The Frontstretch: Rating The Nextel Cup Rookies : Darlington Edition by Tony Lumbis -- Sunday May 13, 2007

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Rating The Nextel Cup Rookies : Darlington Edition

Tony Lumbis · Sunday May 13, 2007


Rookies in the Starting Lineup: David Reutimann (14th), A.J. Allmendinger (20th), Paul Menard (23rd), David Ragan (24th), Juan Pablo Montoya (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Juan Pablo Montoya (23rd), David Ragan (27th), Paul Menard (31st), David Reutimann (33rd), A.J. Allmendinger (36th)

Rookie of the Race: Montoya. After falling two laps off the pace and struggling for most of the day, Juan Pablo Montoya and the Texaco Havoline team soldiered home to a 23rd place finish in the rain delayed Dodge Avenger 500. While Montoya did not even threaten to crack the Top 20, his day was anything but quiet; there were numerous times that the No. 42 Dodge could be found battling hard with the leaders, fighting for the “free pass” position only to fall just short. At times, his aggressiveness actually caused him to get in the way of several lead lap cars, most notably Denny Hamlin, during the final segments of the race.

Tony's Take: The track “Too Tough to Tame” lived up to its billing for the rookie class on Sunday. After some impressive qualifying performances, all five rookies struggled throughout the event, each encountering some sort of trouble throughout the race’s 500 miles.

Even though no one was truly outstanding, Montoya encountered the least amount of difficulty amongst the rookies, clocking in as the best of his newbie counterparts for the fourth time in eleven races this season. Montoya's run was not without controversy, though, as has often been the case this year. Not letting a two-lap deficit diminish his aggressive driving style, the Columbian native fought to maintain the "free pass" position just as hard as if he were running for the win. There are two ways to view his approach: 1.) Admire the "I'm here to race, no matter what the situation" attitude OR 2.) Believe that Montoya is trying to make enemies as fast as he can. At this point in his career, I'm leaning towards option two. On that note, did anyone else notice the FOX commentators describing Montoya's blocking methods as “Mirror Driving?” Do you think just maybe they borrowed the phrase from our very own weekly piece?

Rocky Rookie Performance: Allmendinger. The Team Red Bull rookie receives this recognition more for what could have been, not so much for what was. After qualifying in the Top 20 for the second consecutive week, Allmendinger spent much of the race as the event's top running rookie; at one point, he was as high as 24th, just one lap down and in position for the "free pass." The potential breakthrough performance came to a sudden halt, however, as the No. 84 collected both the wall and Kyle Busch on lap 305. Allmendinger was able to limp home to a 36th place finish, last among the rookies despite his best performance of the year thus far.

Rookie Wreck of the Day: David Ragan. Actually, David Ragan can be associated with two wrecks of the day; the one that happened and the one that didn't. Early in the race, Roush Fenway teammate Jamie McMurray made contact with the No. 6 car, sending Ragan sideways coming off the turn. However, the AAA driver looked much like his predecessor over at Roush Racing, making a masterful save to both keep his car out of the wall and surviving in the race without a problem.

Unfortunately for Ragan, The Lady in Black rarely allows one to escape her grip multiple times in one race. On lap 239, both he and Ken Schrader collided as the No. 21 tried to make a pass in turn one. Ragan spun, but the damage was minimal and the Georgia native was able to piece together a 27th place finish.

Who Wasn't Here?: No one; once again, all 2007 rookies were in the race! For the second straight event, all drivers competing for the 2007 Rookie of the Year Award made the starting field.

Rookie Quotes of the Week:
A.J. Allmendinger on making the race, while adding to the long list of unappealing activities that Darlington has been compared to at the same time:

"It helps when you close your eyes and you just hold your breath. My God, I'm shaking still. I don't even know what to say about this place, honestly. I had to hold my breath. I got out of the car and I was shaking, trying to get my breath back. I'm just happy to be in. I just want to thank my whole team. The No. 84 crew, they're awesome, everybody back and the shop, Toyota. It's a lot of work in progress. We've still got a lot of work to do but hey, the way we're going to do that is make races, and we're in."

Q: Can you compare racing here at Darlington to anything you've done in your career?

“I would say jumping off a cliff, basically, because that's about what it feels like. You dove off into Turn 1 and it's sliding. They're telling you that you should get back in the throttle and you're telling ‘em there's no way in hell you're going to get back in the throttle. Sitting watching everybody run into the wall while I'm sitting in my car probably wasn't helping. This is crazy. This is ridiculous that we have to qualify at this place. I'm just so happy to be in. I made Richmond and Bristol and a lot of it was because we tested. Martinsville, I couldn't tell you why. I don't know how we got in that race and here just because we're working hard and we're testing. We're getting it better. We still need some improvement, but we're getting better."

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie standings:

Montoya 120
Ragan 116
Menard 82
Reutimann 71
Allmendinger 38
Whitt 2

Next Up: The Nextel Cup Series will spend the next two weeks in Charlotte, N.C. as the series comes “home” to stock car racing’s center of operations for the rest of May. First up will be Saturday’s Nextel All-Star Challenge, an event where the rookies will either have to finish first or second in the preceding Nextel Open or be voted in by the fans if they are to move on and compete in the Challenge. Then, it's on to the Memorial Day classic, the Coca-Cola 600, for a Sunday night race under the lights. Valuable experience at the two other quad ovals on the schedule, Atlanta and Texas, plus laps run during the All-Star festivities should pay off for the freshman five. However, there are also two distinct challenges unique to this event: 1.) Starting in the daytime and ending under the stars AND 2.) Running 600 miles, most likely the longest event any of these drivers have competed in throughout their careers.

Tony's Top Finishing Rookie Pick: Make it two in a row for Tony's Top Pick, as Juan Pablo Montoya came up first among the rookies this week. I can't be too proud of this one, though, as it was not a stellar performance by Montoya. Next time this guy says a track is the "darndest thing he's ever seen", I'm going to believe it and stay clear of picking him. I won't stay clear of choosing Montoya at Charlotte, however, as Top 10 finishes at the sister tracks of Atlanta and Texas make him the hands down favorite in two weeks.

You Make The Pick: The readers voted in Paul Menard as the top-finishing rookie at Darlington, as 38% of you thought D.E.I.'s newest member would best the rookie class (JPM was second at 25%). Don't forget to vote again this week for your pick for the top finishing rookie at the Coca-Cola 600 this Memorial Day weekend. I'm pulling out on all of you already, so step it up!

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
Dodge Avenger 500 Darlington Juan Pablo Montoya 23rd Paul Menard 31st Juan Pablo Montoya 23rd

Score After Richmond : Tony 2, Readers 0.

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