NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Michael McDowell Survives Darlington Duel

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Regan Smith (16th), Michael McDowell (18th), Sam Hornish Jr. (23rd), Patrick Carpentier (43rd),

Unofficial Finishing Positions: McDowell (28th), Smith (29th), Hornish (38th), Carpentier (40th)

Rookie of the Race: McDowell. The rookie hailing from Phoenix, Ariz. recorded his career-best qualifying effort this past weekend when he placed his Camry 18th on the starting grid. The team, carrying the Brain Cancer Action Week at Darlington, backed up their strong Friday performance with another formidable run on Saturday night. McDowell lost a lap early and would lose three more throughout the evening; which left a frustrated driver fighting the track position battle all night. “I had a couple of bad runs there where I just couldn’t get back in my rhythm, you know, running there a lap down and the leaders are trying to get by. And this place is so tough when somebody tries to get by you, if you don’t give way, you end up slowing the whole pack down and getting ran over.”

Despite being mired back in the pack for much of the evening, McDowell stayed out of trouble and brought home the No. 00 car in 28th position, his first top-finishing rookie honor of the year.

Tony’s Take: The Dodge “Challenger” 500 was an appropriate name for an event at Darlington which is perhaps the most “challenging” track on the circuit. I said last week that the rookies’ top priority this week should be to simply survive and that’s exactly how the event played out. Smith’s pit crew had problems with lugnuts on one pit stop, Hornish was trying to set a record for most Darlington stripes and Carpentier experienced engine woes. The one rookie not mentioned? It was none other than the top-finishing rookie, McDowell. Saturday night should serve as a big momentum boost for this rookie, especially as they head into another grueling event, the 600-miler at Lowe’s. Don’t look now, but McDowell is slowing inching towards Carpentier and Dario Franchitti in the Rookie of the Year standings despite missing the first five races. Keep an eye on this kid in two weeks to see how he handles this boost of confidence.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Carpentier. Perhaps this should be relabeled the “Rocky Luck Performance” this week as for most of the race, Carpentier was the best-performing rookie before trouble began. In fact, crew chief Mike Shiplett twice made the call to keep the No. 10 Dodge out long enough to lead laps during green-flag pit stops as the team tries to dig out of a hole in the points standings while getting sponsor Lifelock some airtime. The Canadian’s race started to turn sour on lap 201 when the team was hit with a pass-through penalty after a tire was left outside the pit box during a stop. As if that weren’t gut-wrenching enough, the engine expired on the Gillett-Evernham owned car, giving Carpentier a finish of 40th or worse in the past two weeks.

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: Hornish. It didn’t take long for open-wheel transfer Hornish to learn what the famed Darlington Stripe was all about. On lap 13, the Mobil 1 Dodge slammed hard into the turn 3 wall after a tire gave out. The Chris Carrier-led team was able to get Hornish back on the track, but as it turns out, it probably would’ve been better had they kept car behind the wall. Judging from the number of times the FOX announcers said “The No. 77 is in the wall again,” I would have to say that Hornish alone was responsible for the majority of the “Darlington Stripe Counter” total shown throughout the night.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Franchitti. Franchitti missed his third straight race due to the fractured ankle he sustained at Talladega. Actually, we think he is denial about his new role this year and decided that if he can’t be in Indianapolis during the month of May, then he doesn’t want to be anywhere.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Rookie McDowell talks about how he can’t stay content with simply a top-30 finish, even if it gets him the rookie of the race award.

Michael McDowell:
“It’s tough for me because my expectations are so high and they might not be realistic but they are what they are [smiles]. I get down and frustrated. I don’t want to run 28th and I don’t want to run 26th. We want to run better.“

On the opposite side of the spectrum, it appears that Carpentier isn’t exactly thrilled about racing the leaders as a lapped down car. However, despite his agitation, passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. did give the rookie a moment to remember.

Patrick Carpentier:
“We keep learning but once we lost laps in the pits there’s nothing I can do. I can’t battle with the guys. They all get pissed off and they would try to turn you around and then after that we had a mechanical failure. But at the beginning I passed Junior, a lot of guys, and I was having a blast. It’s fun. It’s coming. We just don’t have any luck at all.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 107
Hornish Jr. 105
Carpentier 73
Franchitti 72
McDowell 56

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 33rd (0)
Hornish Jr.: 34th (0)
Franchitti: 40th (-2, DNS)
Carpentier 41st (0)
McDowell 43rd (+1)
Almirola 46th (0, DNS)

Qualifying Next Week: Hornish’s multiple encounters with the wall have dropped his team outside the Top 35 in owner points, meaning he will need to lay down a lightning-quick qualifying lap at Lowe’s. Meanwhile, another bout of bad luck is not helping Carpentier in the points standings and as a result, the No. 10 team will have to qualify on time in two weeks as well.

Next Up: After an off-weekend from points racing, the series goes to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of the season. The track should be familiar to the rookies as it is almost a carbon copy of Atlanta and Texas where they ran earlier this year, but the extra 100 miles will be a brand new phenomenon for these guys. This event has been a popular one for first-time victories over the years. However, this year’s freshman will be happy if they can simply come home with a first career top 10 at Lowe’s.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: I thought that Smith’s previous experience racing at the Lady in Black would help him best his rookie counterparts, however he missed the top spot by a single position. Smith was actually enjoying a competitive evening until his clutch engaged on a pit stop, impairing the changers’ ability to change the lugnuts. The miscue turned out to be the difference between claiming a series-leading sixth rookie honor and going home with nothing more than a dismal 29th-place finish.

You Make The Pick: You also thought that Smith would benefit from his past experience racing at the Lady in Black, meaning that you will once again maintain your 1-0 leading heading into the 12th race of the season.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: Using stats and history doesn’t seem to be working too well this year so I’m going to go against the grain with this pick and go with McDowell as my top rookie pick for the Memorial Day classic. With most of his experience coming in the ARCA ranks, McDowell is probably least prepared for the grueling marathon event this Sunday night. So I’m not picking McDowell so much because I think he will capitalize on his solid run this week, but rather because it goes against all conventional wisdom, which seems to be the trend for the rookie finishes this year.

2008 Rookie Prediction Table

| 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 |
| Food City 500 | Bristol | Smith | 26th | Hornish | 29th | Almirola | 8th |
| Goody’s Cool Orange 500 | Martinsville | Hornish | 28th | Almirola | 42nd | Smith | 14th |
| Samsung 500 | Texas | Smith | 35th | McDowell/Smith | 33rd/35th | Carpentier | 28th |
| Subway Fresh Fit 500K | Phoenix | McDowell | 34th | McDowell | 34th | Hornish | 20th |
| Aaron’s 499 | Talladega | Almirola | 33rd | Hornish | 35th | Smith | 22nd |
| Dodge Challenger 500 | Darlington | Smith | 29th | Smith | 29th | McDowell | 28th |

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0

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