The Frontstretch: Rookies Run Well, But Only Ambrose Sealed The Deal In Daytona by Tony Lumbis -- Monday July 6, 2009

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Joey Logano:
Start: 21st; Finish: 19th

Summary: The leading Rookie of the Year candidate came into Independence Day weekend riding high on momentum after capturing his first career win in New Hampshire. A newly confident Logano, who wrecked out of the Daytona 500 after just 79 laps, appeared determined to make his return to the speedway last much longer. Indeed, the 19-year-old spent much of the evening racing in the top 20 while narrowly avoiding several incidents. On lap 78, a multi-car wreck ignited right in front of the rookie, who managed to squeeze in between the spinning car of David Stremme and the outside retaining wall with barely a scratch on his Home Depot Camry. With just eight laps remaining, the youngster again managed to barely miss fellow rookie Scott Speed, who made contact with A.J. Allmendinger and then the wall on the frontstretch.

However, the coast was not yet clear for Logano, who could not avoid the final lap melee coming to the checkered flag. When the dust had cleared, the rookie was credited with the 19th position, despite having a top 15 run going for most of the night. Still, the result was good enough for his 14th top rookie honor of the race.

Brad Keselowski:
Start: 36th; Finish: 24th

Summary: Brad Keselowski returned to a restrictor plate track in James Finch’s Chevy for the first time since his victory at Talladega earlier this season. The rookie was hoping to duplicate the same magic both he and the team worked back in April, but Daytona in July proved to be a much different animal for them. For much of the first half of the race, the No. 09 Impala hung in the back of the pack before getting caught up in the lap 78 “Big One” on the backstretch. Keselowski appeared to have the wreck cleared just before making slight contact with Jeff Gordon at the end of the straightaway. However, there was relatively little damage to the car and the team was able to continue. In fact, the 25-year-old started to make progress up through the field following the incident, at times even cracking the top 20. But crew chief Marc Reno and company never seemed to get the car to where Keselowski needed it to be in order to catch the front pack. On the last lap, Keselowski became entangled in the wreck in the tri-oval and emerged from the smoke in 24th position. It was the first time in four starts he did not record a top 10 finish … dating all the way back to Texas on April 5th.

After scoring an improbable win at Talladega, expectations for a good finish for Brad Keselowski were high. However, the “Big One” had other ideas…

Scott Speed:
Start: 37th; Finish: 31st

Summary: Scott Speed entered the Coke Zero 400 with high hopes, as Team Red Bull brought the same car he finished a career best fifth with at Talladega two and a half months ago. The strategy seemed to pay off early, as Speed was able to slowly maneuver his Camry to the front of the field — making it into the top 20 for the final sprint to the finish. With the help of teammate Brian Vickers, Team Red Bull was poised to make a run at the top 10 until disaster struck with just eight laps remaining. Speed found himself in the middle of a three-wide battle entering the tri-oval, and quickly tried to remove himself from the situation. He moved up the race track and tried to squeeze the No. 82 Toyota in front of the No. 44 Dodge of A.J. Allmendinger… but did not have him completely cleared. Speed’s machine was launched across the nose of Allmendinger and into the wall, ending the rookie’s promising day.

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Joey Logano 210
Scott Speed 177
Max Papis 68
Dexter Bean 11

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 was not feeling well for much of the week leading up to Saturday night’s event, but one would never know it based on his performance. After starting the evening in 18th due to his points position in the standings, Ambrose quietly remained in the top 20 until about 50 laps to go — when his No. 47 Kingsford/Clorox/Bush’s Baked Beans Camry made an appearance in the top 10. While the Aussie did not appear to have the car to challenge for the lead, it was certainly strong enough to bring home an impressive sixth place finish, his fifth top 10 of the year.

Quote: “This is a great result for us, especially given I’ve been pretty sick this week. I was on an IV drip before the race and haven’t been feeling great. Racing at Daytona in July sure helps get rid of a cold [though] because it was hot out there. We’ve just come so far in this sport. I’m just so happy that we were able to finish the race and get another top 10.”

Tony’s Take:
While their finishes may not show it, all the rookies and almost rookies had impressive runs during the Coke Zero 400. Joey Logano continues to look more and more comfortable behind the wheel of these race cars, and he especially appears to be getting the hang of restrictor plate racing. Of course, a little luck doesn’t hurt either. Logano was at the right place at the right time, which allowed him to miss two wrecks on Saturday. And even when Logano was in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could not have come at a better time – the very end of the race. When he is able to shed the yellow stripe next year and perhaps earn a dancing partner or two, Logano will certainly be a force at the superspeedways for years to come.

On the other hand, nobody should be surprised that bad luck would once again ruin Scott Speed’s day the way his 2009 season was going, although this time, he (or his spotter) have to take some of the blame. It looked as if the Californian was employing the same strategy he used at Talladega in April — where he hung at the back of the back until the end — and it looked as though that would pay off once again. However, the flip side of that strategy is in the last 30 laps, Speed was racing against drivers he had not raced against during most of the race. Whether it was miscommunication by the spotter or a miscalculation on Speed’s part, the accident at the end of the event robbed the team of the good finish that they so desperately needed.

Who Wasn’t Here?:
The rain was the last thing Max Papis and Company wanted to see last Friday. When the field was set by points, the No. 13 team found themselves just one attempt short of making the field. Last year’s Rookie of the Year, Regan Smith, had nine attempts, which gave his team the final spot for the Coke Zero 400 over Papis — who had just eight.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

18th – Marcos Ambrose (0)
20th – Joey Logano (+1)
35th – Scott Speed (0)
39th – Brad Keselowski (+1)
42nd – Max Papis (0, DNQ)
44th – Aric Almirola (0, DNS)
56th – 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, but his No. 34 team remained in 35th because of the efforts of Tony Raines in the same time period.

Qualifying Next Week: Scott Speed will need plenty of speed to make the field in Chicago for this Saturday night’s race. Brad Keselowski will also be playing the same game in qualifying, although this time he will be behind the wheel of Rick Hendrick’s No. 25 Chevy. The No. 51 team will also be hoping to have enough speed to make the Lifelock 400 field, presumably with Dexter Bean behind the wheel.

Next Up: The rookies will once again be making a trip to a track that they have not seen in Sprint Cup competition when the series starts its Midwest swing at the Chicagoland Speedway. This means that this year’s rookies and almost rookies will have to turn to their experience in other divisions at the mile and a half track, giving the upper hand to Ambrose, Keselowski, and Speed over Logano. Both Ambrose and Keselowski have raced in the Windy City in the Nationwide Series, while Speed has one ARCA start there last year. Also, if certain rumors are true, it is not out of the question for Aric Almirola to make a return to the series in the No. 1 car. Almirola has one Nationwide start at the venue in 2007.

Rookie Prediction Poll – You thought that experience would pay off this week, as over 70% of you felt that the highest finishing rookie would come out of the Logano/Speed/Ambrose group — and you were exactly right, as Ambrose bested the rest of the rookies by far.

Chicagoland Prediction – Joey Logano is the only rookie or almost rookie who has not logged laps at the Chicago track in one of NASCAR’s three major series. However, he has been gaining momentum over the past few months. Despite his lack of experience, can he beat out Speed, Ambrose, and Keselowski?

Tony’s Rookie Prediction: Well, I did have a two man disadvantage this week, as Papis did not make the race. However, I was counting on Keselowski to have a much better outing than he did; and as a result, I have fallen back to two points behind you.

I think Joey Logano can definitely pull off a good finish at Chicago, especially considering the success that team has had in the past. However, I think Keselowski will rebound, and both he and Ambrose will be simply too tough to beat in the Land of Lincoln.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 9, Tony: 7.

Contact Tony Lumbis

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