Start: 22nd; Finish: 35th

Summary: Max Papis qualified for his fourth race in as many attempts when he put his GEICO Camry on the outside of row eleven, his best career start in the Sprint Cup Series to date. The Italian did not have much time to capitalize on his hard-earned run, however, after receiving a bump from Scott Speed in turn one on lap 4. The back of Papis’ No. 13 Toyota got the worst of that exchange, sustaining significant damage after making contact with the outside wall. Crew chief Randy Goss eventually made the call to bring his driver behind the wall for repairs, using the rest of the race as a test session to get his rookie acclimated to the Lady In Black. After many laps inside the garage, the team was able to get Papis back out on the track to pick up as many positions and as much experience for their driver as possible. Listed as 43rd at one point, the move proved to be a good one as Papis and company were able to take advantage of the event’s high attrition rate and salvage a 35th place finish, 65 laps off the pace.

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Joey Logano 122
Scott Speed 110
Max Papis 37

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)

Marcos Ambrose’s streak of three consecutive top 15 finishes came to a grinding halt on Saturday. Specifically, the Australian’s quest for four in a row ended in the first 30 laps of the event when the No. 47 bounced off the outside retaining wall, collecting much more than a Darlington stripe. The damage was enough to eventually send the team behind the wall for repairs, ending their chances of a decent finish. In fact, Ambrose could do no better than 33rd, his worst finish of 2009 in a race where he did not blow an engine.

Tony’s Take:
No one will argue that the 2009 rookie contenders have not done much this season to get anyone excited. Sure, there were a bunch of top 10s recorded at Talladega, which were impressive in their own right; but still, as Joey Logano said himself… it was Talladega. After Saturday night, though, Logano has taken one giant step forward in illustrating that the Class of ’09 will in fact make some noise this year. Not only did he tie his best career finish at Darlington, but he did it at one of the most difficult circuits on the schedule. The No. 20 team has a history of not “waking up” until later in the season; and if that still holds true with their new driver, we may be seeing just the beginning of several impressive runs from this teenager moving forward.

Meanwhile, although not an official member of the Rookie of the Year Class, Brad Keselowski is also doing his fair share of making a good name for those drivers with the yellow stripe on their back bumper this year. Behind the wheel of a completely different car than the one he drove to a win two weeks ago, Keselowski delivered nearly the same results on the track with a top 10 finish. Whether it’s the Nationwide No. 88 team or the No. 09 or No. 25 teams in Cup, this kid is showing the NASCAR faithful that he can get the job done no matter what car he is driving. The only “problem” now is that with Mark Martin’s announcement that he will run full-time in the No. 5 car in 2010, Rick Hendrick is left with too many good drivers and not enough rides at the sport’s highest level. Keselowski will certainly make the Silly Season headlines this year as a result — making it interesting to watch how his future plays out.

Finally, Scott Speed and the No. 82 team is starting to concern me. For the most part, this car has been on the money in qualifying, solidly making the show for almost every race this season. The problem is that when Team Red Bull is off, they are really off the mark — missing the field at both Texas and Darlington. I believe Speed and his crew chief Jimmy Elledge need to start working on a “middle” ground for their cars, making them fast enough to qualify but not with such a bonzai setup that they will either be terrible during the first half of the race or run the risk of a DNQ. With Logano and Keselowski starting to turn up the heat, the pressure will increase on this team to perform… and there will not be too many more “Get Out of Jail Free” cards like the one they got with NEMCO Motorsports this past weekend.

Who Wasn’t Here?:
The Lady in Black has given her fair share of drivers major headaches through the years, and Scott Speed was the latest victim. There were only two cars that went home on Friday afternoon and Speed was one of them, missing his second race of the season (Texas) behind the wheel of the No. 82.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

20th – Marcos Ambrose (-1)
30th – Joey Logano (+2)
35th – Scott Speed (+1)
40th – Aric Almirola (-1, DNS)
39th – Brad Keselowski (+3)
46th – Max Papis (+1)

Note – The discrepancy between the driver standings and owner points for Scott Speed is not how he’d like it to be. Speed traded places with John Andretti in the driver points — who did not enter the Southern 500 due to his conflict with Indianapolis 500 qualifying this past weekend — to bump up to 35th in the standings. But Speed’s Red Bull team, which he did not drive for on Saturday, did not earn additional owner’s points for his performance and remained in 36th place.

Qualifying Next Week: Scott Speed may have had a decent top 30 finish on Saturday, but those owner points go towards Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 team. Therefore, Speed will have to qualify on time when he attempts to put his No. 82 Camry in the field at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Next Up: The series will go from one historic race – the Southern 500 – to another when it heads to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600. And if the rookies thought that last Saturday night was a marathon, then they are in for a big awakening when the Memorial Day weekend classic arrives. The rookie who has the strongest finish in two weeks will mostly like be the guy who displays the most patience. This race is known to go well over four hours, starting in the sunlight and ending under the stars, meaning that these cars will go through numerous changes throughout the course of the event. If the rookies can provide good feedback to their crew chiefs and learn to anticipate the those adjustments ahead of time, then a good finish is not out of the question at this intermediate track. In fact, the event has been known to produce its share of first time winners in the past.

Rookie Prediction Poll – The majority of you agreed with me and believed that the egg-shaped track of Darlington would confuse the heck out of Max Papis and force him out of the race. Yet despite his early run-in with fellow rookie Scott Speed, Papis soldiered on and finished his very first Southern 500. In fact, all the rookies were running at the end of the race… quite an impressive feat.

As for this week’s question … Joey Logano has now earned two top 10 finishes in his last three races. Is he finally living up to all the hype, or are these simply two race wonders? Let everyone know your thoughts by voting in our weekly poll.

Tony’s Rookie Prediction: They don’t have “Darlingtons” in the open wheel ranks, but apparently it did not phase Max Papis, who survived the chaos and finished Saturday night’s race. We remain all tied up at 4.

Meanwhile, I was not yet ready to jump on board the Logano bandwagon after his ninth place finish at Talladega because, well, it was Talladega. But his run at Darlington was impressive, and while I’m far from ready to accept the “Sliced Bread” label, I do believe he has what it takes to bring the No. 20 home with a top 10 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 4, Tony: 4.

Contact Tony Lumbis

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