NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Rating the Nextel Cup Rookies: 2007 Pepsi 400 at Daytona Edition

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Juan Pablo Montoya (20th), David Ragan (24th), Paul Menard (41st), David Reutimann (42nd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Ragan (12th), Menard (21st), Reutimann (26th), Montoya (32nd)

Rookie of the Race: Ragan. Ragan appeared to be content simply to ride mid-pack and stay out of trouble for much of Saturday night’s race. After starting 24th, Ragan quietly guided his Ford Fusion into the top 20, keeping his fenders clean while much of the field struggled around him with ill-handling racecars. With 20 laps remaining, the No. 6 car was sitting in 19th position, far from the guts and glory of the front pack at Daytona. However, Ragan would take advantage of two more cautions that bunched the field and put him back in contact with the leaders, piloting his AAA machine to a 12th-place finish by the checkered flag. This marks the eighth time this year that Ragan would come home as the highest-finishing rookie, giving him a sweep in that category at the Daytona’s tri-oval while serving as a nice complement to his fifth-place finish there back in February.

Tony’s Take: Ragan carried the Roush Fenway flag at the end of the Daytona 500, surviving the Big One on the final lap to score a top-five finish; in that race, he bested his nearest teammate by 18 positions. Five months later, the “Roushketeers” turned in a much better performance this past weekend, leaving Ragan as the final car in the stable to cross the finish line; but that’s still not a bad thing when that final position is 12th. I was especially impressed with Ragan’s ability to keep the car out of trouble during an especially challenging race. Anyone who is familiar with Level Six, the “Ice World” in Super Mario Brothers 3, can probably relate to the slip-and-slide environment at the speedway Saturday night.

Given that comparison, it’s no surprise that Ragan, a child of the old-school Nintendo era himself, kept his car in control and out of the way of the other competitors. He may not have led the Roush Fenway brigade this weekend, but the 21-year-old talent has to be making his owner proud. Ragan is slowly establishing consistency leading into the second half of the season, a vast improvement from being the guy who everyone picked to wreck in each race just a few months ago. Look for good things from this kid during the rest of 2007.

Rocky Rookie Performance/Rookie Wrecks of the Day: Montoya. Momentum has been hard to maintain for Montoya and the Texaco/Havoline team since their victory in Sonoma two weeks ago. At New Hampshire, the No. 42 Dodge was running strong for the majority of the race before fading to a mediocre 19th-place finish; the run came a day after Montoya frustrated another one of his peers, angering Clint Bowyer after contact caused him to wreck in the Busch Series event last Saturday. Well, it was same song, different verse for the Colombian on Saturday night. Montoya had a strong top-15 run going before once again fading back into the pack; in the process, he found time to frustrate another employee of Richard Childress Racing.

This time, it was Kevin Harvick; on lap 56, Montoya’s Charger slid up into the defending Daytona 500 winner coming off turn 2, sending the No. 29 hard into the wall and effectively ending both drivers’ chances to win. As if the night were not difficult enough, on lap 133, Bobby Labonte suddenly slowed down the back straightaway to avoid Reutimann, who had just tagged the wall. Montoya was next to arrive on the scene and slammed into Labonte’s Cheerios Dodge, sending his car airborne for a brief second. In the end, Montoya finished a disappointing 32nd, three laps off the pace.

Who Wasn’t Here?: AJ Allmendinger and Eric McClureMother Nature was not kind to the “go-or-go-homers,” ending the drivers’ chances of making the field. In hindsight, the teams would have failed to qualify either way; both drivers had turned in times that already had them bumped out of the field by the time Mother Nature released her wrath on Daytona’s 2.5-mile superspeedway. As a result, Allmendinger’s Red Bull team will now have to wait yet another race to end their DNQ streak, which now stands at three following DNQs at Sonoma and New Hampshire. Hopefully, the weather will cooperate for them in the Windy City this weekend.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: This week, the two Davids competing for Rookie of the Year provided some interesting food for thought. First, Ragan shares his thoughts about the end to his teammate’s long victory drought, as well as Roush Fenway’s strong showing. Also, Reutimann provides a unique perspective on why destroying your car didn’t really matter this weekend.

Ragan:
Q: Comment on Roush [Fenway] Racing teammate Jamie McMurray winning tonight.

“That’s a big win for everybody at Roush Fenway Racing. I guess we had all five teams in the top 12. I hate I had to bring up the rear on that. I wish I could have beat at least one of ’em [smiles]. Other than Matt [Kenseth], you know, and Carl [Edwards], all of us have been kind of hit and miss all year, so it’s good to see the No. 26 get back in victory lane. I know that team works hard. Jamie’s a good driver and certainly [crew chief] Larry Carter is working hard. That’s good for everybody. But don’t count us out too long. I feel like we can win one of these things sometime this year.”

Reutimann:

“Finishing is good, but where we finished is not so much. [We] just kind of struggled all night. It was a weird night. Radios quit working and the thing was tight, just a bunch of stuff, you know. It ended up OK. We didn’t destroy the thing, although it [doesn’t] really matter because it’s not really good for anything anymore, I guess. It’s all CoT races [on superspeedways] now. We did OK and we’ll go on to the next one.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Montoya 191
Ragan 181
Menard 122
Reutimann 109
Allmendinger 75
Whitt 2

Next Up: The good news for the rookies is that from here on out to the end of the season, the Cup Series mostly visits tracks that these drivers have seen before. The bad news is, next week’s event isn’t held at one of them. The circuit makes its annual trip to the Chicagoland Speedway Sunday for the USG Sheetrock 400. Although this year’s freshmen crop may not be familiar with the speedway in a Cup car, the track’s 1.5-mile D-shaped layout is similar to the configurations of California and Michigan, which they have run on earlier this year. In fact, Kevin Harvick won the inaugural race at the Illinois track in his rookie season back in 2001. Keeping both those facts in mind, I expect a strong showing from most of the newbies next week.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: I was reminded about something this week regarding predictions, and that is to pay attention to the impound races. While I chose Reutimann based off of his strong runs on superspeedways earlier this year, I neglected the fact that his team would most likely have to start the race on a qualifying setup since they were not locked into the field on points. That made the No. 00 a non-factor for most of the evening, as Reutimann came home in 26th position.

You Make the Pick: You guys did your research this week, correctly choosing Ragan as the top-finishing rookie. Looks like he’s not the only one starting to gain momentum in the second half, as you are closing in on me.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: Montoya has been the strongest newbie on the 1.5-mile tracks to date. However, I’d like to see him work out of the “victory hangover” that he is currently enduring before making the Formula 1 vet my pick. Therefore, I am going with Menard to best the rest of the rookies, backing up his solid 12th-place effort at another D-shaped venue out in Michigan.

| 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 |
| Pepsi 400 | Daytona | Reutimann | 26th | Ragan | 12th | Ragan | 12th |

Season Score: Tony 4, Readers 3

Editor’s Note: It’s just past the halfway point of the season, and that can only mean one thing: midterms! Look for the return of Professor Lumbis later this week as he rates the performance of the rookies’ first half of 2007.

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