Forget the Indy 500 rumors; Sam Hornish Jr. is finally starting to make some noise in the Sprint Cup Series. In Saturday night’s “Sprint Showdown” event that featured three rookies, Hornish proved the lone bright spot after Patrick Carpentier wrecked his Charter Communications Dodge early while Regan Smith faded to the back of the pack. Left alone as the sole rookie contender, the No. 77 Mobil One Dodge made sure to shine; he was the fastest car on the track at the end of the event, overtaking David Ragan in the final laps to snag the second and final transfer spot for the All-Star Race.
Once there, it didn’t take long for the Beast of the Southeast to take a bite out of Hornish’s chances; he scraped the wall early in a very “Darlingtonesque” fashion through turns 3 and 4. The rookie explained that he was simply trying to avoid Juan Pablo Montoya when the incident occurred; but in making the evasive maneuver, he probably wound up paying a steeper price. “I went down into that turn and I was right behind the No. 42 car,” he said. “He’d been running the bottom, and he moved up, and it was either me go up in the marbles and try to keep from crashing… or run over him. I did what I thought was the right thing to do, and I had to move up a little bit and got in the marbles — that got the back end, which drug the front [up into the wall].”
The Defiance, Ohio native defied all odds, however; despite having to make a green flag pit stop to fix the ensuing damage, he was able to use NASCAR’s Lucky Dog rule to gain back both laps he lost. That set up his charge in the race’s final segment; as time was running short, it was Hornish more than any other car that was once again slicing through the field, this time charging to a seventh-place finish to nearly duplicate his late race run earlier that evening. In fact, the 28-year-old thought his car was capable of an even better finish if it weren’t for his unfortunate encounter with the wall. “I think we had a car that could have ran in the top three easy,” he claimed. “But I think that’s part of the learning process for a rookie is learning who to run around, who you can’t run around, and who you need to be extra careful about.”
Not only does Saturday night’s performance give a boost of confidence to Hornish and his team for the rest of 2008, but it also provides something positive to report on for this year’s rookie class, which has been underachieving to date. This isn’t the first time that a freshman has made noise in NASCAR’s All-Star Race, however. In fact, history shows that there have been quite a few instances where a car carrying a yellow stripe on its rear bumper has mixed it up with the best in the business in this event. Let’s take a look at some of the more notable rookie performances during the 24-year history of the Sprint All-Star Challenge:
When Cale Yarborough vacated the No. 28 ride in 1987 to start his own team, car owner Harry Ranier turned to a young rookie named Davey Allison to pilot his Havoline-sponsored machines. In just his sixth start of that season, Allison took the Havoline Ford to Victory Lane at Talladega, the first win for a rookie since Ron Bouchard took the checkers in 1981. That gave Allison an automatic berth into what was then called the Winston, held just two weeks later: with that entry, he became the first rookie to compete in the event during the third year of its existence. Allison made the most of that opportunity, too; he qualified an impressive third for the race, and eventually came home in 12th, one lap down to race winner Dale Earnhardt. While Allison’s finish that day may not have been noteworthy, his presence in the race certainly was: no driver would win again during his rookie season until Tony Stewart accomplished the feat 12 years later.
In between, one set of rookies would jump in to best Allison’s mark. Only 14 drivers were eligible to compete in the 1994 All-Star Race, meaning that the top six finishers from The Winston Open were needed to complete a field of 20. Half of those drivers were rookies, including Jeff Burton, Ward Burton, and Joe Nemechek — who finished fourth, fifth, and sixth respectively. The younger Burton, who was driving the Raybestos Brakes No. 8 Ford, would best all of his freshman counterparts that night by coming home in sixth position in the big race. It marked the first time a rookie ever recorded a top-10 finish, a mark that would stand as a record for nearly the rest of the decade.
But in 1999, Burton’s glory was buried by a thick cloud of Smoke. As previously mentioned, Stewart became the first driver since Davey Allison to win during his rookie season. However, none of his three wins that year, which all came in the second half of the season, earned him the right to race in the All-Star event. This particular season marked the second of a three-year experiment in which there were three qualifying events for the main show. Two “No Bull” races determined the lineup for the Open, where only the winner would transfer to the Winston. Stewart not only took the checkered flag in his qualifying race, but dominated the Open as well. Then, after starting shotgun on the field in the Winston, Smoke survived the lap 11 “Big One” and went on to finish second to Terry Labonte in the main event. With that finish, Stewart became the first rookie ever to come home with a top-five finish, blowing Burton’s previous results completely out of the water.
But Stewart’s mark wouldn’t last for long. One year later, a man named Dale Earnhardt Jr. burst on to the Cup scene, and expectations were high for the son of the seven-time champion. Junior did not disappoint, either; he won in only his 12th career start at Texas in April of his rookie season to lock in his spot in the May race. Just to make sure there was no doubt of his All-Star status, he took the Budweiser Chevy to Victory Lane once again at Richmond, one week before the famed Winston event. The third generation driver started that night in fifth position, and would only lead two laps the entire night — but they were the right ones. After battling with Dale Jarrett in another round of the “Dale and Dale” show in the closing stages of the final segment, Junior would finally put the No. 8 out in front and become the first rookie to ever win the All-Star event.
Junior’s win was difficult to accomplish; but it only took two years for another man to duplicate his feat. The 2002 All-Star rules called for a second sprint race after the Open, which would allow for one more driver to transfer into the big money race. This proved to be good news for Ryan Newman, who led all 16 laps of the No Bull Sprint and transferred into The Winston. After starting last, the Purdue graduate made up enough ground to barely make the cut for round two (in this year, NASCAR decided to eliminate drivers after each portion of the race). This time, in segment 2, Newman would become significantly better, charging to the front and finishing a respectable seventh. However, a fan vote to invert the final 10 drivers elevated the Rocket Man to the fourth starting spot for the final 20-lap shootout. Newman passed those in front of him and quickly established himself as the man to beat; that is, until a late-race caution put Junior on his rear bumper for the final few laps. The two put on quite a show in the dash to the finish, but Newman wound up holding on by less than two-tenths of a second to capture the victory. It was the second time that a transfer from a preliminary event won the Winston (the first was Michael Waltrip in 1996), as well as the second win for a rookie in the race.
Believe it or not, there have been many rookies that have made the All-Star event either through early career victories, transferring from preliminary events, or inheriting a spot from the previous driver of his car. However, these are some of the more notable performances by the newbies since the race’s inception in 1985. Which is the most memorable performance by a rookie? Could it be Allison’s entrance via a rare rookie win? Burton showing the NASCAR community how a rookie can compete with the best by coming home with a top 10? Maybe it was Stewart’s dominating Open performance and subsequent runner up finish in the Winston? Or perhaps Junior or Newman taking home the trophy in just their first All-Star start tops your list? Heck, you may even think Hornish recording a top 10 after falling two laps down is the best rookie performance you’ve seen in years. Well, whichever rookie run stands out in your mind, we hope you’ll let us know by voting in the latest Frontstretch rookie poll. We look forward to hearing from you!