The Frontstretch: Freshmen Struggle To Find Footing At Richmond ... With One Exception by Tony Lumbis -- Monday September 14, 2009

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Freshmen Struggle To Find Footing At Richmond ... With One Exception

Sprint Cup Rookie Report · Tony Lumbis · Monday September 14, 2009

 

Joey Logano:
Start: 27th; Finish: 14th

Summary: Joey Logano faced a tall order when Saturday evening’s race began. Starting towards the back of the field at a short track during one of the season’s most intense races of the year would be daunting for any freshman, but especially for one who had yet to score a top 15 on a Cup oval less than a mile in length. So while some were busy racing for their Chase lives, Logano was simply hoping to have a solid night without interfering with any of the “bubble drivers” in front of him.

Mission accomplished.

Joey Logano gets some pre-race tips from former Home Depot driver Tony Stewart at Richmond. Looks like the tips paid off, as the Sprint Cup freshman put together his first ever top 15 finish at a short track.

The rookie slowly worked his way into the top 20 by the race’s one-quarter mark and would be a mainstay there for virtually the entire night. The No. 20 team would eventually cross the line in the 14th position, giving the driver his 18th Rookie of the Race award for 2009.

Richmond Success: Logano finished 19th at Richmond in the Spring, giving him two top 20 finishes at the Virginia venue (his only career short track results inside the top 30). It is the first repeat track this season where the rookie has accomplished this feat.

Scott Speed:
Start: 20th; Finish: 36th

Summary: Scott Speed has improved his performance somewhat in the second half of the season, but his chances of a strong run at the Chevy Rock and Roll 400 were ended before they even began. On lap six, the California native was racing on the outside of the No. 31 Chevy driven by Jeff Burton in turn two. The side-by-side battle turned for the worse when No. 14 of Tony Stewart, who moved under the CAT Chevy, made contact with Burton, whose car got loose and came up into Speed. Unable to react in time, the No. 82 Toyota looped around and backed into the outside retaining wall as a result. To their credit, the team made quick repairs and remained only one lap down for most of the first half of the race. However, Speed simply could not keep pace in his wounded machine and would eventually finish a disappointing 36th, four laps down.

Forward Progress: After finishing eight consecutive races outside of the top 30 between Dover and Indianapolis, Speed has recorded only two such finishes in his last six races. While it may not be pretty, it does illustrate the progress that the rookie driver has been making over the past two months.

Max Papis:
Start: 43rd; Finish: 37th

Summary: Italian Max Papis barely made the field for Saturday night’s race when he qualified his No. 13 Camry in the 43rd and final starting position. The former open-wheeler stayed out of trouble, but that was about his only accomplishment for the evening. Papis rode at the back of the pack for the entire race and only moved up the scoring pylon when another competitor dropped out. When the checkered flag flew, Papis was credited with 37th place, the final car still running in the race.

A rough stretch: After recording a career best 8th place finish at Watkins Glen, Papis’ starts have been as follows: Bristol – DNQ, Atlanta – 40th (DNF), Richmond – 37th.

Brad Keselowski:
Start: 9th; Finish: 38th

Summary: Brad Keselowski started the best out of all the “go or go-homers” when he recorded a top 10 qualifying effort on Friday. However, it appeared that strong performance may have been the result of an aggressive setup simply meant to get the team into the field. Indeed, the rookie fell back almost right from the start and was outside of the top 20 by lap 30. An interesting yellow flag pit sequence then forced the Miccosukee crew to work on their car backwards after contact from the No. 6 of David Ragan spun Keselowski, placing him tail first into his pit box. The night only got worse for the Phoenix Racing team when their engine in the No. 09 Impala imploded with 18 laps remaining, relegating the rookie to a 38th place finish.

Can’t wait to move on?: After three top 10 finishes in three starts earlier this year, including a win, Keselowski now has finishes outside of the top 20 in his last four starts. Perhaps the fresh start with Penske in 2010 cannot come soon enough.

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Joey Logano 210
Scott Speed 184
Max Papis 103
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)

Saturday night’s race did not represent the clean, solid performance that we have been accustomed to seeing from Marcos Ambrose. The Australian struggled early, dropping back from his 16th starting position into the mid and lower 20s. At one point, the normally uncontroversial Ambrose even made contact with the No. 26 Ford of Jamie McMurray while battling for position. On the next caution, McMurray expressed his displeasure by bumping the No. 47 Camry in retaliation; however, Ambrose kept his cool and both drivers were able to continue. Working with crew chief Frankie Kerr, the two tried to improve the handling on their Toyota despite falling a lap down midway through the race. Their persistence paid off as the team was awarded the “Lucky Dog” award on the 10th and final caution flag, allowing Ambrose to salvage a 22nd position on an otherwise frustrating night.

Tony’s Take:
Fourteenth place may appear to be an insignificant type of finish for most drivers. However, it represented just the performance the No. 20 team needed. After making significant progress in the second half of 2009, Logano had cooled off somewhat over the past two weeks with finishes of 34th and 22nd at Bristol and Atlanta, respectively. After qualifying poorly, it looked as if the streak would continue, but Logano and team made steady progress towards the front and recorded a solid finish, exactly what the racing doctor ordered.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Team Germain experiment with Max Papis may have reached its limit. Earlier this season, it appeared that this driver and car had a lot of potential. While the finishes were not always what they hoped for, Papis was making almost every race he attempted, which is more than most expected. The success may have reached its peak a few weeks ago at “The Glen,” where the Italian recorded his first ever top 10 finish in the series. But ever since, the Italian has missed two races and performed poorly in the other two events. In fact, Bootie Barker, who was “on loan” from Michael Waltrip Racing at Richmond this past weekend, served as Papis’ third crew chief in 2009 only for the team to continue their struggles. Their current agreement goes through 2012, but it looks like both team and driver should consider re-evaluating their future at the end of this season.

Who Wasn’t Here?:
All rookies who attempted to make the Chevy Rock and Roll 400 qualified for the race.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

17th – Marcos Ambrose (0)
19th – Joey Logano (0)
35th – Scott Speed (0)
40th – Brad Keselowski (0)
42nd – Max Papis (+1)
44th – Aric Almirola (0, DNS)
59th – Erik Darnell (0, DNS)
60th – Dexter Bean (0, DNS)

Note – The discrepancy between the driver standings and owner points for Scott Speed is due to the fact that John Andretti fell behind Speed in driver 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 that time period.

Qualifying Next Week: Scott Speed’s misfortune early at Richmond did not do much to help his team’s cause in the owner standings. Once again, the No. 82 bunch will need to make it in on time. Meanwhile, the No. 51 car driven by Dexter Bean is scheduled to run next week at New Hampshire. If he is able to make an attempt, he’ll have to make the field on speed.

Next Up: The first race of the Chase starts this Sunday with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire. Joey Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli played the rain strategy perfectly at the Magic Mile back in June, when Zippy kept the Connecticut native out on the track to record a victory at the driver’s home track. However, the No. 20 team was not a factor up until that point, so do not expect them to be a favorite to repeat this time around. Scott Speed, on the other hand, had a bad day and bad finish due to an accident midway through the event. With that in mind, it is difficult to accurately predict just how the freshman will run. One thing is for sure, though; for this week and for the rest of the season, these rookies will be faced with the challenges of racing hard while being conscious of those Chase contenders running for a championship.

Rookie Prediction Poll – The votes were spread out this week, as only 37% was enough for a simple majority. That majority went with Marcos Ambrose as the top-finishing rookie at Richmond. Normally, this is a good pick, but as previously documented, Ambrose struggled all night, although he still finished as the second-best “freshman” to Joey Logano.

New Hampshire Prediction – Joey Logano won at New Hampshire earlier this season, but did not run well for virtually the rest of the race. Still, can the experience gained from that surprising victory be enough for Logano to record a top 10 finish this week?

Bryan’s / Tony’s Rookie Predictions: Bryan had a lot of confidence in Brad Keselowski based on Mike Wallace’s strong Richmond performances in the same car in the past. It looked like a good pick on Friday after a strong qualifying effort, but that success did not translate into Saturday for the race. So, we head into the final 10-race stretch all tied up at 11 points apiece.

As for this week, the Home Depot team has had a good history at New Hampshire and I think Joey Logano’s solid run at Richmond, another flat track, will carry over into Richmond, where he will finish in the top 10.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 11, Tony: 11.

Contact Tony Lumbis

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