Tony Lumbis · Sunday April 8, 2007
As the 2007 Nextel Cup series takes a rare break for the holiday weekend, Professor Lumbis is busy at work, grading the progress of the rookie class at the one-sixth mark of the season. That’s right; it’s report card time! Let’s review the pre-season expectations for each rookie, how they have preformed to this point, and assign grades accordingly.
No. 00 – David Reutimann
4 Starts, 0 Top 10s
Average Finish: 36.5
Best Finish: 33rd (Fontana, Martinsville)
With only limited success in the Craftsman Truck Series and tapped to drive for both a new team and Nextel Cup manufacturer, Reutimann entered the 2007 season with more unknowns than most of his rookie counterparts. With no owner points to fall back on, just making each race would prove to be its own nauseating experience, as Domino's newest spokesperson often could be seen pacing like an expectant father before each qualifying session got underway. In the end, Reutimann’s had those sessions end in a DNQ twice; the young season has not produced the results that Reutimann and Michael Waltrip Racing were hoping for, as he is more known for the bone jarring wreck at Fontana than bringing home good finishes. However, he has qualified for more races in 2007 than his two-time Daytona 500 champion car owner, and history shows that Reutimann improves with time, finishing a career best third in the points in his third CTS season in 2006. Besides, it's impossible for 2007 to be considered a failure when all of us get to benefit from Domino's new “00 Deal.”
No. 01 – Regan Smith
2 Starts, 0 Top 10s
Average Finish: 25.5
Best Finish: 25th (Bristol)
Although not officially running for ROTY, Smith was offered one of the most enviable positions in NASCAR at the end of last season. Hired to share the driving duties of Ginn Racing's flagship car, Smith would benefit from car owner Bobby Ginn's deep pockets and the opportunity to work closely with his new mentor, 35-time Nextel Cup winner Mark Martin. The stakes were raised for Smith when he made his U.S. Army car debut at Bristol. Not only was he running in the first Car of Tomorrow race at one of the toughest tracks on the circuit, but he also inherited a team that was ranked first in car owner and driver points. The Busch Series veteran has stepped up to the plate, though, doing exactly what was asked of him so far; complete laps and stay out of trouble.
No. 6 – David Ragan
6 Starts, 1 Top 5, 1 Top 10
Average Finish: 22.0
Best Finish: 5th (Daytona)
The AAA team presented one of the most difficult situations to set preseason expectations for. Ragan entered the 2007 season with virtually no experience: just 29 CTS starts, seven Busch starts and two Nextel Cup starts were under his belt, with both Cup starts on tracks under one mile in length. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Ragan is driving for Roush's famous No. 6 Ford Fusion and paired with championship crew chief Jimmy Fennig; it’s not like the kid doesn’t have a solid support staff around him. Still, many thought that the "Driver X" graduate's fifth place finish in the Daytona 500 was a gift, as he managed to outmaneuver the last lap mayhem after spending the entire day at the back of the pack. Instead, Ragan has since been building a solid season, working on proving that the season opener was not a fluke. Roush's newest Cup driver has finished as the top rookie four times, completed all laps in three races and currently leads the ROTY standings.
No. 15 – Paul Menard
3 Starts, 0 Top 10s
Average Finish: 27.7
Best Finish: 20th (Fontana)
Paul Menard quietly entered the Nextel Cup Series in 2007 as DEI's third driver after two solid, but not spectacular, full-time seasons in the Busch Series. After scoring his first win at his home track, the Milwaukee Mile, last season, Menard appeared to have some momentum on his side when he took over the No. 15 Chevrolet Monte Carlo on a full-time basis for Nextel Cup. Starting the season outside the Top 35 in car owner points, Menard's goals were clear: make the event, finish the race, and lock down a guaranteed starting position for Martinsville and beyond. Well, not so fast with that plan…literally. The team missed the show at Daytona, traditionally one of DEI's strongest tracks. After the Daytona flop, long time crew chief Tony Eury, Sr. and crew appeared to have righted the ship, qualifying for the next three races; but the short tracks/CoT races proved to be a disaster, resulting in two more DNQs. Trust me, these problems are surely leaving Menard, Eury, and company scratching their heads over the Easter break.
No. 42 – Juan Pablo Montoya
6 Starts, 1 Top 5, 1 Top 10
Average Finish: 20.0
Best Finish: 5th (Atlanta)
It's been since 1999, Tony Stewart's first Nextel Cup season, that the circuit has seen near the type of hype that’s been generated by the coming of Montoya. Over 137 combined Formula One, CART and IRL starts, the Columbian native recorded 18 wins, 60 Top 5s, and 79 Top 10s including a victory in the 2000 Indianapolis 500. Montoya joined NASCAR's elite boasting an impressive resume with one glaring omission, no stock car experience. With three Top 20 finishes, including a career best fifth at Atlanta, the Texaco Havoline driver is currently trailing David Ragan in the ROTY standings by only one point. While he has displayed his immense racing talent, the first six races have not been without speed bumps, such as the Bristol race where Montoya was involved in two accidents and finished 36th.
No. 84 – A.J. Allmendinger
2 Starts, 0 Top 10s
Average Finish: 39.0
Best Finish: 38th (Martinsville)
Signing Allmendinger to drive Red Bull's second Toyota Camry appeared to be based more on speculation than anything else. There's no doubt this California native has the driving talent to get the job done somewhere, especially after notching five wins in the Champ Car World Series in 2006; unfortunately, those wins haven’t translated over into Nextel Cup. Team Red Bull opted to forgo a developmental program for Allmendinger with these problems, placing him directly into the glaring spotlight of the Nextel Cup Series for the entire 2007 season. The combination of a driver new to stock car racing, a brand new team and a new manufacturer creates a risky environment that will present Allmendinger with even more challenges than those that face follow rookie David Reutimann. So far, they haven’t been able to hide their inexperience, failing to qualify for the first four races of the season before breaking through the past two weeks. The light at the end of the tunnel is flickering a bit, though; the team has built some momentum by qualifying for back-to-back races before the holiday break.
Overall, Professor Lumbis has been impressed by the efforts of this year's freshman class, considering that all six face more challenges than perhaps any other rookie group in recent history. Three of these competitors (Reutimann, Menard and Allmendinger) had to sweat through simply making each race on time, while Ragan replaced a legend, ironically the very one mentoring Smith. As for who’s the frontrunner so far? Well, Montoya has dealt with the expectations of being regarded by some as the second coming of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Unfortunately, while those efforts are admired, Nextel Cup University only rewards results, and some of the grades so far are less than stellar. The good news is that there are 30 races remaining, with each one presenting a new opportunity to learn and improve. So, to the rookie class of 2007: pull those belts tight and get up on that wheel! July midterms will be here before you know it.
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