NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Sam Hornish Jr. is Heroic at Daytona

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Sam Hornish Jr. (19th), Regan Smith (29th), Dario Franchitti (40th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Hornish (15th), Franchitti (33rd), Smith (37th)

Rookie of the Race: Sam Hornish Jr. Most of the NASCAR world will say that Penske Racing had its most successful run in team history during Sunday’s Daytona 500, based on the 1-2 finish of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch. It should not be overlooked however, that all three Penske teams came home in the top 15, as Hornish was the surprise top rookie finisher. Hornish caught everyone’s attention within the first 25 laps of the race when he muscled his No. 77 Charger into the top 10. It appeared that the rookie was out to show his veteran competitors that he was for real by keeping his Mobil 1 Dodge in or near the lead pack for most of the day while staying out of trouble, well, almost. On lap 177, Jimmie Johnson‘s Chevrolet came down into Hornish’s car, sending the defending Sprint Cup champion into the spin cycle. But despite the mistake, the rookie was able to continue on with little damage, charging ahead to a 15th-place finish by the checkered flag.

Tony’s Take: The Defiance, Ohio native “defied” the skeptics who believed Hornish lacked the experience to be successful at the Sprint Cup level, at least for one weekend. I too, believed that the three-time open-wheel champ would be a disaster on wheels after more than half of his Nationwide starts resulted in accidents. However, Hornish looked like a veteran on Sunday, mastering the draft early, staying patient throughout the middle portion of the race and avoiding trouble during the chaotic closing circuits.

Realistically speaking, Daytona is its own animal because of the absurd amount of testing beforehand, and the unique strategy involved with restrictor-plate racing. Therefore, we cannot make any conclusions about Hornish’s season based on just one week; but there’s no doubt he’s off to a strong start.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Franchitti. Was the Scotsman even participating in the 50th running of the Daytona 500? Franchitti’s name was hardly mentioned during the event, as he spent most of his Sprint Cup debut running in the back third of the pack. The rookie was quoted as saying that anytime someone got behind him, his car would become “unbelievably loose,” probably the reason why he ran in the back all day. However, Franchitti did finish, something that not every rookie can say after what’s usually a wreck-filled event.

Rookie Wreck of the Day: Smith. Smith finished the race, too; but for him, it wasn’t pretty. Like Franchitti, Smith’s Principal Financial Impala was barely seen all day as it was mired back in the pack for most of the event. In the second half of the race, the No. 01 car slammed the wall hard, and was forced to pit road so the team could make extensive repairs. What little chance Smith had of a solid finish ended with that incident, relegating the team to a 37th-place finish.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Patrick Carpentier, Jacques Villeneuve and Eric McClure. The two former open-wheel stars in this group arrived in Daytona with their game faces on, as both recorded top-20 qualifying efforts. This probably would have put them in the show at any other event this season – but this is the crown jewel of NASCAR, where absolutely nothing is easy. Round two of the qualifying fight – the Gatorade Duels – provided the knockout punches that eliminated both these stars from participating in round one of the 2008 season.

Carpentier spent most of his race in one of the two transfer spots until he scraped the wall coming off turn 2, then scraped it again on the next lap, and once again on the following lap. It proved to be more hits than his Dodge Charger could take, as the multiple collisions resulted in a blown tire, one that ended Carpentier’s chances for a spot on the starting grid.

Villeneuve, meanwhile, learned exactly how hard it is to save a loose racecar at Daytona. As the former Formula 1 star tried to back out of a tricky three-wide situation, John Andretti‘s Chevrolet charged past Villeneuve’s Camry, disturbing the air surrounding the No. 27 and causing a hard wreck into the turn 4 wall that also collected Stanton Barrett, Jamie McMurray, and several others.

Finally, while not running for Rookie of the Year, McClure had still planned on attempting to make the season’s most prestigious race. For a while, McClure’s Hefty Chevrolet made a formidable run at one of the transfer spots early in his Duel; but in the end, he could not make it two for two for Front Row Motorsports, as he was sidelined with mechanical problems.

Rookie Quotes of the Week

Hornish summarizes his day, reviews the incident with Johnson, and comments on Team Penske’s big day:

“I was pretty happy with the car all day. I think we definitely had a better finish in the car, but kind of got stuck back in traffic a little bit and were just fighting for our life there for a little while. But I’m real happy with all the guys that work on the Mobil 1 No. 77 Dodge. They did a great job for me today, especially the spotter. I’ve got a little bit of work to do, not only getting the draft down but also getting in and out of the pits. We’re all trying to work together and do the best we can.”

Q: What happened with Johnson late in the race?

“He was stuck in the middle, and I got down on the bottom and I was trying real hard not to get into him. I don’t know if he came down a little bit or I came up; just not enough room there. I feel really bad about it if it was my fault. I’ll go talk to Jimmie [Johnson] about it and apologize. Even if it wasn’t my fault, it’s still off the front of my car. I’m trying to learn as much as I can and get as much out of it while I do that.”

This was a big day for Penske Racing.

“It’s a great day, and it was said all along that my goal coming over here was to try to make the team better and to be a part of Roger being able to win the 500 and the championship. You know, one down and one to go — we’ll keep working away at it. Ryan and Kurt both have an excellent start to the year, and hopefully they’ll be able to continue forward and I’ll be able to continue myself.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Hornish 11
Franchitti 10
Smith 9
Carpentier 1
Villeneuve 1

Next Up: It’s back to “normal” for the Sprint Cup tour as they head out west for the Auto Club 500 at Fontana. The 2-mile D-shaped oval provides low banking and a wide racing surface, which certainly will be a welcomed relief for this year’s freshmen crop after two weeks of close-quarter racing at Daytona.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Not only did Smith finish last among rookies on Sunday, he was not even remotely competitive. Like Smith, I too, am off to a bad start in 2008.

You Make The Pick: We are all slow out of the starting gate, as 45% of you thought Franchitti would be the top finishing rookie in the Daytona 500. But you were just as surprised as I was with Hornish’s stellar performance, as only 5% of you chose him as the one to best the rest of the rookies.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: I’m not trying to jump on the bandwagon here, but I think Hornish will ride his momentum into the second event of the season and once again lead all freshmen to the finish line.

| Event | Track | Tony’s Pick | Finish | Reader’s Pick | Finish | Top Finishing Rookie | Finish |
| Daytona 500 | Daytona Beach | Smith | 37th | Franchitti | 33rd | Hornish | 15th |

Season Scorecard: Tony 0, Readers 0

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