NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Rating the Nextel Cup Rookies: 2007 Lenox Industrial Tools 300 at Loudon

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Juan Pablo Montoya (fifth), Regan Smith (13th), David Reutimann (17th), David Ragan (32nd), Paul Menard (35th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Ragan (15th), Montoya (19th), Smith (32nd), Reutimann (38th), Menard (39th)

Rookie of the Race: Ragan. The AAA team and Ragan enjoyed a mostly quiet day at the New Hampshire International Speedway. After yet another dismal qualifying effort (32nd), the 11th time this year that Ragan has started 31st or worse, the No. 6 car appeared to struggle early on. During the first third of the race, Ragan lost a lap to the leaders and could not seem to move his Ford Fusion into the top 25 no matter how his car handled. However, with a little help from Lady Luck in the form of the free pass during the day’s third caution on lap 122, Jimmy Fennig and his driver started a slow but steady progression towards the front. By the end of the day, the team had moved up to 15th position… but the ending would not pass by without incident. On the final lap, while attempting to pass the blue deuce of Kurt Busch, Ragan appeared to dive into turn 3 a little too hard, locked up his brakes and slid right into the Miller Lite Dodge. Busch wound up spinning hard into the wall, all while Ragan continued on to pick up his seventh top-rookie finish of the 2007 season.

Tony’s Take: When I had the chance to speak to Ragan at Pocono last month, he mentioned that the teammate he found himself seeking out the most was 2003 Nextel Cup champion Matt Kenseth. The advice he is receiving appears to be paying off, as for 299 and three-quarter laps, Ragan had a very “Kenseth-like” day in his racecar. Fans certainly must have had a “Where did he come from?” reaction when Jack Roush’s youngest Nextel Cup driver broke into the top 20 with less than 100 laps remaining after his name was hardly mentioned all day.

For better or for worse, fans of the No. 17 know this story by heart. Ragan needs to realize that accepting guidance from his veteran teammate is recommended on almost all topics except qualifying, and his post-race qualifying comments appear to illustrate that he is quickly learning that lesson. If this kid can start off with some better track position, top 15s may become the norm for this team.

So why was the final quarter-lap different from the rest? Ragan’s bonsai move under Busch’s No. 2 machine did not resemble the smoothness of the more experienced Cup drivers. This is something he will have to learn before he is able to put the No. 6 in position to contend for the win week in, week out.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Menard. Labeling Menard’s weekend in New Hampshire as a disappointment could be the understatement of the year. The team practiced at the Milwaukee Mile last month specifically to prepare for this race and felt optimistic about their chances in the Granite State. However, the team could only muster a qualifying time good enough for 35th, their Happy Hour speeds were towards the bottom of the chart and mechanical problems relegated them to a 39th-place finish. After watching both DEI teammates run strongly and finish in the top five, Menard will leave New England wondering what might have been.

Rookie Wreck of the Day: Ragan. In terms of wrecks, the day was a relatively quiet one for the rookies until the final lap. Ragan, trying desperately to bring home a top 15 for his crew, sponsors and confidence, collided with Busch after appearing to carry excess speed into the corner. Simply put, his CoT could not find the grip it needed and washed up the track into the 2004 champion, sending him into the wall and out of the top 20. Ragan was still able to continue, but he should probably make sure he gives the elder Busch brother a call this week.

During a recent Sirius Radio interview, Busch was quoted as saying he still had a chip on his shoulder in the form of his desire to beat Roush Racing. Not saying this move was intentional, but I bet the “Cat in the Hat” was smiling after seeing his driver take out the guy who was the “root” of his hair loss a few short years ago.

Who Wasn’t Here?: AJ Allmendinger. Sports fans everywhere may get tired of hearing about the importance of momentum. Well, that’s too bad; I have mentioned it many times in my columns and I will do it once again here. For six consecutive races, Allmendinger and his Red Bull Racing Team could do no wrong on Fridays, making each and every NASCAR event during that span. But after missing the race last week at Sonoma, the No. 84 team was almost a second off the pole speed at New Hampshire, missing the show for the second week in a row. Clearly, Allmendinger and crew chief Rick Viers need to right the ship and stop the bleeding heading to next week at Daytona. Otherwise, Allmendinger and Company could be enduring an unplanned summer vacation.

Rookie Quote of the Week

Ragan speaks about how his weak qualifying efforts are hurting his team on Sunday, as well as on the final-lap incident with Busch.

“We got to work on qualifying a little better on the AAA team. We’ve always got good racecars during the race, but you’re starting the race in 20th, 30th, 35th spot (so) it makes for a really long day. I felt like we had a top-10 car if we could have had good track position. We made some points up today. It was a decent day. A top 15 is certainly a work in progress to where we want to be… but a solid run.”

Q: You passed a lot of cars.
“Yeah, and I had a great time. I want to apologize to Kurt. There on that last lap, [we were] just racing hard, I just pushed him up the track a little bit. I guess he got up there in the loose stuff and couldn’t hang on. But I was racing hard. I just really wanted to get around him. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, and certainly it was pretty neat to say that you raced that hard with Kurt. I look forward to talking to him and seeing what he’s got to say. We just have to work on practicing better, qualifying better so we can have a little better track position and get a little more than what we got.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Montoya 190
Ragan 176
Menard 113
Reutimann 101
Allmendinger 74
Whitt 2

Next Up: Next week’s Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway marks the symbolic halfway point of the Nextel Cup Season. More importantly, it marks the point of the season where the drivers start to see tracks for the second time this season, a very important fact for the rookies. It’s not uncommon to hear drivers in their first season speak about their expectations for improved performance in the second half of the season because of the familiarity they have with most of the venues. This Saturday night will be the time to test those expectations. Ragan will look to match the top-five performance he turned in at the Daytona 500 earlier this year, while Menard and Allmendinger will look to avenge DNQs accumulated at the Great American Race in February.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Ouch, this one hurts. It appeared the Menard and his entire team did everything possible to come home with a good finish this past Sunday. Unfortunately, things could not have gone much worse, as mechanical woes left him as the worst finishing rookie at New Hampshire.

You Make the Pick: You also took the path less traveled, as 31% of you chose Reutimann to come home first among rookies. Not a bad pick, as the No. 00 turned in a top-20 qualifying run and a solid Happy Hour performance (12th). However, the team never got a chance to show off their stuff during the race, as a loose spark-plug wire forced them to run on seven cylinders for a portion of the event; that wound up relegating Reutimann to a disappointing 38th-place finish.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: NASCAR fans everywhere could feel Reutimann’s nervousness as they watched him pace feverishly on pit road before his Daytona 500 qualifying laps. He came through put the third Michael Waltrip Racing entry solidly in the field for the season’s biggest event. At the following restrictor-plate race in Talladega, Alabama, Reutimann was almost guaranteed a top-five finish when his motor expired in the final laps of the race. These strong performances combined with the restrictor-plate knowledge that Michael Waltrip brings to the table have convinced me to pick Reutimann for the Pepsi 400’s top-finishing rookie.

| Event | Track | Tony’s Pick | Finish | Readers’ Pick | Finish | Top-Finishing Rookie | Finish |
| Subway Fresh Fit 500 | Phoenix | Ragan | 41st | — | — | Menard | 25th |
| Aaron’s 499 | Talladega | Reutimann | 32nd | — | — | Ragan | 17th |
| Crown Royal Presents The Jim Stewart 400 | Richmond | Menard | 16th | Montoya | 26th | Menard | 16th |
| Dodge Avenger 500 | Darlington | Montoya | 23rd | Menard | 31st | Montoya | 23rd |
| Coca-Cola 600 | Charlotte | Montoya | 28th | No Pick | DNS | Montoya | 28th |
| Autism Speaks 400 | Dover | Ragan | 14th | Ragan | 14th | Ragan | 14th |
| Pocono 500 | Pocono | Allmendinger | 39th | Ragan | 26th | Montoya | 20th |
| Citizens Bank 400 | Michigan | Ragan | 21st | Ragan | 21st | Menard | 12th |
| Toyota/Save Mart 350 | Infineon | Montoya | 1st | Montoya | 1st | Montoya | 1st |
| Lenox Industrial Tools 300 | New Hampshire | Menard | 39th | Reutimann | 38th | Ragan | 15th |

Season Score: Tony 4, Readers 2

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