Unofficial Finishing Positions: Smith (31st), Franchitti (32nd), Hornish (43rd)
Rookie of the Race: Absolutely Nobody. There is no way that I can assign this category to a freshman driver when none of them finished higher than 31st. In all fairness to Hornish, he did not even have a chance to see what his team was capable of at the southern California track after a lap 21 crash took him out of the race. As for Smith and Franchitti, it was really easy to find those two names throughout the race because they were consistently at or around 30th place. Smith and crew chief Doug Richert could never quite get the handle on the Coors Light Chevy despite multiple opportunities to work on the setup thanks to the race’s 12 caution flags. Franchitti and his pit boss Steve Lane appeared to have similar struggles throughout the marathon event. The No. 40 team thought they had a chance to pick up some positions late in the race, but a dropped valve with five laps to go and ended hopes of a top-30 finish. The only positive news to come out of this week is that Smith’s performance, while disappointing, still earns him his first top-rookie finish of the year.
Tony’s Take: If the rookies are looking for reasons to explain their poor performance in Fontana, this past weekend has offered plenty of them, talk about baptism by fire. With Mother Nature wreaking havoc on the Auto Club 500 festivities, these freshman drivers faced very limited practice time, unusual track conditions and a race that had multiple interruptions and took almost 24 hours to complete; conditions these men have probably never seen and hopefully will never have to see again. This nightmare we tried to call a NASCAR race provided plenty of explanation for the pitiful performances turned in by the newbies and perhaps even grants them a “free pass” from criticism. It’s been a slow start of most of these guys however, and I expect much better runs next week.
Rocky Rookie Performance: No need to dwell any further on the negatives from this race. I’m all for focusing on Vegas and acting as if California never happened.
Rookie Wreck of the Day: Hornish. Similar to his surprising run at Daytona last week, Hornish was simply minding his own business, and trying survive until the end of the Auto Club 500. The strategy may have been a good one, but fate had other ideas. On lap 21, the No. 5 Impala driven by Casey Mears spun in the middle of turn 2, collected Dale Earnhardt Jr. and came to a rest against the outside retaining wall, temporarily. Hornish, who had his hood crumpled from contact with Reed Sorenson while trying to avoid the Mears incident, lost his ability to see and barreled into the Carquest/Kellogg’s Chevy. The impact caused Mears’s machine to roll over and eventually come to rest on its side while the No. 77 Dodge burst into blames. Fortunately, due to quick work from safety crews, no one was hurt. The incident however, left Hornish with a last-place finish and a memory that will last for the of the young rookie’s career.
Who Wasn’t Here?: Patrick Carpentier, Jacques Villeneuve and Burney Lamar. Carpentier never got the chance he had hoped for to make up for missing the Daytona 500 last week. Rain dominated the weekend headlines, which meant that the starting grid was determined by using 2007 owner points, bad news for the No. 10 team, which is 37th in that category. Therefore, Carpentier was sent home, robbed of a chance to make even a single qualifying lap. Lamar was also a victim of Mother Nature’s fury this weekend. Lamar, who made attempts in the E&M Motorsports Dodge last season, is running select events with the team once again in 2008. Look for this California kid and the No. 08 next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as he will make another try at qualifying for his first Sprint Cup race.
Villeneuve was not even at the track this past weekend in Fontana and it looks like that will be the situation for an undetermined amount of time. Originally, Bill Davis committed to running Villeneuve behind the wheel of the No. 27 Camry for the first five events of 2008, regardless of the sponsorship situation. However, in an unexpected move, the Canadian rookie was released from BDR after failing to qualify for the Daytona 500. Villeneuve announced last Wednesday that his only plans for this season at the moment include running the Nationwide race in Montreal this summer. As always, stay tuned to Frontstretch, as we will share further information on this situation as it becomes available.
Rookie Quotes of the Week: Carpentier comments on the frustrations of being outside the Top 35 when inclement weather strikes while Franchitti provides an astute analysis of the very weather conditions that sent Carpentier home. Apparently the Scotsman was rather unhappy about the climate native to his homeland following him halfway around the world.
Carpentier: “I’ll tell you now I don’t agree with that rule of Top 35 anymore too much [smiles]. It puts us behind a little bit and for us we were kind of banking on these tracks because we tested here the first three and after that we go to tracks that we haven’t tested at. I said that I knew it was going to be a challenge but I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a challenge. We’ll see. For me, I firmly believe that we’re going to get out of it, going to come back in Top 35 but it’s going to take time.”
Franchitti: “It’s bloody freezing. It’s California and I’m freezing. We’ve been fighting this weather all week and now I’m going to go find myself someplace warm to hang out.”
UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings
Note: For the first time in NASCAR’s modern era, three drivers are unofficially tied for the lead in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings.
UNOFFICIAL Points Standings
Next Up: The Cup Series continues its tour out west as it will head to Las Vegas for the UAW Dodge 400. Like Fontana, the “Sin City” venue also offers a wide racing surface, which usually lends itself to competitive side-by-side racing and will probably be fairly forgiving of any mistakes the rookies may make. After this weekend however, let’s just hope that the race is run on time without interruption.
Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Hornish will be in the Auto Club 500 headlines this week but not for finishing the as the top rookie. Any chance of that happening ended on lap 21 when his car encountered Mears’s wounded Chevrolet.
You Make The Pick: The majority of you also thought that Hornish would follow up his solid Daytona 500 performance with yet another top-rookie run. Gaining momentum in motorsports is a difficult task, however, and the Mobil 1 team will need to start all over again next week at Las Vegas.
Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: There is no more appropriate place for gambling than Las Vegas and that’s exactly why I’m picking Carpentier as the top finishing rookie next week. Look for Carpentier to benefit from experience gained during an extensive testing session at this track in January and from having Kasey Kahne, who has had success at this venue in the past, as a teammate.