As most of the Sprint Cup drivers took a week off from racing multi-colored cars in favor of cracking vibrant eggs, the rookie column was left on a little bit of an Easter Egg hunt of its own… trying to figure out how to fill this space for the week! Considering we’re only five races into the season, it’s a little too early to start grading the progress of the 2008 freshmen; considering their woeful start, this is probably a good thing. I’ll save that for the halfway point of the season; in the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how the 2007 Rookie of the Year candidates have started out their second seasons in Cup. With a year under their belt, expectations are riding high for these five drivers, so let’s see if they have been stepping up to the plate or succumbing to the dreaded “sophomore slump.”
No. 6 – David Ragan
Five Starts, zero top fives, one top 10: 22nd in the Sprint Cup standings
2008 could not have gotten off to a worse start for the 2007 Rookie of the Year runner-up. Not only did Ragan finish 42nd after simply losing control of the car all by himself during the Daytona 500, he took out teammate Matt Kenseth in the process. It was a far cry from last year’s season opener, when the AAA Ford Fusion emerged from a last lap wreck to score an impressive fifth-place finish in Ragan’s Daytona Cup debut.
The differences between seasons stops there, however. After that restrictor-plate disaster, Ragan steadily emerged from the basement of the standings by recording 14th and seventh-place finishes at California and Las Vegas, respectively. Two more average finishes at Atlanta and Bristol left the Georgia native 22nd in driver points… exactly where he was last year at this time. That might not be good enough considering this is a second go-round; Ragan will have to continue an upward trend in performance throughout the year if he wants to keep the head honchos at Roush Fenway happy. This is especially true in a year when his team needs to secure a new primary sponsor; remember, AAA announced they would part ways with the team following this season.
No. 15 – Paul Menard
Five Starts, zero top fives, zero top 10s: 27th in the Sprint Cup standings
It certainly has not been an exciting season for Menard, whose best finish to date was a 19th at Atlanta. Still, this team has improved from last year’s performance under the guidance of new crew chief Doug Randolph. The No. 15 team is currently 14 positions better than their 41st spot in the standings last year at this time. With that has come the continued guarantee of a “locked-in” qualifying spot, at least for the near future; it’s a luxury this team did not have until late in 2007.
Certainly, not all the blame can be placed on the driver for 2008’s slow start. The entire DEI organization seems to be behind the eight-ball just a bit, with only three top 10s in 20 opportunities among its four teams to date. Lady Luck hasn’t been too kind to this sophomore, either. Menard was enjoying his best run of the year at Bristol, running just outside the top 10 when his car was heavily damaged in an accident not of his doing.
As time passes, the pressure intensifies with this program, as many would say that Menard underperformed the most out of all the 2007 rookies. But if DEI can figure out its early-season woes, I expect Menard to benefit the most, finally displaying some of the talent he had shown in the Nationwide Series in years past.
No. 42 – Juan Pablo Montoya
Five starts, zero top fives, zero top 10s: 20th in the Sprint Cup standings
What the heck is going on here!?!? The defending Rookie of the Year winner has finished no better than 15th this season, which occurred just this past weekend at Bristol. In fact, the Colombian has hardly been a blip on the radar screen after being the center of attention for much of last year. It’s not that Montoya is having a terrible season; but given that many picked the Texaco/Havoline driver as a darkhorse to make the Chase, having no top 10s and sitting one position lower in points than he was last year at this time has to be a disappointment for the entire team.
Much like Menard’s situation, Montoya is a victim of driving for an underachieving organization. Quite simply, Team Ganassi has been out to lunch through the first five races of the 2008 season; Reed Sorenson has struggled – with the exception of Daytona – while rookie teammate and fellow open-wheel defector Dario Franchitti has driven his team outside the Top 35 in owner points.
But that’s not all of it. One factor could very well be the lack of veteran leadership behind the wheel among the three teams, where most of the experience lies with third year driver Sorenson. You can say all the negative things you want about David Stremme, but the fact is that Montoya is struggling without his presence; and that’s not surprising, since it was Stremme who Montoya credited for helping him through the 2007 season. It just goes to show that no matter how much you’ve won elsewhere, Sprint Cup provides its own unique challenges that require some guidance to successfully overcome. Right now, Montoya desperately needs his entire organization to step it up; otherwise, he could look to take his talent elsewhere.
No. 00 – David Reutimann
Five starts, zero top fives, zero top 10s: 26th in the Sprint Cup standings
Wow, what a difference a year makes. Yes, Reutimann’s best finish is only an 18th at Daytona… and he certainly hasn’t lit the world on fire, by any means. So, why is there so much excitement within the Michael Waltrip Racing camp? It’s because Reutimann continues to do what he did best last year, qualify, and that rhythm couldn’t have come at a better time. The No. 00 team, which had to qualify on time entering the season, has made every event so far in 2008, finally locking them into the field starting at Martinsville. Reutimann also sits 26th in driver points, much better than the 45th spot he held down following the spring Bristol race last year. That represents the largest improvement among all the 2007 rookies to date.
The ironic thing for Reutimann, however, is that all his work will benefit someone else; Michael McDowell will take over the Aaron’s Dream Machine at Martinsville. However, one good deed has been paid off with another, as Dale Jarrett secured the No. 44 UPS Camry – Reutimann’s new ride – within the Top 35 in owner points before retiring from points-paying competition. One thing to be weary of is that much like Montoya’s situation, this team is also losing a veteran presence, something Reutimann himself admits will be a bit difficult to deal with. However, this Floridian has already proved he can survive a difficult situation, and should benefit from Toyota’s overall improvement in performance. A top 20 in the final standings is not out of the question for the new face of UPS.
No. 84 AJ Allmendinger
Zero starts, three DNQs: On Temporary Hiatus From Cup Racing
Many teams have been criticized for bringing young drivers to the Sprint Cup level too quickly in hopes of finding the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart. Developmental time in the lower series is sacrificed for a quick entrance into the big leagues in order to satisfy sponsors and energize the NASCAR faithful about the team. This strategy can pay off in large dividends when executed correctly; however, the risks bear far greater consequences. Allmendinger, unfortunately, is the poster child of the latter.
After failing to qualifying for the first three races (rain prevented the No. 84 team from turning a single lap at Fontana), general manager Jay Frye and the Team Red Bull executives – already painfully aware of what happens when a team falls behind too early – made the call to put Mike Skinner behind the wheel of Allmendinger’s Camry. The move is only meant to be temporary; but so far, it has paid off. Skinner has made both races and brought the team up to 43rd in owner points, only 138 markers out of 35th. With that in mind, should Team Red Bull stay true to their word they’ll put “‘Dinger” back in the car in a position where qualifying is not an issue; Then, and only then we should see the true talent that the former open wheeler can bring to the table. There is only one thing we should wonder about; how is Allmendinger supposed to improve by sitting on the sideline? Shouldn’t he be making starts elsewhere, anywhere, Nationwide, Trucks, ARCA, the local go-kart track?
It’s probably too early to say that any of these drivers are officially in a sophomore slump; however, some of them are certainly heading in that direction. Based on early performances, I think we can look for the Davids, as in Ragan and Reutimann, to be the most likely candidates to finish the year in the top 20 in points (possibly sneaking in a win in the process). And maybe if these sophomores can find the time, they could give a little advice to this year’s freshman class; boy, they sure could use it.