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Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Regan Smith Finally Gains Momentum in Martinsville

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Aric Almirola (third), Sam Hornish Jr. (26th), Regan Smith (33rd), Michael McDowell (34th), Patrick Carpentier (37th), Dario Franchitti (43rd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Smith (14th), Franchitti (22nd), McDowell (26th), Hornish (28th), Carpentier (29th), Almirola (42nd)

Rookie of the Race: Smith. It may be virtually impossible to have an uneventful day at the Martinsville Speedway, which often looks like a moving junkyard by the end of 500 laps. However, Smith may have come close. Perhaps the rookie got all the “close calls” out of the way on Friday when he barely snuck the Principal Financial Chevy into the field, slipping in at 33rd, the fifth of the seven “go or go home” teams that made the race. However, unlike in other events so far this season, the No. 01 Impala moved forward from the start, working his way into the top 25 by the lap 75 mark. It was there that the team struggled with poor track position for a bit; stabilizing at or about that point in the field, he eventually lost a lap.

Smith did not give up, however, and engaged in a furious battle for the “Lucky Dog” award that continued throughout the entire event. “It was a tough race, just fighting the Lucky Dogs and stuff like that, a lot of lap down people were fighting for it and we finally got it,” the freshman explained. “And once we got it and I could go race people, the car wasn’t that bad.”

Finally getting over that hump following the race’s 14th caution, the rookie never looked back from that point on. Taking the checkers in 14th position, Smith snagged a career-best finish and his first top 15 of the Cup season to date. It was his second consecutive highest-finishing Rookie of the Race Award and third overall this season through six events. That puts Smith in a tie with Franchitti atop the Rookie of the Year standings; but most important of all, it boosts his team up to the 35th and final “locked-in” position in the owner standings, meaning the rookie can breathe easy heading to Texas next weekend.

Tony’s Take: “The car wasn’t that bad” was probably one of the larger understatements of the afternoon. Smith finally showed the talent that many believed he has in the second half of the Goody’s Cool Orange 500. After fighting for the Lucky Dog Award, the New York-native was virtually unheard from the rest of the day as he quietly picked off competitors and fought his way to the front. It is not entirely surprising that Smith would stop the bleeding that has been the 2008 season at Martinsville, though. It is one of six tracks he raced on in the Sprint Cup Series last year, and familiarity is always a good medicine for a sickly season. Perhaps Smith also performs best under pressure; not only did he rise to the challenge of having to time into the field for the first time in his Cup career, but he also turned his best race-day performance to date at this level. Hopefully for Smith’s sake, being on the points bubble will continue to fuel the pressure cooker, and he’ll whip off an equally impressive performance next week at Texas.

While it’s not enough to steal the spotlight from Smith, it should be noted that rookies Franchitti and Carpentier left Martinsville with not only their career-best finishes, but their first finishes in the top 30s on an oval for both categories. The two came home 22nd and 29th, respectively, verifying that the week off was just what some of these newbies needed.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Hornish. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that short-track racing didn’t appear to be Hornish’s favorite activity, and Sunday afternoon confirmed that. Laying down a decent qualifying lap on Friday turned out to be the highlight of the Mobil 1 team’s weekend. Hornish was in trouble early on lap 107 when he ran into the back of JJ Yeley‘s Camry; then, in a chain-reaction wreck, he found himself spun out by Mike Skinner. The former open wheeler, who had never seen anything like Martinsville on the Indy Racing League circuit, was never able to recover after that; he ran his battered No. 77 Dodge around the 30th position until spinning out again on lap 262. In the end, Hornish wound up in 28th place, not enough to save his “locked-in” starting spot for Texas; ironically, that spot was earned by none other than fellow rookie Smith.

Rookie Wrecks of the Day: Almirola. The part-time driver of the U.S. Army Impala did an impeccable job of displaying patience en route to his top-10 finish at Bristol two weeks ago, so much so that he did not have any left to bring to Virginia. On Friday, it looked like Almirola might continue his impressive run after a lightning-quick qualifying lap placed him third on the starting grid. But on lap 59, while running in the top five, the rookie got into the legendary No. 43 Dodge piloted by Bobby Labonte, setting off a multi-car wreck at the front of the field. Taking out Labonte in a Petty-owned car at Martinsville is like wrecking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and Almirola would remain on the naughty list for the rest of the afternoon. He would later get into David Reutimann‘s No. 44 Camry, which ignited an incident that involved Michael Waltrip, seriously damaging both cars’ days in the process. But the madness didn’t stop there; continuing his assault on Camrys, Almirola again nudged Waltrip’s No. 55 machine with just under 200 laps to go, damaging his wounded Chevrolet machine even further. But despite driving a car that looked like it just got off the streets of a war zone, Almirola still almost pulled off another solid finish until the engine let go with just over 100 laps remaining.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Nobody. It was a grim situation for the rookies coming into Martinsville, as only Almirola, Hornish and McDowell had guaranteed starting spots in the field. Still, all six drivers carrying a yellow stripe on their rear bumper squeaked in, with Franchitti just making the cut, qualifying in 43rd. This was probably the biggest collective accomplishment of the year for the 2008 rookies, who have otherwise stunk up the joint so far this season. Furthermore, half of them backed up their strong Friday runs with career best performances on Sunday afternoon.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Rookie McDowell made his first ever Sprint Cup start on Sunday, and actually enjoyed a good day until he managed to pull off quite a feat in the closing laps; he ticked off Jeff Burton, one of the most level-headed guys in the garage.

Burton, who was closing in on the leader, viewed the driving tactics of McDowell, who was three laps down, as unsportsmanlike given the circumstances.

“I thought we had something, we started coming back on him and then that kid in the No. 00, he’s going to learn some manners or I’m going to teach them to him – or he can choose it however he wants it – but it will be one way or the other.”

McDowell, disagreeing with Burton’s assessment of his manners, counters by saying he was just doing his job.

“I was trying to gain a few spots, and we’re trying to keep the car in the Top 35. The No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) got by, and we were able to hang with him for four or five laps and once the No. 31 (Jeff Burton) put a nose underneath, I let him go. I’m sorry if I held him up – it wasn’t the intention, but I was racing the No. 28 (Travis Kvapil) and the No. 16 (Greg Biffle) at the time.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 60
Franchitti 60
Hornish Jr. 57
Carpentier 28
McDowell 9

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 34th (+5)
Hornish Jr.: 35th (0)
Franchitti: 37th (+1)
Almirola 44th (-1)
Carpentier 45th (+1)
McDowell 48th (Debut)

Please Note: Hornish is one spot higher in the driver points than he is in owner points. This is due to the fact that he surpassed Mark Martin, who did not run the previous two events. However, that No. 8 team is still ahead of Hornish in the points (22nd) since Almirola continued to run the car in Martin’s absence. Since owner points determine qualifying, Hornish will have to clock in on time at Texas, as the Roger Penske-owned team just misses the cut at 36th.

Next Up: The series makes its first trip to the Lone Star State for the Samsung 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway. The good news for the rookies is that the venue is very similar to Atlanta, where they just raced under a month ago. The bad news is that they didn’t exactly light the place up in Georgia, as Hornish led the pack with only a 25th-place finish. Expect better results this week, as I will even go as far as to say that all five will make the show once again.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: I thought Hornish would benefit from not having to worry about a qualifying setup this past weekend. He probably could’ve benefited more from a wider track and bigger fenders, though. Hornish, who was not mentioned unless he was in the spin cycle, finished in 28th, fourth among the rookies.

You Make The Pick: A whopping 50% of you thought Almirola was going to continue to impress the NASCAR faithful for two consecutive events. It was looking good for you for a while… until engine woes ended Almirola’s eventful day.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: This pick is getting more and more difficult, and my 0-6 record is evidence of that. None of the freshmen have established themselves as the frontrunner yet this season. So, next week I’m going with the driver who has the best shot at becoming the “guy to beat for ROTY,” and that is Smith; he’ll go for his third consecutive top-rookie finish in the Lone Star State.

| Event | Track | Tony’s Pick | Finish | Reader’s Pick | Finish | Top-Finishing Rookie | Finish |
| Daytona 500 | Daytona | Smith | 37th | Franchitti | 33rd | Hornish Jr. | 15th |
| Auto Club 500 | California | Hornish Jr. | 43rd | Hornish Jr. | 43rd | Smith | 31st |
| UAW-Dodge 400 | Las Vegas | Carpentier | 40th | Hornish Jr. | 41st | Franchitti | 33rd |
| Kobalt Tools 500 | Atlanta | Franchitti | 33rd | Hornish | 25th | Hornish | 25th |
| Food City 500 | Bristol | Smith | 26th | Hornish | 29th | Almirola | 8th |
| Goody’s Cool Orange 500 | Martinsville | Hornish | 28th | Almirola | 42nd | Smith | 14th |

Season Scorecard: Tony 0, Readers 1

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