NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Nextel Cup Rookie Report: Juan Pablo Montoya Leads Open-Wheel Invasion in the Desert

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Juan Pablo Montoya (14th), Paul Menard (19th), Patrick Carpentier (24th), Sam Hornish Jr. (26th), Jacques Villeneuve (27th), Aric Almirola (28th), David Ragan (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Montoya (17th), Menard (22nd), Almirola (26th), Hornish (30th), Ragan (32nd), Carpentier (33rd), Villeneuve (41st)

Rookie of the Race: Montoya. The soon to be Rookie of the Year started the day 14th; but while he outclassed all other freshmen, that’s the highest Montoya would get for most of the afternoon. The Car of Tomorrow has not been Chip Ganassi Racing’s strong suit this season, and it showed – Montoya and crew chief Donnie Wingo battled a tight condition throughout much of Sunday’s race. The Colombian’s driving style, however, would make up for what the car lacked in handling. Taking no prisoners, the No. 42 Dodge would be seen battling with the series’ most noteworthy drivers, bumping his way past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and going “fender to fender” with Jeff Gordon to maintain his presence on the lead lap. That persistence paid off, as the Texaco/Havoline team salvaged a top 20 on a day when very little seemed to go right with the car. With his 16th top-rookie finish of the season, Montoya has now clinched the number one spot in that category for 2007 over Ragan, who currently sits second with 13.

Tony’s Take: There are many transition items to consider when making the switch from open wheel to NASCAR, one of which is its length. The Nextel Cup season presents a grueling 36-race schedule stretching from February to November, much longer than the Champ Car or Formula 1 versions Montoya has been used to. Experiencing this marathon could be having a negative impact on the rookie down the stretch, as he has only recorded two top 10s in the past 10 races to end his freshmen season with little more than a whimper. But while the results have been lackluster of late, Montoya still finds ways to hold on and beat his rookie counterparts, no small feat on a day when there were seven freshmen in the starting lineup. That ability to both survive and persevere is a skill the Colombian will no doubt utilize for the rest of his NASCAR career.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Carpentier and Almirola. It wasn’t necessarily a bad day for Gillett Evernham’s newest driver from north of the border; however, Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500k must have shown Carpentier just how hard it is to drive these stock cars on an oval. The Canadian was in a “go or go home” position on Friday and stood up to the challenge in style; he placed the Valvoline/Sears Auto Center Dodge solidly in the field with a 24th-place run. As soon as the green flag waved, however, the No. 10 dropped like a rock, running in the final three positions for most of the day’s event. Carpentier struggled, for sure, but at least he kept his Avenger in one piece, gaining valuable experience while making a late-race surge at the end to finish 33rd. Welcome to NASCAR racing, Mr. Carpentier, oval style!

Ahead of the Canadian, Almirola’s 27th-place finish was his career best Nextel Cup run to date. In fact, this young rookie fought valiantly with the leaders early on, and his efforts were rewarded with the “Lucky Dog” when the third caution of the day was waved. So why is Almirola the co-recipient of the Rocky Rookie Performance? Well, he made some enemies on the track, including former Nextel Cup champions Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Perhaps the most puzzling move of the day was when the No. 01 Chevy squeezed Kenseth into Jimmie Johnson as they were battling for the lead in the race’s final laps. But while Almirola should have backed off, this is nothing a conversation with mentor and teammate Mark Martin can’t fix – and for the most part, Sunday’s run was a much overdue display of the potential this kid has. Let’s just hope he doesn’t turn the entire field against him in his continued fight for results.

Rookie Wrecks of the Day: Villeneuve and Ragan. Another open wheeler whose biggest victory of the weekend was simply making the race was Villeneuve. However, the Canadian joined his countrymen in falling back early at the start, staying there until his day ended for good on lap 138 when the Bill Davis-owned Camry bounced off Kasey Kahne and hard into the wall. The newcomer offered a very honest assessment of the crash afterwards: “We were all the way up there, and there was someone on the inside and I didn’t know there was someone on the outside,” he claimed. “I just noticed them once I was already spun, and touched them. I’m not sure what exactly happened, and I’m very sorry.”

Ragan, meanwhile, was enjoying a rather solid afternoon as he clawed his way into the top 20 from the 41st starting spot. But at around the race’s one-third mark, Ragan’s Fusion got together with fellow rookie Carpentier, sending the No. 6 car over the curb, through the air – and into the grass. That impact broke not only the supposedly “indestructible” splitter, but the hearts of the AAA guys as well; the car was never the same, and their driver limped home 32nd. As a result, Ragan winds up in this category because of both the magnitude of the impact it had on his day, and because it looked pretty darn cool, as well.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Allmendinger and Reutimann. NASCAR’s highly criticized Top-35 rule ended Allmendinger’s latest bout of momentum. Turning in the day’s 33rd-quickest time on Friday, he was only ninth among those drivers needing to make the field on speed on a day when only seven made it. The DNQ ends a streak of four consecutive races made by the No. 84 team, with two top rookie finishes included in that process.

Reutimann, who was 16th in practice, had an engine go sour before he was able to make a qualifying lap. Unfortunately, the No. 00’s 39th-place points position was not enough to for an automatic berth into Sunday’s event, leaving the Florida native wondering what might have been.

Note that even with two rookies missing the race, there were still seven drivers in the field who carried the yellow stripe on their bumper. This is the time of year where many teams make early changes for next season, and Phoenix was a nice preview of what some of the 2008 rookie field will look like. Stay tuned to Frontstretch as it won’t be long before we give you the rundown on next year’s freshman class.

Finally, congratulations to Hornish for making his first career Nextel Cup start and, most importantly, getting his name removed from this dreaded category!

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Two former open-wheelers making their Nextel Cup starts on an oval Sunday provided a unique perspective on the experience of moving to NASCAR racing.

First up was Hornish, who found himself more at ease with driving a stock car rather than an IRL car, for the first two laps, anyway.

“If you’re going to do it one lap or two laps, the IRL car, I believe, is a lot more physical,” he said. “This (NASCAR) is very demanding because of the temperatures that you face in the car, the amount that you are doing as far as footwork – plus, you have 42 other cars, so there is nowhere to really relax. The physical effort of driving these cars (is great) because it’s like you’re in a sauna. But, one or two laps, the Indy car is more demanding.”

Next up, Carpentier shows us that even though the transition will be tough, he does not have to face it alone.

Q: What is the best advice you got this weekend?
“Everybody told me advice, from the team to Ray [Evernham]. The two that helped the most were Jimmy Kitchens and Kenny Schrader. I qualified because of what Kenny Schrader said on Friday. That’s what got me in the show and how to do it.”

What do Montoya and Ragan think about those who are about to succeed them as Rookie of the Year Candidates?

Montoya is reserving judgment…
Q: Did you race with some of the open-wheel guys today?
“They were pretty good. It’s hard to judge them after a race.”

In the meantime, Ragan is less than pleased after a run-in with Carpentier; however, remembering his own start in the sport helps to keep everything in perspective.

“The No. 10 car obviously didn’t know we were down there (on the inside during a restart). He was just in the middle trying to hang on for dear life, I’m sure, and we just got run down. If that would have been me a year ago, and I did something like that to a veteran driver, I probably would have gotten chewed out for it after the race. But, you know, I know how it is. I know how he’s doing in his shoes. I was just there about six months ago, and I hate that happened. That was a wild ride, and we’ll just have to keep our heads up on the AAA team and go get ’em next week at Homestead.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Montoya 236
Ragan 223
Menard 190
Reutimann 172
Allmendinger 162

Next Up: After nine months of excitement, arguments, new stardom, and heartbreak, the series heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the finale. Only Menard and Montoya have run at this track in a Nextel Cup event in the past, so look for them to have a leg up on the competition.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: It was looking good for Ragan early on to become the top-finishing rookie of the race; however, an incident not of his doing launched the AAA Ford Fusion so high that it appeared on radar at nearby Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – then the car landed with a thud, sinking towards the bottom end of the race results for the weekend.

You Make The Pick: With two races to go, we were all tied up at eight correct picks apiece. With both pressure and time running out, you went with what usually works, as 43% of you picked Montoya. It paid off, as you take the lead with one event remaining in 2007.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: I’m behind in the standings and need to make a bonsai move to save my reputation and, at the very least, tie my faithful readers. So, I am going to pick Menard, a choice that I don’t think is as far out on a limb as people may think. Menard actually had a solid run going at Phoenix, running in the top-rookie spot for much of the race. I think his momentum and prior experience at this track will propel him to the final top-rookie finish of the season at Homestead.

| 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 |
| Pep Boys Auto 500 | Atlanta | Allmendinger | 16th | Hornish, Jr. | DNQ | Allmendinger| 16th |
| Dickies 500 | Texas | Montoya | 25th | Allmendinger | 39th | Montoya | 25th |
| Checker Auto Parts 500K | Phoenix | Ragan | 32nd | Montoya | 17th | Montoya | 17th |

Season Scorecard: Tony 8, Readers 9

Tony’s Extra: Sunday’s race was run on Veterans’ Day, and I would like to take this time to thank all of the United States veterans, both past and present – and especially my dad for serving our country!

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch