The Frontstretch: Rookies Perform Terribly While a Former ROTY Behaves Terribly at Loudon by Tony Lumbis -- Monday September 21, 2009

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Joey Logano:
Start: 33rd; Finish: 21st

Summary: Joey Logano’s return to his home track, where he scored his first career Cup victory earlier this year, did not get off to a good start. The Connecticut native could only muster enough speed out of his Home Depot Camry for a dismal 33rd starting position on Friday, and any hope of having a better race setup was quickly erased as Logano struggled to make up ground in the first 150 laps of the event. Still mired in the middle of the pack, the rookie then ignited a lap 167 crash when Elliott Sadler checked up in front of him. Logano could not slow his car up in time and made contact with the No. 19 Dodge, sending it into the spin cycle and collecting other competitors along the way. The No. 20 emerged from the carnage fairly unscathed and was able to continue, but was only quick enough for a 21st place finish. However, considering it was a rough day for all freshmen, that turned out good enough to earn his 19th top rookie honor of 2009.

Despite his pre-race pep talk from J.D. Gibbs, Joey Logano wasn’t able to crack the top 20 on Sunday.

Quote: “This place is just hard to get a hold of. This place is really difficult. I know it’s my home track and all, but I don’t like it. It is what it is. These cars are just a handful here. You can’t run the same line you would in a Camping World car or Nationwide car ‘cause they’ve got so much motor and you’re trying to compromise something to get it to drive … [but] it’s the guys that aren’t compromising anything that are fast.”

On the contact with Sadler: “I kind of got pinned in the middle there and just tried to get out of it. I didn’t want to get in the back of the No. 19, and just got there. It stinks. I’ve got to call and apologize to him.”

Erik Darnell:
Start: 37th; Finish: 30th

Summary: It was another tough day at the office for Erik Darnell, who was making his second career start in the No. 96 Hall of Fame Ford. In fact, the rookie’s name was not even mentioned on Sunday afternoon until lap 161, when contact from the No. 82 car of Scott Speed sent Darnell’s car into the wall. The Illinois native continued on but was a non-factor throughout the remainder of the race, as he finished 30th for his second consecutive start.

Quote: “It was a frustrating day. We fought it all day and were just too tight. Track position is real important here and we just didn’t have it, so it was a real learning experience out there today. This race was actually tougher than Atlanta, because at least when you’re there, as a driver you can have some control over your car. Here, track position is so important that if you didn’t have it, you couldn’t make up any ground.”

Scott Speed:
Start: 27th; Finish: 31st

Summary: Continuing the rookie trend on this particular Sunday afternoon was Scott Speed, who was also virtually unheard of most of the day. After starting deep in the field, Speed struggled with the handling on his Red Bull Toyota, which was not even fast enough to stay on the lead lap. Twice, the No. 82 team was granted a reprieve when they were awarded the “Lucky Dog” on both the fifth and sixth cautions of the afternoon. But the problems Speed and Company were experiencing could not be solved by a “Lucky Dog.” They labored through the rest of the Sylvania 300 in route to a 27th place finish.

Not a New England Fan?: Scott Speed’s June outing in the Granite State ended with a crash and a 36th place performance. The second trip did not result in a DNF, but the finish was only five positions better. Look for the team to list the track as one to work on for 2010.

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)

For the second consecutive week, Marcos Ambrose experienced an atypical and somewhat controversial performance. The No. 47 Toyota appeared to be way off for the first 100 laps, as they struggled to stay in the top 30. Then, crew chief Frankie Kerr was able to provide Ambrose with the feel that he wanted as the Australian began to progress in the second half of the race. In fact, on lap 268, Kerr kept his driver out on the track to lead a lap before pitting. With just seven laps remaining, Ambrose made contact with the No. 44 of A.J. Allmendinger, which spun the third-year driver. Replays indicated that the contact was a payback from an incident between the two just a few laps before. Ambrose was able to emerge from the controversy and finish in the 20th position … although the two supposedly made contact again on the last lap, causing Allmendinger to be sitting at the start/finish line and forcing the caution to be thrown as the leaders headed towards the checkered flag.

Aric Almirola made his first start in James Finch’s No. 09 Chevy after recording a DNQ at Bristol last month. Sunday’s race marked the “almost rookie’s” first competitive laps in a Sprint Cup car since Texas in April, when his former No. 8 ride at Earnhardt Ganassi shut down. Overall, it was a mostly uneventful race for him as he recorded a 29th place finish and some much-needed track time in the process.

Tony’s Take:
The New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been regarded by many as one of the most difficult tracks on the circuit. Apparently, this was true for the freshmen, who — despite their previous experience at this track — ran into a lot of difficulty trying to navigate its tight corners. Dismal outings by all of the rookies and almost rookies have left me with little to say about their performances on Sunday.

However, what has caught my attention is the behavior of a driver I wrote about on a weekly basis two years ago – 2007 Rookie of the Year Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya has enjoyed only limited success since his first-year campaign, and it appears to be wearing on him despite the fact that he is enjoying his best season to date. The Sylvania 300 marks the second race this season (the first being the Brickyard 400) where Montoya could not “seal the deal” on a victory that was his to lose; and both times, he claimed that someone else “screwed him” out of the win. At Indy, it was NASCAR for penalizing him for speeding on pit road; now, this past Sunday, it was none other than Mark Martin for racing slower than Montoya expected in the corner. What both instances illustrate is that the Colombian lacks the experience of racing for the win… period. I believe that this former rookie standout, who has shown great potential at times, should start concentrating on getting the job done instead of wasting his energy on paranoia about everyone else being out to get him. Both NASCAR and Mark Martin have better things to do…

Who Wasn’t Here?:
Dexter Bean attempted to make his first start since Chicago in July, but missed the field after recording the slowest time on Friday.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

17th – Marcos Ambrose (0)
19th – Joey Logano (0)
35th – Scott Speed (0)
41st – Brad Keselowski (-1, DNS)
42nd – Max Papis (0, DNS)
44th – Aric Almirola (0)
56th – Erik Darnell (+3)
62nd – Dexter Bean (-2, DNQ)

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 during that same time period.

Qualifying Next Week: Scott Speed will have to keep fighting the fight, as he will need to make the field on time next week at Dover.

Next Up: The passing will get easier next week when the series returns to Dover, Delaware for the second race this season. However, that does not mean the rookies will have an easy time this Sunday, as they will face one of the most physically demanding tracks on the circuit. In fact, back in June Logano recalled how he left the Monster Mile with a very stiff neck after 400 miles of abuse inside his race car. Despite the sore muscles, though, he recorded a solid 15th place finish, which I would expect him to at least match if not improve on this weekend. Speed, on the other hand, did not have a very good outing during his previous trip to the Monster, blowing his engine well before the halfway point. It’s not all doom and gloom for the California native at this venue, however, as he scored his first Camping World Truck Series win there last year.

Rookie Prediction Poll – A large majority of you thought that Joey Logano would capitalize on the experience he gained from his victory back in June and turn that into a top 10 run this past Sunday. Instead, both Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli could not hit the right setup and finished well outside the top 10.

Atlanta Prediction – Marcos Ambrose has usually had the upper hand on the Rookie Of The Year candidates this year, but has been off somewhat of late. Can at least one of those contenders – Logano or Speed – outperform the Australian this week at Dover?

Tony’s Rookie Prediction: I thought for sure that I would fall a point behind here after witnessing Logano’s performance, but you and I agreed that he could in fact pull off a top 10. We were both wrong, so no points are awarded as we will go into next week tied once again.

As for this week, Logano actually outperformed Ambrose at Dover back in the Spring, and even though the 19-year-old let me down this week, I’m going to go back to him one more time and say that he can be the one who outperforms Ambrose.

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

Contact Tony Lumbis

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