The Frontstretch: Mad Max, Ambrose, Sip the Sonoma Wine While it's Sour Grapes for Others by Tony Lumbis -- Monday June 22, 2009

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Max Papis:
Start: 33rd; Finish: 12th

Summary: Max Papis had high hopes coming into the wine country of Sonoma, the site of his Sprint Cup debut in 2008. However, it did not start out very well for the Italian road racing vet. His No. 13 GEICO Camry fell a lap down very early in the race and it started to look like a typical day for this team, hanging around in the back and simply looking to finish. That would all change on lap 21 when Jeff Burton hit the spin cycle and David Ragan hit the tires, bringing out the first caution of the afternoon. Papis was awarded the “Lucky Dog” award and was waved around the pace car.

This time, crew chief Peter Sospenzo would make sure that his driver would not only stay on the lead lap for the remainder of the event, but would be in contention for a career best finish. Papis delivered on his end of the bargain, using track position via pit strategy and some crafty driving to come home in the 12th position. Not only was it the 39 year-old’s best finish at this level, but it was his the first time he would be awarded with the rookie honor of the race in 2009, breaking Joey Logano’s streak of six straight.

Quote: “We had a fantastic race. We fought all race long and I improved in every restart I got some position. On the green-white- checkered I attacked and went up to seventh and I’m not so sure who punted me from the back. They punctured my right rear getting into turn one with one to go and that cost me my three or four spots. I achieved the goal I wanted, I wanted to improve my best ever finish so far with this team and we did it. I’m very proud of all the guys. This is as much of a team effort as anything else because they put me up there from the back — the team put me up there with the strategy — and I finished it off.”

Joey Logano:
Start: 12th; Finish: 19th

Summary: Joey Logano will certainly remember his trip to northern California for what could have been. The rookie was entered into the Camping World West Series on Saturday and was poised for the victory until receiving the chrome bumper from Patrick Long. Long was penalized for the bump and run, but it was of no consolation to the young Logano who saw his chance at victory disappear.

Despite the bitter finish, Logano appeared to have learned quite a bit about the serpentine race course. Making his first Sprint Cup start on a road course, the 19-year old rolled off the grid in the 12th position, but fell back in the opening laps of the race. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli elected to bring his driver down pit road during the first caution of the afternoon, which proved to be the strategy the No. 20 needed to gain track position later in the event.

The off sequence pit stop allowed Logano to assume a top 10 position by lap 40, one that he would keep for virtually the entire race. With 30 laps remaining, Logano looked as if he had a top 10 finish in the bag when he and fellow rookies/almost rookies Scott Speed and Marcos Ambrose made contact with each other. The damage was enough to send Logano to the pits for new tires and repairs, ending his chances at a strong finish for the second consecutive day.

Scott Speed:
DNQ, Started the No. 87 car
Start: 31st; Finish: 37th

Summary: Scott Speed could not have come to a better place to turn his 2009 season around considering his road racing background. Apparently, Speed got a little too excited about returning to his home state, as he ran off the course during what was looking like a very stout qualifying run in his Red Bull Toyota. The off course excursion cost Speed the chance at racing in the Toyota/Save Mart 350…or so he thought.

For the second time this season, NEMCO Motorsports came to the rescue. Joe Nemechek, who buys equipment from Team Red Bull, once again stepped aside to allow Speed to drive the No. 87 car in the race, just as he had done in Darlington last month. After spending much of the first half of the race in the back of the pack, Jimmy Elledge used pit strategy to bring his car into the top 10.

Speed ran quite competitively for several laps until the third caution of the afternoon waved. It was then that Elledge and company gambled and kept their Camry out on the track on old tires, giving Speed the lead. It did not last long however as those drivers with fresh rubber quickly shuffled past Speed who became a giant blue pin ball bouncing off his competitors as they muscled their way by. Eventually, the rookie had to bring his car down pit road for service, and dropped to the end of the pack. With three laps remaining, Speed spun and could not re-fire his car, which brought out the final caution of the day, and regulated the team to a 37th place finish, one lap off the pace.

Brandon Ash:
Start: 43rd; Finish: 41st

Summary: Brandon Ash made his first start of 2009 in the family owned No. 02 Dodge after missing the show at Phoenix earlier this season. The Oregon native made a valiant effort at what could be considered his home track, recovering from a spin and receiving the Lucky Dog when the third caution waived. Ash’s day would have an unfortunate ending however, when he spun off the course and crashed hard into the wall with only 16 circuits remaining. The rookie was still able to drive away in his wounded machine, but only to the garage area, where he would retire for the day.

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Joey Logano 178
Scott Speed 159
Max Papis 67
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)

It would not be a surprise if Marcos Ambrose couldn’t tell you what end was up after the wild roller-coaster weekend he had. On Friday, the Australian qualified his Little Debbie Camry in the third position, a career best at NASCAR’s top level. He could not enjoy the fruits of his labor though, as the team lost a motor in the second practice on Saturday, forcing them to start the Toyota/Save Mart 350 from the rear. Crew chief Frankie Kerr knew pit strategy was the best way he could get his driver to the front and called Ambrose down pit road on lap 13, well before anyone else. The team stayed off sequence all day, bouncing from back and forth from as high as second to as low as 39th throughout the day. When the laps were winding down, Ambrose was right where it counted, up front, battling the leaders for the win. Although he did not have quite enough speed for Tony Stewart and eventual winner Kasey Kahne, the driver from down under finished in the third position, tying his career best (Watkins Glen, 2008).

After a weekend of ups and downs, Marcos Ambrose ended the day on a ‘up’, finishing third to tie his career best finish.

Rookie Road Course Ringers

Ron Fellows appeared to have the right pit strategy to seemingly appear out of nowhere in the top 10 with about 20 laps remaining. However, Fellows could not keep the No. 09 there as the Canadian lost a lot of track position after some bumping and rubbing, relegating him to a disappointing 27th place finish. P.J. Jones, driving a second entry for Robby Gordon, retired after the second lap and finished last.

Tony’s Take:
I would not have expected the road course in Sonoma to be the site of rookie success, but it nearly was on Sunday. In fact, at one point, all three R.O.T.Y. candidates – Logano, Papis and Speed – along with almost rookie Marcos Ambrose were running in the top 15. The most impressive of those runs in my mind goes to Logano, who is the only one out of the four without extensive road course experience. Ambrose certainly got his redemption after breaking a transmission while running up front last year at this venue and continues to hang within somewhat reasonable distance from the final chase position, quite a feat for this first full-time season. Logano and Speed meanwhile, can take considerable amount of confidence away from their Sonoma runs for the second road course event at Watkins Glen, even though their finishes are not reflective of how they ran in the race.

Who Wasn’t Here?:
Scott Speed missed the race after running off the track during his qualifying lap, but as previously mentioned, ran the race in the NEMCO Motorsports Camry. Tom Hubert in the No. 27 Camry, Chris Cook in the No. 37 Dodge and Brian Simo in Tommy Baldwin’s No. 36 all failed to make the race as well.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

18th – Marcos Ambrose (+2)
24th – Joey Logano (+1)
35th – Scott Speed (0)
41st – Max Papis (+4)
42nd – Brad Keselowski (-1, DNS)
44th – Aric Almirola (-1, DNS)
56th – Dexter Bean (-3, 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, but his No. 34 team remained in 35th because of the efforts of Tony Raines in the time period.

Qualifying Next Week: Scott Speed will have to make the field on time in the No. 82 Camry next week as will Brad Keselowski in the No. 09 Chevy.

Next Up: The Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at the New Hampshire International Speedway is up next as the series returns to the Magic Mile in New England. Don’t let this track’s mile length fool you however, as it’s flat corners translate into tight racing – short track style. The drivers have traditionally had a difficult time passing at this venue, making track position critical for success in the Granite State. I expect the new double file restarts to be almost as interesting here as it was this past weekend in Sonoma. Marcos Amborse and Brad Keselowski will have the upper hand this week because of their previous Nationwide experience here, but don’t count out Joey Logano, who has had the hot hand of late and the additional motivation of racing at his home track.

Rookie Prediction Poll – It certainly did not look good at some points, but Marcos Ambrose came though and finished with a very solid top 5 finish on Sunday and nearly 70% of you accurately predicted that outcome, giving you a point for this week.

Tiebreaker – You could not capitalize on the opportunity to pick up two points this week as the majority of you chose “We’ve had a rookie winner ever year since 1999” as the answer to our tie-breaker question, which is incorrect. You should have picked five: 1999- Tony Stewart, 2000 – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth, 2001 – Kevin Harvick, 2002 – Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray, and 2003 – Greg Biffle. There were no rookie winners in 2004, including Kasey Kahne, who finished second five times, but could not find victory lane. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya would become rookie winners in 2005, 2006 and 2007 respectively, but there were no rookie winners again in 2008, despite Regan Smith crossing the finish line first at Talladega.

New Hampshire Prediction – Marcos Amborse is coming off a career day in Sonoma, Joey Logano will be racing close to where he grew up in Connecticut, Scott Speed needs to avenge his DNQ and Brad Keselowski will be running with the team that he scored his first Sprint Cup victory in. All these drivers have a lot of motivation to run well this weekend, but who will finish the best?

Tony’s Rookie Prediction: It turns out that I was completely wrong last week where I thought Marcos Ambrose couldn’t have the perfect day needed to finish in the top 5. As it turns out, he did not have a perfect day (or weekend for that matter), but still managed to fight for a third place finish anyway. You have pulled out to a two point advantage over me.

Joey Logano may have had not had the finishes he was hoping for over the past two weeks, but he has been one of the best performing rookies over the past two months. I will go with Logano as the highest finishing driver this week in New Hampshire.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 8, Tony: 6

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