NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Sam Hornish Jr. Stops Horrible Luck for Rookies at Atlanta

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Patrick Carpentier (21st), Dario Franchitti (23rd), Sam Hornish Jr. (33rd), Regan Smith (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Hornish (25th), Franchitti (33rd), Carpentier (35th), Smith (38th)

Rookie of the Race: Hornish. The bright yellow color scheme of Penske Trucking replaced the familiar blue and white Mobil 1 logo on the No. 77 Dodge in Atlanta. Yet, despite the vibrant appearance of the car, nobody seemed to notice Hornish on Sunday; which, considering his previous two outings, was nothing but a good thing. Hornish and head wrench Chris Carrier fought the same conditions every other driver/crew chief combination on pit road battled throughout the event: an extremely loose racecar. “I mean, it was loose all the time and [I] had a really tough time getting it off the corner, going sideways most of the time,” remarked a smiling but worn out Hornish after the checkers flew.

However, while it was not the most successful of afternoons for the team, Hornish and company did not let the tricky track conditions get the best of them. The 28-year-old never could break into the top 20, but he did keep from dropping out of the top 30 as he gradually got the hang of the 1.5-mile oval. Despite falling two laps off the pace, the freshman came home in 25th, resulting in his second top-finishing rookie result of the year. It’s a feat which allowed him to inch closer to Franchitti for the Rookie of the Year points lead as the Defiance, Ohio native continues his adjustment to the stock car realm.

Tony’s Take: We finally had a rookie finish in the top 30 and, staying true to my word, I have awarded the “Rookie of the Race” to a driver for the first time since Daytona. Ironically, it goes to the same rookie who took the category after the season opener, and that is Hornish Jr. If nothing else, I’m sure the Ohio native had to be relieved that his afternoon did not end with his Charger smacking the wall as it did in both California and Las Vegas.

While a quiet 25th-place run is by no means anything to get excited about, it still fulfilled several goals for the Penske Trucking Team. First, they finished the race, meaning that Hornish received over 300 laps of much needed experience piloting a stock car. Also, Hornish’s crew was able to adjust to the new car/tire combination better than his ROTY competitors, giving him his second highest rookie finish in four races this season. Finally – and most importantly – a 25th-place finish propels the team to a mere 18 markers out of the current Top 35 in owner points. Why is this so important? Well, next week is the final event where the field will be locked in according to the 2007 owner standings. After that, the open wheeler can say goodbye to the points he inherited from the No. 2 team in the offseason; from that point on, it’ll be Hornish and Hornish alone who will have to work his way into the field. Don’t expect that to phase the former open-wheeler too much, however. When Hornish does finish, he is the only rookie who can seem to turn in a solid run.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Smith. The nightmare that is the 2008 season continues for DEI’s rookie driver. Once again this past weekend, Smith and crew chief Doug Richert couldn’t seem to find the handle on the No. 01 Chevrolet Impala, resulting in another back-of-the-pack performance all day long Sunday. This team still has not secured a full-time sponsor for this season, and four consecutive finishes of 31st or worse cannot be helping that situation. As if that weren’t bad enough, it appears that Smith is in grave danger of losing a locked in starting position after Bristol, as well; with just one race to go before his automatic spot disappears, Smith’s team sits 66 points out of 35th. I believe this kid has a bright future, and picked him as a favorite for the ROTY award this year; so trust me, I’m just as dumbfounded by the rookie’s slow start as anyone.

Rookie Wrecks of the Day: Nobody. It’s hard to find good news to report about so far in regard to these freshmen, but let’s give credit where credit is due – not one was involved in a single incident during this past weekend’s race. Considering the tire situation and the varied weather conditions, not wrecking is quite an accomplishment for these drivers, who were seeing the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time in a Sprint Cup car.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Burney LamarLamar, who was making his second official qualifying attempt of the season, fell far short or making the field. Combine the second slowest time out of the 48 drivers that qualified with a team that is 49th in owner points, and you have a recipe for going home, and that’s just what Lamar and the Rhino’s Energy Drink team did.

Rookie Quote of the Week: The Bristol Motor Speedway has a reputation that usually keeps NASCAR drivers, crew members, and especially fans talking about the track all year long. Carpentier wastes no time thinking about next week as he shares his thoughts on the half-mile:

Q: What have you heard about Bristol?
“Oh, I heard a lot of stuff. I heard Juan Pablo say What the, [laughs].’ So, it’s a different place. We ran New Smyrna which is a short track and should be similar. I’ll play the video games this week [to prepare] [smiles].”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Franchitti 41
Hornish Jr. 39
Smith 38
Carpentier 20

UNOFFICIAL Points Standings

Hornish Jr.: 36th
Franchitti: 38th
Smith: 39th
Carpentier: 44th

Next Up: The Sprint Cup Series goes short-track racing at one of the most popular tracks on the schedule, BMS. Popular among fans, that is. The half-mile bullring is not always a favorite destination for some of NASCAR’s top drivers; Mark Martin once compared this track to flying fighter jets in a gymnasium, where one mistake can mean disaster. With that in mind, it’s not the best place for rookies adjusting to stock cars to score a solid finish; and with three of the four visiting the track for the first time, they’re in for an eye-opening experience. Smith is the only freshman who has raced on this track before, competing in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions in Thunder Valley – including his Sprint Cup debut last year.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: I’m not sure if it’s due to Team Ganassi’s struggles in general, or the fact that Franchitti is not as comfortable as his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya was at this point in the season – but picking the Scotsman certainly did not get me on the prediction scoreboard this week. The No. 40 car struggled all race long, eventually winding up the event in 33rd place.

You Make The Pick: The majority of you stayed with the only rookie who has produced any positive results this season, and that is Hornish Jr. You believed that if Hornish could first finish at Atlanta, he would finish first among his first year counterparts – and he did exactly that, meaning that you strike first in the prediction poll.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: “Regan Smith is having an awful season.” That comment, coming from yours truly, has got to be the understatement of the year thus far. However, there is no better cure for underperformance than having prior experience at a track; and as I mentioned before, Smith has plenty of it at Bristol. Therefore, I am picking the New York native to break out of his slump in Tennessee this week.

| Event | Track | Tony’s Pick | Finish | Reader’s Pick | Finish | Top-Finishing Rookie | Finish |
| Daytona 500 | Daytona | Smith | 37th | Franchitti | 33rd | Hornish | 15th |
| Auto Club 500 | California | Hornish | 43rd | Hornish| 43rd | Smith | 31st |
| UAW-Dodge 400 | Las Vegas | Carpentier | 40th | Hornish | 41st | Franchitti | 33rd |
| Kobalt Tools 500 | Atlanta | Franchitti | 33rd | Hornish | 25th | Hornish | 25th |

Season Scorecard: Tony 0, Readers 1

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