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Nextel Cup Rookie Report: Villeneuve, Montoya Not Terrified by Talladega

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: David Reutimann (fifth), Jacques Villeneuve (sixth), Juan Pablo Montoya (22nd), Paul Menard (30th), Aric Almirola (38th), David Ragan (42nd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Montoya (15th), Villeneuve (21st), Reutimann (22nd), Almirola (30th), Ragan (34th), Menard (38th)

Rookie of the Race: Villeneuve. Making his first Nextel Cup start for Bill Davis, Villeneuve shocked the NASCAR world by turning in the sixth-fastest qualifying time, easily making the field in which five of the top six were Toyotas. Respecting the concerns of his competitors about debuting at one of the most dangerous tracks on the circuit, the Canadian made the classy move of falling to the back of the field before the green flag even waved. The former Formula 1 and Indy 500 champ spent the rest of the day trying to simply make laps, stay out of trouble, and not be the cause of the “Big One.” Mission almost accomplished. Villeneuve scraped the wall at one point, flattening the side of his No. 27 UNICEF Camry; however, the damage proved to be fairly insignificant, as the Canadian survived radio problems and continued on to finish 21st, the final car on the lead lap and second amongst all rookies.

Tony’s Take: With all due respect to Montoya, who had a top-five run wiped out by a lack of drafting help, Villeneuve deserves the shout-out for what he did – and more importantly, didn’t do – on Sunday afternoon. Many competitors voiced their concerns about the open wheeler making his Cup debut at Talladega, including one Chaser who reportedly predicted that BDR’s newest addition would end the day on his roof.

In the end, though, those who were nervous couldn’t have been more wrong. First off, kudos to Villeneuve and the team for sacrificing their top-10 starting spot and moving to the back, showing the ultimate sign of respect for the competition. Furthermore, the “Big One” was not caused by Villeneuve, but in fact, by former Nextel Cup champion Bobby Labonte, who mysteriously lost control of his Dodge all by himself. I mean, no disrespect to future Hall of Famer Labonte, but it just goes to show you that this type of thing can happen to anybody, no matter if you have zero or over 450 starts in the big leagues.

Now, I’m not ready crown Villeneuve the 2008 champion, Rookie of the Year, or even predict that he’ll win a race next season. In fact, I too support the theory of providing new drivers with as much experience as possible as opposed to throwing them into the Nextel Cup fire just for the sake of generating excitement. However, Villeneuve cleared a major hurdle today by earning the respect of his competitors and, hopefully, the fans. Congratulations to the entire team for proving them wrong on Sunday; hopefully for them, this is just the beginning.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Almirola. It would be more appropriate to provide this award to Almirola’s engine department than to the driver himself; even though he spent most of his day in the back, one can assume that the U.S. Army team was simply biding their time, staying out of trouble and waiting until the end to make their move. Unfortunately, the end never came, as Almirola became the fourth victim of the RCR/DEI engine debacle on Sunday. Ironically, even with the DNF, the 30th-place finish represents the rookie’s best career Nextel Cup finish, a sign of his early struggles to date.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: Ragan, Reutimann and Menard. The famed restrictor-plate “Big One” claimed three of the ROTY candidates on lap 146. Three different drivers – who all appeared to be on three different agendas – became three innocent victims when the No. 43 of Labonte spun in front of the field, leaving many behind him with nowhere to go. Ragan’s involvement was perhaps the most surprising; he was among the Fords laying back in the pack, hoping to avoid the very accident he got caught up in. But the strategy failed, and the driver of the No. 6 Ford was relegated to a 34th-place finish. Then, there was Reutimann, poised to have a career day; he led two laps and was mixing it up with the front pack all day long. Instead, he was forced to limp home to a 22nd-place finish after being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Finally, Sunday represented a “choose your poison” race for Menard, who, if he didn’t get caught up in the accident, probably would’ve succumbed to the same engine failures his three teammates endured.

Who Wasn’t Here?: AJ Allmendinger and Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish Jr. and his Penske South Team have a lot of work to do for 2008 after failing for the third time in a month to make a race. Meanwhile, Allmendinger has yet to keep a DNS streak at one this year as he failed to qualify for the second consecutive week. The interesting thing brewing over at Team Red Bull is their recent announcement that Scott Speed, in conjunction with Eddie Sharp Racing, will be running the full 2008 ARCA schedule. For many, this begs the question… should Allmendinger be looking over his shoulder if his performance doesn’t pick up next season? An even better one to ask is why wasn’t Allmendinger – who had the same amount of stock car experience before this year as Speed does right now – given the same type of development deal? That hardly seems fair.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Villeneuve recaps his first ever Nextel Cup race:

Can you talk about your first NNCS race?
“Early in the race was tough for some reason. I was really tight. I almost ran into a couple of people on the inside line because of that. I didn’t want that to happen, so I moved up to the high line. That’s why I got into the wall. On one of the big wrecks, I slammed on the brakes and went down to the apron, but got sandwiched between a couple of cars. I lost the shifter ball and the radio plug came loose, and I lost third gear on the last restart. So we had a lot of things going on. It was a great day to learn. I’m quite happy with the result.”

What will you take away most from your first start?
“I’m glad that I didn’t create any problems with the drivers. The finger was being pointed before the race, and that was understandable. The goal today was to stay out of trouble and not make enemies, so next time I come back everything will be a little bit easier. Also, I worked great with the crew and the spotter. Overall, it was a great experience.”

When did you decide to move to the back of the field for the start?
“We decided to do it this morning. It was the logical thing to do. Our car was set up for qualifying and we didn’t know how it was going to handle. Starting from the front or the back doesn’t really change anything. I had more to learn from the back, anyway. Also, it was to show respect to all the guys fighting for the ‘Chase.’ I was thankful for them allowing me to race here, which is really special to me. It was just a way of saying ‘thank you.'”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Montoya 225
Ragan 210
Menard 182
Reutimann 164
Allmendinger 124

Next Up: The Nextel Cup Series returns to the sport’s center stage in Charlotte, N.C. for a Saturday night showdown in the Bank of America 500. The track’s mile-and-a-half configuration is one of the more popular ones on the schedule. Even though tracks that look the same may drive differently, I still expect a strong showing by the rookie class based on the amount of intermediate speedway experience gained this year.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Reutimann got robbed on Sunday, plain and simple. Similar to his run at Talladega in May, Reutimann as enjoying a career day, spending most of the race with the leaders and even using his Toyota horsepower to propel him to the front on lap 89. However, just like in May, bad luck would bite this team once again, this time in the form of out of control racecars falling right in Reutimann’s path.

You Make The Pick: You thought Ragan would mirror his restrictor plate performance at the Daytona 500 earlier this year, as 43% of you chose him as the top finishing rookie. Ragan never got to show his true colors, however, getting caught up in the Big One.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: Ragan had a strong run ended prematurely when his teammate Carl Edwards spun right in his path at the Coca-Cola 600. Roush Fenway has always been tough in Charlotte, however, and so too should their rookie driver this Saturday. I expect Ragan to rebound in the form of a top-rookie finish this weekend.

| Event | Track | Tony’s Pick | Finish | Reader’s 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 |
| USG Sheetrock 400 | Chicagoland | Menard | 42nd | Ragan | 25th | Montoya | 15th |
| Allstate 400 at the Brickyard | Indianapolis | Montoya | 2nd | Montoya | 2nd | Montoya | 2nd |
| Pennsylvania 500 | Pocono | Ragan | 33rd | Montoya | 16th | Montoya | 16th |
| Centurion Boats at the Glen | Watkins Glen | Montoya | 39th | Montoya | 39th | Fellows | 4th |
| 3M Performance 400 | Michigan | Reutimann | 23rd | Ragan | 18th | Ragan | 18th |
| Sharpie 500 | Bristol | Reutimann | DNQ | Ragan | 41st | Montoya | 17th |
| Sharp Aquos 500 | California | Menard | 24th | Montoya | 33rd | Ragan | 12th |
| Chevy Rock ‘N’ Roll 400 | Richmond | Ragan | 3rd | Menard | 26th | Ragan | 3rd |
| Sylvania 300 | New Hampshire | Reutimann | 26th | Ragan | 19th | Ragan | 19th |
| Dodge Dealers 400 | Dover | Ragan | 25th | Ragan | 25th | Montoya | 10th |
| Lifelock 400 | Kansas | Reutimann | 31st | Ragan | 16th | Ragan | 16th |
| UAW-Ford 500 | Talladega | Reutimann | 22nd | Ragan | 34th | Montoya | 15th |

Season Scorecard: Tony 6, Readers 8

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