The final checkered flag has waived for 2007, a champion has been crowned, and the end of season awards have been distributed to their deserving recipients at the NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York City. But before we leave the season behind, there’s just one thing left to do; I, Professor Lumbis, need to assign the final grades for 2007 freshman class as they completed their first season on the Nextel Cup tour. Grades will be based on the accomplishments and shortfalls for each rookie contender while previewing what their goals should be for 2008, as each driver tries to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.
No. 00 David Reutimann – 26 starts, zero top 10s, Average Finish – 30.4, Best Finish – 13th (September – Richmond) – Reutimann’s grade for 2007 really depends on whether one views the glass as half empty or half full. Reutimann entered Daytona with a first-year team, new manufacturer, and only one Nextel Cup start under his belt. However, he had been the pilot man for Darrell Waltrip’s Craftsman Truck Series entry since 2004, and the experience showed in surprising ways. The results weren’t always stellar, but the Floridian managed to do what his teammates and some of his rookie counterparts could not: qualify. Reutimann made more events than his two veteran teammates and carried the torch for Michael Waltrip Racing. His efforts were recognized; Reutimann was awarded a three-year contract to take over the famed UPS ride from Dale Jarrett after the first five races of 2008.
That means Reutimann has been put in position to become the face of MWR, and he can establish himself in that role by achieving a few goals for next season:
1.) Qualify for all the races.
2.) Establish consistent finishes
3.) Record what should be the first of many top-10 finishes.
No. 01 Regan Smith – Seven starts, zero top 10s, Average Finish – 30.0, Best Finish – 24th (May – Talladega) – Imagine enrolling in a college course only to be forced into a different class, for a different major with a new professor after only a handful of weeks. That about sums up what Smith endured in one of the strangest stories of the season. Inheriting one of the best entry roles in NASCAR, Smith went from sharing a ride with Nextel Cup star Mark Martin, to earning a full-time ride as Sterling Marlin‘s replacement, to having no ride at all in a matter of a few weeks this past July. This young protege managed to earn two more rides at Watkins Glen and New Hampshire with DEI, but the results would be mediocre at best.
Despite the unimpressive start to his Nextel Cup career, Smith managed to make an impression on his mentor Martin; so much so that the veteran became Smith’s biggest ally in convincing DEI executives to sign him for their fourth team in 2008. That certainly means something in this business and for that reason, I expect a solid season for the new full-time No. 01 driver next year. The pressure will be on with only a one-year deal in his back pocket, so look for Smith to be knocking on the door for consistent finishes and fast.
No. 6 David Ragan – 36 starts, two top fives, three top 10s, Average Finish – 24.5, Best Finish – third (September – Richmond) – Never before has the changing of the guard been more evident in NASCAR than in the past few years as veterans are phasing out of the sport while young and sometimes unheard of names are replacing them in their familiar numbers and colors. It’s not an easy pill to swallow for most “old-school fans.” But one newbie who the traditionalists can be proud of is Ragan. The former participant in Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” was thrown into the hottest of Nextel Cup fires by inheriting one of the top teams on the circuit with very limited experience. That showed for the first part of 2007, as the, No. 6 Ford Fusion was often seen in the spin cycle, in the wall, or worse yet, into other cars. However, he would only be asked to improve as the season wore on, and that is exactly what he did. Ragan scored five top-20 finishes during the final 12 events of the season, including a thrilling late-race charge to a career-best third at Richmond.
Perhaps the most improvement will be expected out of this rookie in 2008 considering his solid finish to 2007, and the resources he has behind him. The Chase may be a tall order at this point, but I would look for consistent top 10s and even a win for Ragan next season.
No. 15 Paul Menard – 30 starts, zero top 10s, Average Finish – 26.8, Best Finish – 12th (June Michigan) – It was Christmas in July for Menard this year, as his team inherited a Top-35 points position from the No. 14 entry as a result of the much publicized merger between Ginn Racing and DEI. Hopefully, Menard kept the receipt for his holiday gift, because the locked in position did not appear to help his performance much. The Wisconsin native could do no better than 19th following the merger, a disappointment for a driver who many believe would challenge for Rookie of the Year after a strong Busch Series showing in 2006. Instead, Menard’s much anticipated rookie debut seemed to be overshadowed with the departure of popular teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., the breakout year of Martin True Jr. and the addition of Martin over at DEI, not to mention the constant reliability issues of the team’s engine department.
Despite the disappointing season, Menard did manage to keep his team in the 29th position in owner points, which will guarantee him a spot in the first five events of 2008 should NASCAR maintain their current qualifying rule format. Furthermore, Teresa Earnhardt and Company renewed their confidence in Menard by pairing him with new crew chief Doug Randolph for next season. Expectations will be for Menard to battle back with a vengeance, and there is no doubt that he will be looking to equal the remarkable sophomore performance Truex enjoyed in 2007.
No. 42 Juan Pablo Montoya – 36 starts, one win, three top fives, six top 10s, Average Finish – 22.7, Best Finish – first (Sonoma) – A lot has happened since Chip Ganassi stunned the NASCAR community by signing open wheel standout Montoya. Some events were expected, such as the Colombian’s aggressive driving tactics and inaugural win at a road course, while others were somewhat surprising including a helmet slapping fight with Kevin Harvick at Watkins Glen. In the end, Montoya turned in a rookie year performance that was successful and certainly respectable, but in some ways, not spectacular. In the end however, Montoya proved that a talented driver with an open wheel background could thrive in a stock car, illustrated by the entrance of Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., and Jacques Villeneuve into the sport. Finally, one cannot overlook the fact the Montoya won the 2007 Rookie of the Year Award outright and he should be commended for his prestigious accomplishment, one of many to come I’m sure.
Moving forward, Montoya needs to continue to improve on his oval performances, and more importantly, learn to focus his aggressiveness into positive energy. If he can accomplish these things, additional wins and a berth into the Chase are not out of the question in 2008.
Additional Note: Many of you may have noticed the unusual omission of Montoya from our rookie interview segments this season. We want you to know that Frontstretch tried several times to set up this interview with Montoya’s PR representative both at selected races and over the phone. Unfortunately, our requests were meet with unfulfilled promises or no response at all. While we understand that these drivers are unable to grant all interview requests due to multiple obligations, we are disappointed that we were simply ignored… especially for our readers.
Grade For JPM’S PR Representation: F
No. 84 AJ Allmendinger – 17 starts, zero top 10s, Average Finish – 31.6, Best Finish – 15th (October – Charlotte) – Expectations for Allmendinger’s 2007 season last February could be summed up like this: David (Allmendinger), meet Goliath (the Nextel Cup Series). Examining the situation in more detail, the former Champ Car World Series star was entering the season competing for the newly formed Team Red Bull, driving the unproven Toyota Camry, and had only three Craftsman Truck Series starts, the least amount of NASCAR experience among all the rookies. The seemingly insurmountable learning curve was evident throughout the year as Allmendinger failed to qualify for more than half the races – including eight in a row – and did not record a top-20 finish until California in August.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as the Californian and his No. 84 team poured it on in the final segment of the season, recording two top rookie finishes at Charlotte and Atlanta. Many knew that a guy with this much talent would not stay down for long, and this team is sure to carry their end of season momentum into 2008. Allmendinger will need to make races on speed for the first five events next season, but if he can avoid digging himself in a hole early, qualify, and work towards consistent top-20 finishes, next season could serve as the springboard to many more NASCAR accomplishments, adding to an already impressive racing resume.
No. 01/No. 8 Aric Almirola, No. 10 Carpentier, No. 06/No. 77 Hornish Jr., No. 27 – Villeneuve – All of these drivers have made their Nextel Cup debuts in 2007, and, for the most part, their starts have been uneventful. Perhaps the most notable accomplishments were Carpentier leading laps at Watkins Glen and Villeneuve defying the critics with a solid 21st-place run at Talladega. Still, it’s tough to grade anyone after just a few starts so we will anxiously wait to see what these men can do when they compete for the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award. (Note: Almirola will not be competing for ROTY, as he will not be running the full season, while Smith and Franchitti will be competing for the reward.)
In conclusion, this year’s rookie class probably won’t be remembered as having the most successful inaugural season on record. They are, however, one of the most unique first year drivers the sport has seen in years. The Class of 2007 brought to the series highly diverse backgrounds in terms of prior experience, age, background, and even personality. They also faced some of the most unusual challenges in the form of new teams, unfavorable qualifying rules, and high expectations. That being said, it will be fun to watch these drivers as they progress throughout their respective careers, as I believe each and every one of them will contribute to the sport in a positive manner.
As for me, it was a pleasure covering this group, and I hope you enjoyed reading about their accomplishments, trials, and tribulations as much as I enjoyed writing about them. I look forward to following the incredibly talented Freshman Class of 2008, and I hope you will join us for the ride.