The Frontstretch: Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Keselowski Ending Hendrick Tenure On A High Note by Tony Lumbis -- Monday October 5, 2009

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Brad Keselowski:
Start: 3rd; Finish: 13th

Summary: Brad Keselowski proved that his career best third starting position was no fluke in the beginning laps of the Price Chopper 400, as the rookie raced in the top 3 from the drop of the green flag until the first round of pit stops. It was then that his GoDaddy.com pit crew pulled off a lightning quick stop, as they got their driver out in front of teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to take the lead. The neon green Chevy would not remain there for long, however, as another teammate, Jimmie Johnson would overtake Keselowski up front after only one lap.

Still, the fifth Hendrick driver mixed it up with the leaders all afternoon, and at one point even rubbed fenders with Juan Montoya as the two fought for the same real estate coming off of turn 4, eliciting a warning from NASCAR to be careful around the Chase contenders. It seemed he could even be an outside contender himself for his second win of the season as the race wore on.

Unfortunately, the only thing that could slow Keselowski down on this particular afternoon was an ill-timed caution on lap 126 after he had just made a green-flag pit stop. The No. 25 team remained on the track to become one of the “wave around” cars in order to gain his lap back; however, the prime track position that the young driver enjoyed all day was now lost. Still, Keselowski fought through the pack and, by the end of the day, was able to salvage a respectable 13th place finish.

Quote: “We had such a great GoDaddy.com Chevy today, and it was great to have it up front for awhile. We just caught a bad break with that caution falling where it did. My guys did a fantastic job on pit road though, getting me some spots almost every stop. All in all, it was a good day for this team and I’m excited to take this car to Charlotte.”

Scott Speed:
Start: 10th; Finish: 27th

Scott Speed acted like he was ice cold Friday for qualifying, but actually that was the day he was hottest. After qualifying 10th, he had a ho-hum race on Sunday, even though he took home Rookie of the Race honors for the second straight week.

Summary: Scott Speed rolled off the grid on the outside of Row 5, which was his sixth top 10 starting position of the year. The Californian was competitive for the first 30 laps of the event as he battled in the top 20. However, the Red Bull Toyota appeared to fade on the longer runs as he eventually fell a lap down to the leader. Despite falling off the pace, Speed and Company were able to hold on for a 27th place finish, which was enough to earn the driver his second consecutive rookie honor of the race award.

A positive streak?: For the first time in 2009, Scott Speed has finished as the highest Rookie of the Year candidate in two straight races.

Joey Logano:
Start: 18th; Finish: 28th

Summary: Last week’s terrifying wreck at Dover appeared to have no long-term impact on Joey Logano, as he went on to win the Nationwide race on Saturday and claimed that the accident was “no big deal” during the pace laps on Sunday. In fact, the only thing that appeared to be a concern to Logano was the fact that his car was not good on long runs. Well, the youngster did not need to worry about long runs early on as he lost control of his Home Depot Camry on Lap 2, which brought out the race’s first caution. Logano was racing on the top groove coming off of turn 2 when the back end of his car snapped around, sending him into the spin cycle. Luckily, the rookie did not hit anything and was able to continue. But just a handful of laps later, Logano was involved in a multi-car incident on the backstretch as he got into the back of Elliott Sadler, who was slowing trying to avoid the carnage in front of them. The 19-year-old sustained some damage to the front of his machine, and was never really competitive after that. Barely heard from the rest of the day, he came home in a very disappointing 28th position, one lap off the pace.

Mini-Slump?: Joey Logano’s finishes of 42nd and 28th at Dover and Kansas, respectively, are the first time the rookie has recorded consecutive finishes outside of the top 25 since finishing 32nd and 30th at Martinsville and Texas this past Spring.

Erik Darnell:
Start: 41st; Finish: 29th

Summary: Erik Darnell started in the back of the field and remained there for most of the race, as losing a lap early eliminated any chance the rookie had of moving up through the field. However, after spending much of the day outside of the top 30, Darnell was able to squeak out a 29th place finish, his best in three Sprint Cup starts this year.

Quote: “[I’m focused on] experience and getting laps under my belt in one of these cars. They’re a lot different than the Nationwide Series cars and the Trucks that I’m used to driving, and the big thing for me is getting laps and getting used to how these things drive. I really feel like our Northern Tool + Equipment Ford was a lot better than where we finished today. Ben [Leslie, crew chief] and everybody on the team did a good job of making adjustments from practice yesterday to the race today.”

Max Papis:
Start: 43rd; Finish: 32nd

Summary: After qualifying last for his second consecutive start, Max Papis’ poor track position almost got him in trouble very early in the Price Chopper 400. On Lap 7, Paul Menard broke loose and collected several competitors on the backstretch. The Italian was forced to take evasive action to the grass to avoid the wreck, giving him a few more tense moments early than he would have liked. Papis emerged from the wreckage virtually unscathed, though, and was able to continue. Focusing on making laps and gaining experience after that, the GEICO Toyota finished in 32nd spot, four laps off the pace.

Oval Issues: After recording a top 10 finish at Watkins Glen, Max Papis has three finishes outside of the top 30.

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Joey Logano 210
Scott Speed 186
Max Papis 112
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)

The intermediate tracks have not been the strong suit of Marcos Ambrose this year, but both he and his team have appeared to make forward progress at Kansas this past weekend. After a less than stellar 27th place qualifying position, Ambrose quickly moved into the top 20 and remained there for almost the entire rest of the race. Once again, the Australian remained quiet but consistent throughout the afternoon and was rewarded with yet another top 15 finish. In fact, Ambrose has started 27th and finished 14th in the last two consecutive events.

Tony’s Take:
Brad Keselowski was clearly the class of the rookie field on Sunday, and would have done even better if it weren’t for the bad luck in the pits that seems to follow crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. wherever he goes. Early in the race, the rookie looked as if he had a car that could potentially challenge for the win, but was not able to put himself in position to do so after an untimely caution trapped him at the back of the lead lap. Keselowski’s next race in this car will be at Charlotte in a couple of weeks, though, and if they bring the same car as they have been, he will certainly be a force. It will be interesting to see next year if it is the man behind the wheel or the Hendrick horsepower that is fueling this Keselowski’s success.

Who Wasn’t Here?:
Kevin Hamlin was not quick enough to make the show, as he attempted to make his first career Sprint Cup start in the No. 37 Front Row Motorsports Dodge.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

17th – Marcos Ambrose (0)
20th – Joey Logano (-1)
35th – Scott Speed (0)
40th – Brad Keselowski (+1)
43rd – Max Papis (-1)
44th – Aric Almirola (0, DNS)
53rd – Erik Darnell (+3)
62nd – Dexter Bean (0, 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 time period.

Qualifying Next Week: Scott Speed will need to make the field on time, as he has had to do for most of 2009. Max Papis will also need to be fast enough to qualify on speed in his No. 13 Camry out West.

Next Up: For the first time since it’s been on the NASCAR schedule, a California race will be held in October after being moved from Labor Day weekend. Where it falls on the schedule means nothing to the rookies, though, eagerly looking to avenge their poor performances from back in February. Logano could only manage a 26th place finish and while Scott Speed turned in a top 10 qualifying effort, engine woes relegated him to 41st in the final standings. Expect both of these drivers to use the eight months of experience they have gained since that race, as well as the track’s forgiving surface, to record much better runs this time around at the Pepsi 500.

Rookie Prediction Poll – Just over half of you thought that Joey Logano would be the highest finishing rookie in Sunday’s race. But two early-race incidents put the No. 20 team behind the eight ball early on and they were never able to reach their full potential, finishing behind both Keselowski and Speed.

Fontana Prediction – This week’s poll question will focus on the 2009 “almost rookie” Marcos Ambrose. The Aussie has enjoyed a very solid year, yet one of the few weak spots has been the intermediate tracks. Based on his Kansas performance, it appears that the No. 47 team is turning the corner on these types of configurations, but will it show next week in Fontana?

Tony’s Rookie Prediction: I thought that Keselowski would have a good run at Kansas, and I was right. He was the highest finishing rookie, and I earned one point to pull even with you with seven weeks left to go.

While Ambrose has shown improvement on intermediates of late, I do not think he will fare quite as well in Fontana. That team had horrendous outings of 31st and 35th at Michigan, the sister track to Fontana. I just don’t think they have improved enough to better their 22nd place finish earlier this season.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 12, Tony: 12.

Contact Tony Lumbis

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