The Frontstretch: 2009 Sprint Cup Rookie Final Report Cards: Grading A Year Filled With Future Potential by Tony Lumbis -- Monday November 30, 2009

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Another season has come to a close, and it is time for Professor Lumbis to issue final report cards to the Freshman Class of 2009, consisting of rookies and almost rookies alike. It’s a piece you’ll want to read carefully, saving for your files, because as of right now, it looks like it could be awhile before another rookie piece is written for the Cup Series. With a shortage of young stars through most of the series’ feeder leagues, there are no drivers currently intending to run for Rookie of the Year in 2010 at the sport’s top level.

So, what can we make of the final class of fresh talent this decade? Well, it looks as if the Sprint Cup series is in the hands of some up and coming drivers who have the potential to do great things… but still have a lot of work to do before reaching the next level. Which one of them performed the best in my eyes this year? Read below to find out as I assign each one individual grades for 2009.

Editor’s Note: This isn’t the first time Tony’s evaluated the 2009 freshmen. Click here to see how this set of grades compares with his Midseason Report.

Brad Keselowski had a strong rookie season in Cup, but it ended with a whimper after finishing no better than 25th in three races behind the wheel of his full-time ride for 2010 — the No. 12 Penske Dodge.

No. 09/25 Brad Keselowski
15 Starts, 1 Win, 1 Top 5, 4 Top 10s, 2 DNQs (Daytona 500, Dover).
Average Finish – 21.5.
Best Finish – 1st (Talladega).

Brad Keselowski experienced just about everything possible in the NASCAR world in 2009. He drove Chevys and Dodges, failed to qualify twice — including the season-opening Daytona 500 — then ended up in Victory Lane after the next restrictor plate race on the schedule, Talladega. Running top-tier equipment at Hendrick Motorsports, he had the typical rookie smorgasbord of good finishes and bad finishes, winning the hearts of some while ticking off several others in the process — including a competitor or two. Through it all, however, perhaps the most important accomplishment for the Michigan native this past season was securing a full-time ride for 2010, replacing David Stremme in the three-driver lineup over at Penske Racing. It will be quite the challenge, as the No. 12 team has not done anything of significance since winning the 2008 Daytona 500 — one of just three teams to make every race in 2009 and never score a top 10 finish. Still, if Keselowski can focus his emotions in a positive manner and work on his consistency, he could be just the guy to turn this program around next season.

GRADE: B.

No. 8 – Aric Almirola
8 Starts, 0 Wins, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s, 1 DNQ (Bristol).
Average Finish – 32.4.
Best Finish – 21st (Atlanta).

Aric Almirola thought his season was over when Earnhardt Ganassi ran out of funding for his No. 8 team and was forced to shut it down. However, he received a second chance when James Finch hired Almirola to drive his No. 09 Dodge for two races. Unfortunately, the team missed the show at Bristol in August and could only manage a 29th place finish a few weeks later in New Hampshire — leading to his release from the team. I could not give a mid-term grade to Almirola due to the unplanned, premature ending to his season and with only one race in the books since then, I still cannot give him anything other than an “incomplete.”

GRADE: I.

No. 13 – Max Papis
15 Starts, 0 Wins, 0 Top 5s, 1 Top 10, 6 DNQs.
Average Finish – 31.1.
Best Finish – 8th (Watkins Glen).

At the season’s midpoint, I was most impressed by the fact that this underdog team and driver only missed two out of their scheduled nine starts to begin the season. However, as the series moved towards the second half of the schedule, the reality of being a small, new, single-car effort set in for Max Papis and Germain Racing. The Italian missed four more races, twice as many as he did during the first leg of his schedule, and did not finish any higher than 29th in seven out of his final eight starts. However, the second half did offer one bright spot, which came at Papis’ bread and butter — the road course at Watkins Glen, where he scored a career best eighth place finish.

Despite the struggles, this same team and driver combination is supposed to run a full schedule in 2010. But if those plans come to fruition, they will have a lot of work to do in order to stay competitive week in, week out — particularly on qualifying setups.

GRADE: D.

No. 20 – Joey Logano
36 Starts, 1 Win, 3 Top 5s, 7 Top 10s.
Average Finish – 20.0.
Best Finish – 1st (New Hampshire).
Points Finish – 20th.

If someone would have said after the first seven races of the season that Joey Logano would finish the year in the top 20 in points, he or she would have been written off as certifiably insane. However, Logano and the entire No. 20 team picked themselves up off the ground and went from bubble team to a top 10 contender almost every week. In the second half of the season, Logano turned in some solid performances, including a fifth place at Charlotte and a third at Talladega this Fall, adding to his growing resume beyond that upset win at Loudon this June. But the problem is that interspersed in between those runs were several finishes outside of the top 20, not to mention a terrifying wreck at Dover that left the 19-year-old a little shaken up.

However, as the season concluded the youngster was plenty impressive enough, shaking off his early troubles to take home the prestigious 2009 Rookie of the Year trophy. This team and driver demonstrated their ability to finish well this season, and will simply need to display that ability on a consistent basis in 2010. If they can find a way to do it, a birth in the Chase is not out of the question by any means.

GRADE: A-.

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose
36 Starts, 0 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 7 Top 10s.
Average Finish – 19.6.
Best Finish – 2nd (Watkins Glen).
Points Finish – 18th.

It’s almost a shame that Marcos Ambrose was not eligible to run for Rookie of the Year, as he would most certainly have made the battle for the award an interesting one. The Tasmanian, who came onto the Sprint Cup scene last year with a modest Nationwide resume, ran solidly in almost every single event in 2009. Recording a career best of second at Watkins Glen, he may have been able to even pick up a win if weren’t for the fact that he was chasing two-time champion Tony Stewart. At the season finale at Homestead, it looked as if he would be the car to beat early on until a series of misfortunes doomed any chance the team had to compete for the victory. But combined with those victory chances was a level of consistency that left him on the fringes of Chase contention in midsummer. If Ambrose and his entire No. 47 team can turn their top 15 finishes into top 10s in 2010, their playoff chances will increase significantly in his sophomore season.

GRADE: A.

No. 82 – Scott Speed
35 Starts, 0 Wins, 1 Top 5, 1 Top 10, 3 DNQs (Texas, Darlington (Raced #87), Sonoma (Raced #87).
Average Finish – 29.0.
Best Finish – 5th (Talladega).
Points Finish – 35th (Note: Team was 36th in owner points).

After running circles (literally) around ARCA competition in 2008, many may have thought that Scott Speed had the potential to turn some heads in the Sprint Cup series in 2009. Well, it looks as if the rookie needed some laps of experience first before becoming a force to be reckoned with at this level. Even when the No. 82 team would qualify well, they were not fast enough to be competitive in the race and would often fall to the back of the field. As a result, Speed would find himself in harm’s way, which contributed to his 8 DNFs on the season — six of which were due to accidents. The entire Red Bull team did show signs of improvement in the second half of the season, however. They did not miss a single race after recording 3 DNQs in the first half, while recording several top 25 finishes, a vast improvement from earlier in the season. But when the checkered flag flew at Homestead, they did fall short of their goal of “locking in” to the field for 2010, losing out on the 35th and final spot in owner points to Front Row Racing’s No. 34 Chevy. As a result, the No. 82 team will have to fight hard to climb into the top 35 in owner points during the first five races of 2010, which would enable them to focus more on race setup and hopefully start to compete with the front half of the field.

GRADE: C-.

Tony’s Final Summary: During the midseason reviews, I noted that while the results have been less than stellar for this group (excluding Ambrose), I believed that they had the potential to display significant improvement. In my mind, it was mission accomplished during the second half — especially for the two full-time Rookie of the Year competitors. Logano showed progress in the form of better finishes, while Speed improved his qualifying performances to the point the team could focus their attention on Sundays.

Looking ahead, I think all of these drivers have the capability to become a force in a series that so desperately needs fresh, young star power. However, that will only happen if car owners stay patient enough to allow each driver to grow and gel with their respective teams — for as we all know, champions are not born overnight. So while it may have not been the most exciting rookie race in recent history, don’t lose sight of these drivers over the next few years.

Finally, as I had mentioned last week, this is the final year that I will be exclusively covering the Sprint Cup rookies, as I will be moving on to other roles and responsibilities here at Frontstretch.com. The timing works out pretty well, since it’s difficult to cover rookies that don’t exist (as will be the case for 2010). So, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for your support over the past three years. You continued to come back week after week to read my column, keep track of the rookies, and compete in the prediction polls. Even when the news was neither good nor interesting – and unfortunately, that happened a lot with rookies over the last two years – many you were still here supporting this column. I sincerely appreciate your loyalty, and would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you. I look forward to moving on now and serving Frontstretch.com and its readers, albeit in a different capacity, for many years to come.

Until then, have a safe and happy holiday season!

Contact Tony Lumbis

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JC
11/30/2009 02:29 PM
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The only thing I could quibble with would be Speed’s grade.
When a team with the 83’s resources can’t beat out the two under-funded single car teams of John Andretti, & Robby Gordon. I think a D- is more in order.

Evan
12/01/2009 01:03 AM
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But JC,

I don’t think it was a question of resources, just experience.

Speed is a rookie, and Andretti and Gordon have raced for a combined 25 years.

It is not fair to compare the three in that fashion.

And a C- is a fine grade for what was trying to be accomplished with that team in 2009.

JohnP
12/01/2009 11:13 AM
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Oh yea, I forgot all about the rookie of the year. ESPN never mentioned it.