With the Daytona 500 nearly upon us, it’s time to finish off my look at the 2008 Nextel Cup rookies. Last week in this column, we profiled three of the six candidates; this time around, we’ll finish the job by chronicling three impressive open wheel veterans turned stock car freshmen:
No. 27 Jacques Villeneuve – This Canadian, one of two in the Rookie of the Year class of 2008, has perhaps one of the most impressive resumes of any freshman in NASCAR history. He is one of only three drivers in the world to win the Indianapolis 500, a CART/Champ Car championship, and the prestigious Formula 1 title (Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi are the other two). Last summer, Villeneuve signed with Bill Davis Racing with hopes of adding both the Daytona 500 and Sprint Cup championship to his list of achievements. The open-wheel ace then kicked off his NASCAR career with seven Craftsman truck and two Cup starts last season, including an impressive 21st-place finish in his debut in the No. 27 car at the treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.
Villeneuve’s talent – combined with the presence of longtime crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe atop the pit box – would lead one to believe that this open-wheel prodigy would be a shoe-in for the 2008 ROTY award. However, it seems that no amount of skill can overcome this team’s biggest hurdle this season, which is sponsorship, or lack thereof. Currently, reports indicate that team owner Bill Davis has only committed to running Villeneuve’s car for the first five events of the year if financial backing is not secured. As if that hurdle weren’t high enough, this team sits outside the Top 35 in owner points, meaning that they will have to qualify on time for those crucial five races. But if Davis, Labbe and Villeneuve can work through those substantial challenges, then expect the driver to be among the top rookies when things are all said and done.
No. 40 Dario Franchitti – Contributing to the open-wheel alumni theme of this year’s rookie class is reigning Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar champion Franchitti. The Scotsman’s debut with Chip Ganassi Racing is already off to a good start, with a victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona last month. However, don’t expect the rest of the season to yield that same type of result, as the first European to attempt to run a full schedule in NASCAR history has yet to make a Sprint Cup start.
It’s not an entirely uphill battle for this freshman, though. First, thanks to David Stremme‘s performance last season, the No. 40 team is guaranteed a spot in the first five races of this year. That will give both the crew and driver a chance to focus more on race setup, a definite advantage for someone just learning to drive a 3,400-pound stock car. Also, Franchitti has teammate Juan Pablo Montoya to lean on, a sophomore who handled the stock car transition with style; he scored one victory and the ROTY title in 2007. Montoya’s feedback will no doubt benefit the man who hopes to follow in the Colombian’s footsteps; look for Franchitti to use his resources wisely and make a formidable run at Ganassi’s second consecutive ROTY title.
No. 77 Sam Hornish Jr. – The third former Indy 500 champion competing for ROTY honors is Hornish Jr. The Ohio native will once again drive for team owner Roger Penske in 2008, but the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge Charger will now replace the familiar Dallara Honda he drove in the IndyCar Series. Like some of his rookie counterparts, Hornish also boasts impressive statistics in his former series, with 19 wins and three IndyCar Series championships to his credit; those include back-to-back title runs in 2001 and 2002. That success translated into three invitations to the IROC series (2002, ’03 and ’06), where the open-wheel sensation got a taste of competing against the NASCAR guys.
Despite that experience in IROC, team owner Roger Penske still decided to make the strategic move of swapping Hornish’s team points position with the No. 2’s of Kurt Busch. The swap will guarantee that Hornish will be guaranteed in the first five events of the season, good news for a driver who missed the field in six out of eight Sprint Cup attempts in 2007. But even though he has five definite starts to begin the season and the presence of two veteran teammates, don’t expect him to light the world on fire. There’s no doubt that Hornish has the talent to succeed at this level, but his performance to date suggests that he could use some extra miles in the sport’s lower divisions; half of the 28-year-old’s 11 Nationwide Series starts have resulted in wrecks. The bottom line is that this rookie is fully capable of learning the ins and outs of a stock car, but don’t expect him to conquer that learning curve in time to win the 2008 ROTY title.
These rookies below are not running for the ROTY award, but will still carry the yellow stripe on the bumper in 2008
Aric Almirola was most well known for his Daytona pole and the Milwaukee “win that wasn’t” in last year’s Nationwide series. After dominating the first half the Wisconsin event, Almirola was forced from the driver seat in favor of regularly scheduled driver Denny Hamlin. Hamlin went on to win, Almirola was credited with the victory, and the entire fiasco led to the Floridian’s flight from Joe Gibbs Racing to what was then Ginn Racing. He will now share the driving duties of DEI’s No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet with Mark Martin, driving in 12 of 36 events this season. Still young, Almirola will need to soak up all the information he can get from the veteran; his best finish in ’07 was only a 26th-place finish at Phoenix.
Jon Wood and Marcos Ambrose are among those listed to share the driving duties of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford in 2008. Wood was assumed to be the successor to the famed family ride last season, until he missed multiple Nationwide starts in 2007 due to a mysterious medical condition. Now, he has another chance to make the argument that he deserves the full-time position in this historic ride.
Probably the most memorable event for Ambrose in 2007 was leading 37 laps and almost winning the inaugural Nationwide Series event in Montreal last August. Other than that race, the Australian native had a rather uneventful season en route to an eighth-place points finish in the Nationwide Series. The Wood Brothers appear to be searching for an entity that can carry them into the future; however, I’m not sure either of these drivers can fit the role at the moment.
Next Up: As if you haven’t noticed already, the crown jewel of the Sprint Cup season, the Daytona 500, is just around the corner. Conquering the unusual qualifying format for the race is perhaps the most difficult part of Speedweeks; once you are in the show, however, anything is possible, making Daytona a prime venue for one of the rookies to make an unexpected strong showing, similar to David Ragan‘s fifth-place performance a year ago.
Tony’s Pick: I expect DEI to make a comeback this year, and there is no better place for them to start their return to glory than Daytona. I’m picking Regan Smith to survive, and finish strongest among the rookies in the 2008 season opener.
You Pick: Once again, you will have the chance to compete against me to see who is better at picking the race’s highest finishing rookie. Starting today, use the survey that will accompany every rookie report this year to choose who you think will best the rest of the freshman for the upcoming event. Last year, you beat me by one race. Well, good luck this time around, because this year, I will be back with a vengeance!