The Frontstretch: Rating The Nextel Cup Rookies: Jim Stewart 400 Presented by Crown Royal by Tony Lumbis -- Sunday May 6, 2007

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Rookies in the Starting Lineup: A.J. Allmendinger (13th), David Reutimann (14th), Juan Pablo Montoya (16th), David Ragan (29th), Paul Menard (43rd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Paul Menard (16th), David Ragan (20th), Juan Pablo Montoya (26th), David Reutimann (29th), A.J. Allmendinger (32nd)

Rookie of the Race: Paul Menard. After starting in last position, Menard struggled with the speed on his Chevrolet early in the going, running in the bottom half of the field for the first portion of the race and dropping down a lap. Crew chief Tony Eury, Sr. and Menard would successfully work on improving the car’s handling, though, eventually positioning themselves to receive the "free pass" when the tenth caution of the day was waved on lap 338. When the checkered flag flew, the No. 15 car had moved steadily up the charts to 16th position, as Menard and Company earned their third Top 25 finish in the last four races. It was the second time in 2007 that Menard placed as the highest finishing rookie.

Tony's Take: Can you picture this conversation happening within the confines of D.E.I.: “Hey Teresa, that rookie report guy on said a few weeks ago that you should let me have majority ownership in the team. I just bested the rookies for the second time this year. What do you think?” As much as I'm trying to boost my ego by claiming that Menard is reading these articles, this conversation just isn't happening. Still, you can’t help but notice the correlation between Menard’s improvement and my predictions.

On a serious note, the team was lucky to have even made the field as they squeezed in at the 43rd and final position, qualifying as the final “go or go home” participant. While they can't afford to be cutting it this close in the future, I admire the work ethic and persistence of Menard and his team as they adjusted feverishly on the car throughout the day to go from worst to first among the rookies. That kind of effort will pay big dividends in the future. While he won't be taking ownership control of the team anytime soon, Menard is slowly establishing himself as a contender in the D.E.I. camp.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Juan Pablo Montoya. While A.J. Allmendinger finished lowest among the rookies (32nd), I won't say that he had the worst performance considering he did qualify for only his third race of 2007 and brought home his best finish of the season. Instead, it was Montoya who appeared to have the most difficult day, running in the Top 20 for most of the race before damaging his Texaco Havoline Dodge Avenger in an accident with Johnny Sauter. The incident started when Montoya apparently received contact from…drumroll please…Ryan Newman! The bad luck continued from there as with 28 laps remaining, Montoya spun trying to avoid the wrecking cars of Ward Burton, Dave Blaney and Ricky Rudd. If it weren't for these incidents, it may have been the Columbian taking home the top rookie finish.

Rookie Wreck of the Day: David Ragan. This week's most notable rookie wreck is unique in that it happened on pit road. On lap 253, Ragan was coming in for a routine yellow flag pit stop when Kevin Harvick, who was exiting his stall, nailed the No. 6 car. The spin left Ragan facing the wrong way, but still near enough his destination that a pit stop could be made. Instead of panicking, the rookie driver backed his car completely into the pit stall to avoid a penalty, and the AAA team led by veteran Jimmy Fennig went to work on a "road course" style performance that clearly won’t be repeated on an oval anytime soon. Safety tip from AAA to its members: Don't try this while pulling into your local gas station.

Who Wasn't Here?: Nobody! For the first time this year, all drivers competing for the 2007 Rookie of the Year Award qualified for the race.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
This week, in celebration of all five rookies making the race, I've included two rookie quotes, both in relation to qualifying for Sunday's race. David Reutimann admits how drivers outside the Top 35 in points aren't exactly "normal," while Paul Menard talks about a new qualifying superstition that leaves him calculating a different set of numbers outside the speedway.

David Reutimann:
Q: You and Allmendinger both said you hope to make the race after posting a time inside the Top 10.

“The thing that screws with your head and changes your perspective on everything is (that) all you're worried about is outrunning those guys. And after you make sure you outrun those guys, you're like ‘Well, where did we end up overall' so it's completely opposite of what normal people do.”

Paul Menard:
Q: How difficult is it after you qualify to sit and watch?

“I start playing my Sudoku game and just try to forget about it. It's my lucky game, I guess. Every time I play it, I played that at Talladega and we got in, too, so I keep that close. It's nervewracking.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:
Montoya 109
Ragan 106
Menard 73
Reutimann 63
Allmendinger 31
Brandon Whitt 2

Next Up: This Saturday night, the rookies will look to conquer the track known as "Too Tough to Tame" as the series heads to Darlington Raceway. This will no doubt be one of the most difficult challenges for the Nextel newbies, as Juan Pablo Montoya claimed the egg-shaped raceway was the "darndest thing he's ever seen" after a tire test session there earlier in the year. The race also marks the fifth CoT race of 2007.

Tony's Top Finishing Rookie Pick: I finally got one right this week as Paul Menard brought home the top rookie honors at Richmond. Right now, David Ragan and Paul Menard are tied with two CoT top rookie finishes apiece. Next week, I think it will be Juan Pablo Montoya who breaks this streak and finishes best among the rookies, benefiting from the aforementioned test session from Goodyear.

You make the pick: The readers voted in Juan Pablo Montoya, as 40% of you thought the No. 42 Dodge would be the first of the rookies to cross the finish line. Don't forget to vote again this week for your pick of the top-finishing rookie at next week's Dodge Avenger 500 at Darlington.

Top Rookie Pick 2007 Summary

Event Track Tony’s Pick Finish Reader’s Pick Finish Top Finishing Rookie Finish
Subway Fresh Fit 500 Phoenix David Ragan 41st —- —- Paul Menard 25th
Aaron’s 499 Talladega David Reutimann 32nd —- —- David Ragan 17th
Crown Royal Presents The Jim Stewart 400 Richmond Paul Menard 16th Juan Pablo Montoya 26th Paul Menard 16th

Score After Richmond : Tony 1, Readers 0.

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