The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Freshmen Perform Almost as Bad as the Michigan Economy by Tony Lumbis -- Monday June 15, 2009

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Joey Logano:
Start: 24th; Finish: 25th

Summary: Joey Logano arrived to the track on Sunday afternoon with much confidence, coming off a string of seven straight top 25 finishes in his Cup car and fresh off a victory in Saturday night’s Nationwide race in Kentucky. However, all the confidence in the world could not help the 19-year-old battle the loose condition he experienced during the first part of the Lifelock 400. The rookie could not make any forward progress through the pack, and eventually lost a lap to leader Jimmie Johnson before the event’s halfway mark.

Then, as his protocol has been over the past month and a half, once Logano became comfortable with the track and figured out which groove he needed to run in he began providing crew chief Greg Zipadelli with the proper feedback needed to make the No. 20 car better. Unfortunately, the team was never able to be in position to gain their lap back — as they did last week at Pocono — costing them a shot at a better finish. But while the streak of six consecutive lead lap finishes was broken, Logano and Company did manage a very respectable 25th place, earning the youngster his twelfth rookie of the race honor in 2009.

Quote: “We just started off too loose today, and at the beginning of the race lost that lap — and that pretty much was the end. We kept racing trying to get that Lucky Dog, and I was in the Lucky Dog spot and then the leader passed another car and put me back again. I couldn’t get back to where we needed to be. I think we were a 15th-place car. I couldn’t get there because I was stuck a lap down, so that kind of makes it tough to get it back — but that’s the price you pay for not being right at the beginning of the race.”

Scott Speed:
Start: 21st; Finish: 37th

Summary: Earlier this season, Scott Speed had an impressive run in Fontana, the sister track to Michigan International Speedway, before engine problems relegated them to a woeful 41st place finish. Knowing their potential from that run, the team had high hopes as the series visited the second two-mile D-shaped oval on the circuit. Speed made the field without a problem; however, the good fortune would not continue into Sunday, as has often been the case this season. Speed fell a lap down before the race even hit the one-quarter mark as he struggled to make laps in the back of the pack. Then, the California native’s day went from bad to worse when he had to take his No. 82 Toyota behind the wall to repair a broken gear. The stay was temporary, but Speed’s day was basically done, as he finished in 37th position, 26 laps off the pace. The finish was the team’s third straight outside of the top 35.

Max Papis:
Start: 43rd; Finish: 35th

Summary: The Italian rookie came to Michigan with a brand new face atop the pit box, as Peter Sospenzo took over duties as crew chief after the team missed the field at Dover. Once again, qualifying was a nail-biter, as the GEICO Toyota barely squeaked into the field when the No. 13 car took the 43rd and final qualifying position on Friday. After that, it was a typical Sunday afternoon in the Sprint Cup series for Max Papis as he rode around in the back of the pack, logging laps and avoiding trouble. Papis finished in the 35th position, seven laps off the pace, gaining valuable experience as he continues to make his transition to stock cars. Ironically, Papis has now finished 35th in half of his six starts in 2009.

At least Max Papis is having fun in the garage area. As far as on the track… riding around the back can’t be all that amusing.

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Joey Logano 168
Scott Speed 150
Max Papis 56
Dexter Bean 10

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 had a very unusual day on Sunday in that he was not the least bit competitive during any portion of the Lifelock 400. The Australian started in the back of the pack when he rolled off the grid in the 33rd position, but did not come up through the field as many have come to expect. Ambrose’s issues may have been a result of the entire Michael Waltrip Racing organization struggling on the whole at this venue. The best MWR car was David Reutimann in 19th, who up until this past weekend has been one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. As for Ambrose, he was hardly able to break the top 30, and came home a very disappointing 31st.

Tony’s Take:
If Logano fans can be patient for just a few more weeks, they may start to see the results they expected when their young driver was named as the driver of the No. 20 Camry. The rookie has consistently improved in the second half of each race since the middle of April, enough to safely speculate that adapting to the track in these new cars are his biggest challenge at the moment. Once Independence Day weekend rolls around, Logano will start seeing tracks for the second time this season, and I fully expect him to be much faster at the start of the race — which should translate into consistent top 15 finishes at the end.

Meanwhile, Marcos Ambrose experienced a hiccup this past weekend in what has been a great first full-time season in the No. 47 Camry. However, Ambrose has shown his ability to bounce back from poor outings, and he could not be going to a better place for just that to happen next week. The Aussie may be showing the world that he can drive ovals, but road courses have always been his bread and butter and I’m sure he couldn’t be happier returning to Sonoma, California. Ambrose made his Sprint Cup debut there in a Wood Brothers Ford, where he looked poised for at least a second place finish before transmission problems sidelined him. He will certainly be on everyone’s list of drivers to watch out for this Sunday.

Who Wasn’t Here?:
Every rookie entered for the Lifelock 400 made the race.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

20th – Marcos Ambrose (-2)
25th – Joey Logano (0)
35th – Scott Speed (0)
41st – Brad Keselowski (-1, DNS)
43rd – Aric Almirola (-1, DNS)
45th – Max Papis (0)
53rd – Dexter Bean (0, DNS)

Note – The discrepancy between the driver’s standings and owner’s points for Scott Speed is due to the fact that John Andretti fell behind Speed in driver’s points after missing two events due to Indy 500 commitments; however, his No. 34 team remained in 35th because of the efforts of Tony Raines in the time period.

Qualifying Next Week: Scott Speed will once again have to qualify into the field on time, as a mechanical issue at Michigan kept him from making any headway towards breaking into the top 35. Also, keep your eye on the road course ringers this weekend, like Brian Simo who will be piloting Tommy Baldwin’s No. 36 Toyota. Many will also need to make the field on time and perhaps pull off some upsets by knocking out some of the sport’s veterans in the process.

Next Up: As I alluded to earlier, the Sprint Cup guys will be turning left and right when it makes its yearly stop at the road course in Sonoma for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Keep an eye on Scott Speed, who cut his teeth in road racing — making it all the way to Formula One in doing so. It will be interesting to see if he can translate that success to the heavier stock cars and turn his season around in the Napa Valley. Perhaps the biggest advantage in this race goes to Marcos Ambrose, who nearly pulled off a surprise victory last year and could do so again this weekend.

Rookie Prediction Poll – Whether it’s the presidential election (at least before 2008) or predicting who the highest finishing rookie will be at next week’s event, it looks like most Americans are pretty evenly divided when it comes to voting. In a rare occurrence, both Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose tied with the most votes (no recount needed), so we will have our first ever tiebreaker. This week, I will offer an additional trivia question. If you get it right, I will offer you a point for this week in addition to the usual opportunity to pick up another point for next week’s prediction.

Tiebreaker – Davey Allison visited victory lane as a rookie (twice) in 1987, a rare feat that was not duplicated again until Tony Stewart did it (three times) in 1999. Stewart’s victory started a new trend where rookie winners became the norm. The 1999 season was the first of how many consecutive seasons where a rookie reached the winner’s circle?

As for this week’s poll, it’s a Sonoma Prediction. High expectations have been placed on Marcos Ambrose coming into this weekend; can he come home with a top 5 finish as it looked like he would a year ago?

Tony’s Rookie Prediction: I was correct that nobody would notice Marcos Ambrose’s run at Sunday; but unfortunately for me, that was not the question. I was quite surprised that Ambrose had such a terrible run and as a result, I was quite wrong in my prediction. You go into next week with a one-point advantage and the chance to earn two additional points.

As for Sonoma, Ambrose had a great run in the famed No. 21 Ford last year and I have no doubt that he will once again this year in his current ride. However, this series has too many good competitors in it, and you need to have a darn near perfect day in order to come home with a top 5 finish; as a result, I do not think the No. 47 team will be perfect this Sunday.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 7, Tony: 6.

Contact Tony Lumbis

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