The Frontstretch: Rating The Rookies : Goody's Cool Orange 500 by Tony Lumbis -- Sunday April 1, 2007

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Rating The Rookies : Goody's Cool Orange 500

Tony Lumbis · Sunday April 1, 2007


Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Juan Pablo Montoya (23rd), David Ragan (27th), Regan Smith* ( 36th), A.J. Allmendinger (40th), and David Reutimann (43rd).

Unofficial Finishing Positions: David Ragan (15th), Juan Pablo Montoya (16th), Regan Smith(26th), David Reutimann (33rd), and A.J. Allmendinger (38th).

Rookie of the Race: David Ragan. While Juan Pablo Montoya earned most of the attention, running in the Top 20 for most of the day and even cracking the Top 10 at one point, it was Ragan that came on strong towards the end, edging out his rookie competitor by one position. The Georgia native drove hard enough to gain his lap back after falling behind early, yet smart enough to keep his nose clean in an event where he hit the spin cycle early and often last Fall. The run earned him top rookie honors for the fourth time in six races this season.

Tony’s Take: I wouldn't be surprised if after the checkered flag fell, David Ragan went to the NASCAR officials to lobby for a "halftime" in every race. The AAA team, which was hardly mentioned the entire day (not a bad thing at Martinsville), suddenly found themselves running in the Top 10 after the red flag on lap 357 for rain. Although pit strategy was employed for track position, the right adjustments and smart driving allowed the team to bring home a Top 15 result. It's amazing how much of a difference five months makes, as the freshman driver went from being a ping-pong ball on wheels during last October's Martinsville debacle to being the top rookie this past Sunday. I have to attribute this turnaround to the leadership of veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig, as this duo is quickly providing a formidable challenge to preseason ROTY favorite Montoya.

Rocky Rookie Performance: A.J. Allmendinger. Qualifying for two races provides a huge momentum boost for this team after missing the first four races of the season. However, if the No. 84 team wants to be competitive in Nextel Cup, they need to raise the bar to the next level sooner rather than later. After a 40th place finish at Bristol, Allmendinger was the first car on the track to get lapped, running in the bottom five for virtually the entire Goody's Cool Orange 500. That type of performance will not cut it if Team Red Bull wants to move out from behind the 8 ball and into the Top 35 in points.

Rookie Wreck Of The Day: I was very impressed by the freshman five this week, as the rookie class completed the race with little or no incident, quite a feat at Martinsville and a far cry from Bristol last week. It wasn't perfect, though, and one of the few rookie skirmishes belonged to Juan Pablo Montoya. On lap 377, after battling with Tony Raines, Montoya would bump the No. 96 car out of his way and into the wall, ending that team's best run of 2007 while the No. 42 Texaco Havoline Dodge continued practically unscathed. The incident already has some conspiracy theorists questioning whether or not this was revenge from the incident these two had at Bristol; accident or not, Montoya and Raines seem to be becoming acquainted in all the wrong ways. NASCAR may be watching closely the next time the No. 42 and No. 96 are in the vicinity of each other.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Paul Menard. Menard’s early season struggles continued with his third DNQ of the season at Martinsville. Adding insult to injury, Martin Truex, Jr. and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. led the second and Happy Hour practices, respectively, while the Budweiser team finished with a strong Top 5 and was a few more raindrops away from a victory. The strong showing of the team cars may have some pointing the finger directly at the driver of the third D.E.I. car for its poor showing. Hopefully Menard will have confidence and speed next to the jelly beans and chocolate eggs in his Easter basket this week, because the No. 15 team needs to stop the slide of two consecutive DNQs at Texas in two weeks.

Rookie Quote of the Week:

NASCAR fans wondering exactly what is going through the mind of a rookie as they compete in the pressure cooker called Nextel Cup need look no further than A.J. Allmendinger's candid post-race comments:

Q: This was another step in the learning process?

“Today stunk, pretty much, it's a simple as it can be. Definitely not what we wanted, but I'm just proud for my guys because, heck, that first 200 laps I didn't want to be out there. I mean, it was just hanging on. I was a moving chicane. And we could have easily given up and said ‘Let's go back to Richmond' or go back home and work on it. I didn't want to pack it in, and they didn't want to pack it in. For what it's worth, at the end of the race we made it a lot better. Still got a lot of work to get up front and run at least in the midpack and run up front. I'm proud of how hard my guys worked and everything they did, because like I said, we could have given up easy, but they didn't and we made it better, and at least we've got notes to move forward with.”

Q: You just need laps in these races to make the cars better?

“We need laps, but it's one of those things at times where you don't want to be out there doing laps because it's bad. The Team Red Bull guys keep pushing (though) and they're never going to quit. We know this is a long process. For what it's worth, we picked up two or three more positions by staying out there instead of quitting. You never know, at the end of the year that might help. We finished I guess 60 laps better than we did last week, so we're making progress."

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

David Ragan 68
Juan Pablo Montoya 67
David Reutimann 36
Paul Menard 33
A.J. Allmendinger 21
Brandon Whitt 3

Next Up: The Samsung 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway should provide some degree of familiarity for the Rookie Class of 2007, as Texas is the sister track to Atlanta and the series reverts back to the Car of "Yesterday". This is good news for Juan Pablo Montoya, as he scored a career best fifth place finish at Atlanta. The news is not so great for A.J. Allmendinger, though, who benefited the most from the Car of Tomorrow and running the short tracks; he made his first two races of the year at Bristol and Martinsville.

* Regan Smith is not running for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year because of his part-time status for the 2007 season. However, for purposes of this piece, if you have a yellow stripe on your rear bumper, you are considered a rookie and fortunate enough to have me write about you each week.

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