The Frontstretch: Rookie Report: Freshmen Speed and Logano Learn the Art of Survival at Fontana by Tony Lumbis -- Monday October 12, 2009

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Joey Logano:
Start: 6th; Finish: 14th

Summary: Joey Logano started out the Pepsi 500 weekend with a controversial Nationwide win, one that involved an alleged purposeful bump from Greg Biffle and a post-race altercation between the rookie’s father and the Roush-Fenway driver. Hoping to leave the controversy behind him, the driver of the Home Depot Camry rolled off the grid in the 6th position, his best qualifying spot since his 5th place effort at Darlington in May. Logano fell back at the start, but was able to run just on the fringe of the top 10 for the first 100 laps. However, as the California sun started to beat down on the track surface, the No. 20 Camry became very loose to the point Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli struggled to find the handling throughout the middle portion of the race. The team lost a lap and fell outside of the top 20.

Eventually, the team was able to dial the car back in, and Logano positioned himself to receive the “Free Pass” when the seventh caution of the day flew for an incident between Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, and Biffle on the frontstretch. With six laps remaining, Logano was forced to dodge a multi-car wreck heading into turn 1 and did so successfully. After an eventful day, Logano and team managed to finish in a very respectable 14th place, giving the driver his first rookie honor of the race award since Loudon.

Back on Track?: Joey Logano’s 14th place finish on Sunday afternoon was his first top 20 since Richmond last month, where he also finished in 14th.

Joey Logano celebrated his first win with his parents earlier in the year at Loudon. But looks like Dear Ol’ Dad won’t be staying so close to Joey after his confrontation with Greg Biffle after the Nationwide race Saturday.

Scott Speed:
Start: 21st; Finish: 21st

Summary: Scott Speed clocked in a very solid starting position in the middle of the pack when he qualified on Friday. As it turns out, all that meant was that he had room to fall back when the green flag flew on Sunday afternoon. Speed struggled with the handling of his Red Bull Camry under the cloud cover that the teams had not seen all weekend. By lap 53 he was one lap down and by lap 100, the rookie had fallen outside of the top 30. All was not lost for the No. 82 team, as they received the “Free Pass” when caution flew for debris on lap 117. Speed would continue to struggle for most of the event, again losing a lap, but adjustments and crafty pit strategy by crew chief Jimmy Elledge would put the Californian back on the lead lap with a better car by the end of the day. Like Logano, Speed also had to drive through the carnage of the “Big One” in the closing laps and was rewarded with a 21st place finish… exactly where he started.

Finally, some good home cooking!: Until last Sunday, Scott Speed has not had much luck in his home state of California. A blown engine relegated him to 41st at Fontana in February, while he could only muster a 37th place finish at Infineon in Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 Camry.

Max Papis:
Start: 15th; Finish: 35th

Summary: The Italian may have logged a very impressive 15th place qualifying position, but unfortunately for Max Papis, Friday’s success did not translate into a strong run on Sunday. The GEICO Toyota hung strong for the first 50 laps but slowly fell to the back of the pack after that, two laps down by the time the drivers were on the 100th circuit. Still, Papis and team finished the race, as they have done in every event except one (Summer Atlanta) that they have entered in 2009.

Great Friday: Max Papis’s 15th place qualifying effort was a career best for the Italian, who even bettered the efforts he turned in on his specialty tracks – Infineon and Watkins Glen.

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Joey Logano 210
Scott Speed 186
Max Papis 121
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 came to southern California hoping to shake the intermediate track blues that his team has suffered from all year. But for most of the weekend, it looked as though it would be the same old struggles from this group. The Aussie did not fare well during qualifying, turning in the 27th-best time. He did not progress forward from the middle of the pack for much of the first half of the race, either. However, as the sun came out, crew chief Frankie Kerr and team appeared to hit on something, as the No. 47 broke into the top 10 with just 43 laps to go. Just when it seemed certain the Ambrose would fight for a top 10 finish, all hell broke loose with less than 10 laps remaining. Contact was made heading into turn 1, which turned the No. 88 Chevy of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. down the track and into Ambrose. The crew was able to make repairs, however, and the Aussie was able to limp home to a 23rd place finish.

Tony’s Take:
The Pepsi 500 was about making the most out of a bad day for the rookie class. Both Logano and Speed looked out to lunch, but drivers and their teams kept working on their cars throughout the event. The “never give up” attitude placed both in position to get back on the lead lap, taking advantage of a wreck that eliminated many of the competitors ahead of them. It sure wasn’t a great day from a performance standpoint… but the results say otherwise. Turning a bad day into a half decent one is something that comes with experience, and these two drivers have appeared to learn the art in their young careers thus far.

Who Wasn’t Here?:
All rookie drivers who attempted the Pepsi 500 made the race. Kevin Hamlin, who was scheduled to attempt his second race in the No. 37 Dodge, was forced to step aside was he was not granted clearance by NASCAR to race a Cup car on the two-mile oval.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

17th – Marcos Ambrose (0)
20th – Joey Logano (0)
35th – Scott Speed (0)
41st – Brad Keselowski (-1, DNS)
42nd – Max Papis (+1)
44th – Aric Almirola (0, DNS)
53rd – Erik Darnell (0, DNS)
62nd – 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 the time period.

Qualifying Next Week: Scott’s Speed’s 21st place run was good, but John Andretti’s 19th place finishing position was better as Speed fell further behind the top 35 mark and will have to qualify on speed next week in Charlotte. Brad Keselowski will also need to be fast enough to make his final start in Rick Hendrick’s No. 25 Chevy (he has one more start remaining in the No. 09). Max Papis will also attempt to make his third consecutive race on Saturday night.

Next Up: Everyone involved in the Sprint Cup Series will be hoping for much better weather when they return to Charlotte for the NASCAR Banking 500. Everyone remembers the rain-delayed/rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, where Logano recorded a very solid 9th place finish after running well within the top 5 before the rains came. Speed also came home in the top 20 after running strong for most of the day. If the rookies adapted that well in their first visit to the track, I would expect them to do even better on the second.

Rookie Prediction Poll – This is a tough one. A resounding 87.5% of you thought that Ambrose would better his February Fontana finish (22nd), and you were right until the very end of the race. Ambrose saw a potential top 10 finish vanish through no fault of his own, and missed his finish earlier this season by one spot.

This Week’s Prediction – As was previously documented, Logano and Speed return to a track where they enjoyed success at earlier this year. Brad Keselowski did not run the Coca-Cola 600, and missed last year’s fall event at this venue when rain washed out qualifying. However, the No. 25 team has always seemed to run well on the quad-oval formation. Can Brad Keselowski beat out both Logano and Speed at the NASCAR Banking 500?

Tony’s Rookie Prediction: Well, I backed into a correct prediction, as I did not think Ambrose would run well… and I was wrong. However, no matter how it happened, the end result was that Ambrose did not better his earlier finish at this track, and I take the lead with just six polls left to run.

Keselowski has had some strong performances this year, including a good run at Kansas just two races ago. However, I think Logano will be too good to beat, and Speed should put up a good fight was well. I do not have confidence that Keselowski can beat both of them.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 12, Tony: 13.

Contact Tony Lumbis

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