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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Nextel Cup Rookie Report: Juan Pablo Montoya Masters Martinsville

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: David Reutimann (19th), AJ Allmendinger (25th), Juan Pablo Montoya (26th), Aric Almirola (27th), Paul Menard (35th), David Ragan (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Montoya (eighth), Reutimann (17th), Menard (24th), Ragan (26th), Allmendinger (35th), Almirola (43rd)

Rookie of the Race: Montoya. Montoya’s Texaco/Havoline Dodge started the Subway 500 from mid-pack and remained there for the first 100 laps of the race, with the Colombian finding it difficult to pass on the .526-mile short track. It was a call from the pits that initially set the tone for the No. 42 car’s march to the front; on the day’s fifth caution on lap 114, crew chief Donnie Wingo elected to keep Montoya on the track, a move which bumped him up to third for the restart. That decision paid off long-term, as cautions fell just the right way for Montoya to hold his spot towards the front; before long, he found himself pitting back in sequence with the leaders when the time came for another stop under yellow-flag conditions. Once the car was clear of traffic, Montoya responded well, spending most of the rest of the day running in the top 15 with ease. In fact, pit strategy was employed once again during the eighth caution of the day, briefly giving Montoya the lead for nine laps as the team used old tires to accumulate five additional bonus points. The car wasn’t good enough to stay there, but trust me, Montoya didn’t fall back too far; by the time the checkered flag flew, the Colombian was in eighth, taking home his 14th top-rookie finish of the year.

Tony’s Take: Perhaps there should be a category in this week’s Rookie Report for crew chief of the race. Veteran head wrench Donnie Wingo knew the importance of track position at Martinsville and utilized that strategy perfectly, rolling the dice to get Montoya up front at exactly the right time he should have been there. Don’t let pit strategy overshadow Montoya’s driving on Sunday, though. Several times, the No. 42 Dodge was knocked sideways… but Montoya kept both his cool and control the entire time. In the end, he took the learning curve in stride and sealed the deal with his solid finish, something he hasn’t done in the past on short tracks. Not only was this Montoya’s sixth top 10 of the season, but his best finish on a track less than a mile in length as well; certainly, it’s a sign of how this driver is improving as time goes on.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Almirola. The rookie co-driver of the U.S. Army Chevrolet can’t catch a break this year. Coming into Sunday’s race at Martinsville, Almirola had struggled, finishing no better than a dismal 30th in his four previous starts. After qualifying a career best 27th, it looked like this weekend could hold the race that changed the rookie’s fortunes… but that wasn’t the case. When the GEM teammates of Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs got together in turn 2, it left Almirola with nowhere left to go but into the back of fellow rookie Ragan. The damage eventually proved to be costly as several laps later, the No. 01 Impala erupted into flames on the backstretch, ending Almirola’s day and relegating him to a last-place finish.

Rookie Wreck(s) of the Race: Ragan. It was at this very event last year when Ragan, making his second career Nextel Cup start, ran into just about every car on the track, leaving his competitors with a sour taste in their mouth about the Georgia native. Ragan has come a long way since then, but Sunday’s race had to serve as a painful reminder of that dreadful race one year ago. The rookie found his AAA Ford in the middle of the day’s fourth caution, after receiving a bump from Almirola; the 11th caution, when he made a beautiful 360 and continued after being punted by Ryan Newman; and the 18th caution, when he spun Martin Truex Jr. Of course, to top it all off Ragan was involved in the day’s final caution when he spun and could not restart the car during a green/white/checkered finish. Let’s put it this way; don’t look for Ragan to be particularly cheery when he returns to the paper-clip venue next year.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Sam Hornish Jr. Once again, Hornish Jr. was fast enough to make the field – and again, the Penske driver fell victim to NASCAR’s Top-35 rule. Future rookies should take heed in Hornish’s experience; gone are the days when a newcomer to the sport could be successful with a first-year team, the path many rookies were once expected to follow to earn their way to a top organization. Now, it seems those looking to break into NASCAR’s elite division need to oust a current driver from his seat and take over that team’s Top-35 points position in order to have a chance.

As Hornish contemplates his entry into the Nextel Cup Series for 2008, he probably has the words of The Clash circulating through his mind: “Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double.”

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Allmendinger talks about his current Martinsville performance early on after qualifying, and compares it to his first visit to the Virginia track back in the spring. Meanwhile, Reutimann talks about just how tough this half-mile oval is during some down time on Saturday.

Allmendinger:
“The car was very good to start with. Like I said, we may have got in the race but it was so bad when we were in the race, I’ve never made a pit stop during green just to tell ’em to fix it because that’s how bad it was. Everybody just worked really hard back at home getting ready for this racetrack specifically. It’s the short flat tracks that we struggle on and the car, from the first lap, was way better. I actually passed a guy. I was like ‘Whoa, that’s pretty cool around here.’ I really didn’t see the bottom lane most of the first race because I was getting passed by everybody.”

Reutimann:
How difficult is it here?
“Man, it’s tough. I don’t even know sometimes that you actually race here unless you can get up underneath a guy on exit. A lot of times your only alternative is to bounce him up out of the way. I’ve been on the receiving end on a lot of that this year [smiles]. It’s part of this type of racing. You have to work a guy. You can run a guy down from a straightaway but then you get to ’em and you just can’t get past ’em. It can get aggravating and you’ve just got to be really patient and sometimes that’s really hard.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Montoya 231
Ragan 219
Menard 184
Reutimann 168
Allmendinger 142

Next Up: For the second time this year, the season series will return to the Atlanta Motor Speedway, one of the fastest tracks on the schedule. Motor departments for all teams will be put to the test this week, as the engines will endure 500 miles of rpm fluctuation, reaching over 9,000 rpm at the highest points. This is not good news for Menard, whose DEI/RCR motor package has been unreliable at best throughout the year. On the flip side, these 1.5-mile quad ovals have been good to Montoya this season, as he finished with his first career top five in Cup racing at this venue back in March.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Reutimann qualified best among his rookie class and came home with a solid 17th-place finish, his third top 20 of the year. If this had been another race in 2007, this performance may have very well earned Reutimann the Rookie of the Race; however, Montoya was stellar in his Martinsville return and bested not only his rookie competitors, but most of the Nextel Cup field as well.

You Make The Pick: Even though I’m down by two in the top-finishing rookie competition, you had enough confidence to mirror my choice of Reutimann for this week. We were all close… but no cigar this time around. I continue to trail with time running out.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: I really like how Allmendinger looked at Charlotte – so much so that I will pick him at its twin track in Georgia.

| 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 |
| Bank of America 500 | Charlotte | Ragan | 40th | Montoya | 37th | Allmendinger | 15th |
| Subway 500 | Martinsville | Reutimann | 17th | Reutimann | 17th | Montoya | 8th |

Season Scorecard: Tony 6, Readers 8