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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Sam Hornish Jr. Spins, But Wins Rookie Honors at Home Track

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Starting order set by owner points due to rain) Regan Smith (31st), Michael McDowell (33rd), Sam Hornish Jr. (35th), Dario Franchitti (41st), Patrick Carpentier (43rd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Hornish (22nd), Carpentier (24th), Smith (32nd), McDowell (37th), Franchitti (43rd)

Rookie of the Race: Hornish. It didn’t take long for the Defiance, Ohio native to make his presence known at the venue he considers his home track on the NASCAR circuit. By the race’s one-quarter mark, Hornish Jr. was running consistently in the top 20 after starting well back in the pack. But as it turns out, the Mobil 1 team would be the strongest performer out of the Roger Penske stable, running in or near the top 15 for Michigan’s middle segment while his teammates floundered with poor-handling cars and engine issues. However, things would get even more interesting for Hornish as the race entered its final stages.

When the fourth caution of the race flew on lap 148, crew chief Chris Carrier opted to keep his driver on the track to gain track position. 14 laps later, that driver was battling Jimmie Johnson, who was also on the same pit strategy, for the lead. Hornish would eventually take over the number one spot from the defending Sprint Cup champ for one lap before falling back to second once again. The No. 77 team never saw the caution they needed to stay up front, however, and were forced to pit with just 20 laps to go for two fresh tires and fuel. Hornish’s late-race misfortunes would not stop there, though. With only three laps remaining, the rookie’s loose racecar got the best of him when he lost control of his Dodge in turn 3. The car went for a ride in the grass but never hit anything, causing the race’s green/white/checkered finish. Still able to bring it home on the lead lap, Hornish was able to salvage a 22nd-place finish to best his rookie rivals for the sixth time in 2008.

Tony’s Take: Hornish Jr.’s hometown is a mere 100 miles away from Cedar Point Amusement Park, dubbed the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World.” I mention this because Hornish’s season over the past month has included as many ups, downs, twists and turns as the park’s 17 coasters. Following their surprising top-15 finish at Daytona, this team had been in a free fall towards the bottom of the standings with consecutive subpar finishes. Then, during the All-Star weekend in May, Hornish began his climb back to the top after almost winning the preliminary race and following it with a top-10 finish in the night’s main event. The rookie used that momentum to rattle off two top 20s, including a career best 13th at the Coca-Cola 600. But a disastrous Pocono 500 had the delivered an unexpected twist, one which has been quickly remedied after Hornish led the first two laps of his NASCAR career.

STAFF: BUBBLE BREAKDOWN AFTER MICHIGAN

I expect this rookie’s wild ride to take yet another turn next week as he hits the road course in Sonoma, which should be a strong suit for this former open wheeler. But Hornish’s up and down season is nothing new for a rookie at this level. In fact, it’s better to experience some inconsistencies containing solid runs than to consistently run in the back of the pack, as was the case for most of Hornish’s first four months in the series. This team will still experience many more highs and lows throughout the remainder of 2008, so let’s just hope Honrish doesn’t suffer from a queasy stomach!

Rocky Rookie Performance: Franchitti. Franchitti’s race was basically over before it began early on Sunday afternoon. On lap 25, the No. 40 pulled onto pit road for an unscheduled stop and the crew diagnosed his ailing machine to have a broken valve. They sent Franchitti back out to limp around the track, but to no avail; his Dodge Charger was retired soon thereafter after breaking a piston, and Franchitti was credited with a last-place finish.

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: Hornish and Carpentier. For about 394 miles, the wide racing surface of the Michigan International Speedway was a welcomed relief for the rookies after the Demolition Derby last week at Pocono. Not one incident involved a member of the 2008 freshman class. Then, Hornish and Carpentier, who tangled twice last week, would change all of that in separate incidents. Their wrecks are notable not for their intensity but also for the significant impact they would have on the race. With three laps remaining, Hornish lost control of his No. 77 Dodge, which forced a GWC finish that made an already tight fuel situation for many teams even worse. Then, on the final lap, Carpentier became an innocent victim when the No. 1 and No. 55 cars of Martin Truex Jr. and Michael Waltrip tangled on the front straightaway. Carpentier had nowhere to go but into Waltrip, bringing out the caution flag that would seal the victory for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Nobody. Usually when the field is set by points, it spells bad news for those teams, especially with rookie drivers that are sitting outside the Top 35. But this time, all first year drivers made the cut, even if it was just barely – as was the case with Carpentier.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Hornish Jr. recounts the frustrating end to the LifeLock 400, which had a lot of potential for the rookies throughout much of the race.

“It’s a tough way to end the race. We made a decision to take on two tires during our last pit because we were so loose the last 20 laps. Every time that I tried to touch the gas, the backend was coming around and it almost felt like that [a tire] was going down or something. It’s unfortunate. The guys on the Mobil 1 team have been working hard to get our car better on race day, and I’m real happy with the progress that they’re making. We just need to keep the driver calm and get a little bit of luck on our side.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 145
Hornish Jr. 144
Carpentier 108
McDowell 91
Franchitti 86

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 30th (+1)
Hornish Jr.: 33rd (+1)
Carpentier: 38th (0)
McDowell: 39th (0)
Franchitti: 42nd (0)
Aric Almirola: 48th (0 – DNS)

Qualifying Next Week: Carpentier and Franchitti will once again have to time into the field at Sonoma. Also, keep your eye on the No. 00 this weekend, as they are in the 35th and final locked in position with no margin for error.

Note that road-course veteran Ron Fellows will be driving the No. 01 car in place of Smith for the Save Mart 350.

Next Up: The series heads back to the west coast for the first road course event of the season when the Sprint Cup boys head to Sonoma. This translates into left and right turns on the track and wine and cheese during happy hour (not the final practice), usually oddities in NASCAR. However, it will be a homecoming of sorts for three rookie contenders who have open-wheel backgrounds. I don’t think we’ll see a repeat of Juan Pablo Montoya’s performance last year when the Formula 1 and IndyCar veteran took home his first victory; however, don’t be surprised if some of this year’s freshmen turn in a career best performance this Sunday.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Smith hasn’t had the year he expected at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, and another edition of the “Tony jinx” isn’t helping. One week after displaying some strength in Pocono qualifying, Smith struggled all day long in the Irish Hills, slumping to 32nd and well out of contention for top-finishing rookie. Oh well!

You Make The Pick: You thought that McDowell would benefit from his previous ARCA experience in the Irish Hills of Michigan, as over 40% of you picked the driver of the No. 00 to finish better than his rookie counterparts. However, the rookie looks like he needs a lot more stock car experience before making any more noise on the senior circuit.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: Carpentier made his Sprint Cup debut last year on the road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y., where he finished a solid 22nd and led seven laps in the process. I don’t think that performance was a flash in the pan, and I expect the Canadian’s previous stock car experience on a road course to pay off this Sunday.

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 |
| Crown Royal 400 | Richmond | Carpentier | 43rd | Carpentier | 43rd | Smith | 21st |
| Dodge Challenger 500 | Darlington | Smith | 29th | Smith | 29th | McDowell | 28th |
| Coca-Cola 600 | Lowe’s | McDowell | 32nd | McDowell | 32nd | Hornish | 13th |
| Best Buy 400 | Dover | Smith | 21st | McDowell | 30th | Hornish | 18th |
| Pocono 500 | Pocono | Hornish | 42nd | Hornish | 42nd | McDowell | 27th |
| LifeLock 400 | Michigan | Smith | 32nd | McDowell | 37th | Hornish | 22nd |

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0