Speedweeks at Daytona starts up this week, which can only mean one thing – a new NASCAR season is finally upon us after some much-needed time off. The 2008 season will once again feature a talented group of rookies who look to hit the pavement for their first full (or almost full) season of competition; and as was the case in 2007, I’ll once again be providing you with an in depth analysis of each driver as they go through the motions of their respective freshman years through the weekly version of Frontstretch‘s Rookie Report. Together, we’ll chronicle the ups and down of each driver’s success – or failure – as they adjust to life in the Cup Series.
With the season just a handful of days away, now’s a good time to take a look at who will be competing with a yellow stripe on his rear bumper in 2008, and what we could expect from each one. This week, Part I profiles three of the six confirmed rookie candidates; check in next week for the second and final half of our preview.
No. 00 – Michael McDowell – In a rookie field that includes former Indy 500 champions, a Formula 1 ace and a familiar NASCAR name, perhaps the most overlooked freshman driver this season is McDowell. The 23-year-old proved the most surprising element in Michael Waltrip’s restructuring plan announced at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last October, when the car owner announced the youngster was among those being considered for the open No. 00 ride. After a strong series of offseason tests, the move was made to give McDowell the nod at the beginning of the calendar year; after Dale Jarrett retires from full-time competition following the race at Martinsville, he’ll replace David Reutimann in the as-yet-unsponsored Toyota Camry.
While this Arizona native made some Nationwide and Truck starts late last season, he is basically making the jump from the ARCA Re/Max Series straight to Sprint Cup, a rare promotion in the world of NASCAR these days. Still, McDowell didn’t have just any ordinary season in 2007 — he took home four wins, nine poles and the ARCA Rookie of the Year title, all while nearly toppling Frank Kimmel to capture the series championship. I believe his impressive resume will be a plus in the long-term; however, the Sprint Cup Series features a much different car with a whole new level of competition from what the ARCA standout is used to. Because of that, expect a middle of the pack finish among rookies in 2008.
No. 01 – Regan Smith – This likable kid from Cato, N.Y. doesn’t have the superstar background, win totals, or accolades that some of his rookie counterparts possess. Smith also experienced one of the most unusual of years in 2007, a season in which his most successful Nationwide campaign to date was halted in July due to a lack of funding, followed by his part-time ride with Cup driver Mark Martin being discontinued when he was replaced with Aric Almirola. Clearly, that was not exactly part of the confidence-building process a young driver needs for a career that looked like it was about to rocket up off the ground.
But what Smith does have in his pocket is a strong recommendation from NASCAR veteran Martin – something no other freshman can claim. Despite the setbacks listed above, it was Smith whom Martin rigorously lobbied for when DEI was searching for its fourth full-time driver for 2008, and that support likely made the difference in getting him the ride. Now driving the familiar No. 01 car once again, Smith has the advantage of entering 2008 with more NASCAR experience than any other Rookie of the Year candidate; and with the owner points of Martin’s former car, he will benefit from being locked into a starting spot for the first five races. These two facts alone make Smith a preseason favorite to win the ROTY award.
No. 10 Patrick Carpentier – Carpentier probably couldn’t fathom the impact the impressive NASCAR debut in his native country of Canada last August would have on his racing career. After sitting on the pole and finishing second in the first Nationwide Series race to be held north of the border, Carpentier was contacted by Gillett Evernham Motorsports about piloting the No. 10 Dodge at Watkins Glen. Stepping up to the plate, he showcased solid road-racing skill; eventually leading seven laps, he came home with an eyebrow-raising 22nd-place finish. That substitute gig eventually turned into a full-time ride in the very same car by the end of the season. Carpentier, having to qualify on speed, put his GEM entry solidly into the field in both his starts at Phoenix and Homestead to prepare for a full-time assault in 2008.
Even though 2007 showed glimpses of success for the Canadian, his march to the ROTY title will be an uphill battle. Despite his veteran experience in the open-wheel leagues, Carpentier’s resume doesn’t contain some of the prominent accomplishments IRL stars such as Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. have under their belt. More importantly, his team does not have a coveted Top-35 owner points position heading into 2008. As if that weren’t enough, the performance of the entire GEM organization will be in question, as they try to rebound from a dismal performance last year in which none of their team finished higher than 19th in points. With all those odds stacked against him, Carpentier will mostly likely be towards the bottom of the ROTY standings.