The season is just past the halfway point, which means it’s time for Professor Lumbis to issue his midterm report cards for the 2008 rookie class. Get out your Tums, though – as after team closures, numerous wrecks, and poor finishes, this report is sure to give some readers agita after reading about the dreadful performances turned in by the rookies so far this year.
No. 00 – Michael McDowell
2008 Basic Stats: 14 starts, zero top 10s.
Average Finish: 31.7
Best Finish: 21st (Sonoma)
Many will remember McDowell’s entrance into the Sprint Cup Series for a long time, as the rookie made headlines with a frightening crash during qualifying for his second career start. Unfortunately for the Arizona native, that has been the only notable event of his career so far, which has not yet seen the rookie break into the top 20. There are some bright spots in McDowell’s abbreviated season, however, as he has maintained the team’s Top-35 position in owner points while recording three top-rookie finishes, the same amount as fellow freshman Patrick Carpentier who has competed since the beginning of the season (remember, McDowell didn’t start until race six, moving into the No. 00 after David Reutimann replaced Dale Jarrett in the No. 44). The goal for the rest of the year for this financially strapped team is now to build on its narrow 13-point lead over 36th in the owner standings, all while starting to record top-20 finishes that will attract the eye of a sponsor that could solidify the future of the No. 00 car.
No. 01 – Regan Smith
2008 Basic Stats: 18 starts, zero top 10s.
Average Finish: 28.1
Best Finish: 14th (Martinsville)
If one looks strictly at Smith’s best finish this year – noting that it is 10 positions better than his previous best from 2007 – you’d be safe to make the assumption that the rookie was enjoying a solid campaign in 2008. Looking at the entire year, however, you uncover a driver who is mired back in 34th position in the points, has worked in with three different crew chiefs and has only crossed the finish line in the top 20 twice (the other result being a 19th place at Charlotte). Certainly, this is a far cry from the expectations Smith had coming into the season after splitting time with Mark Martin last year. To make matters worse, the No. 01 has not carried the colors of a full-time sponsor all season, leading DEI officials to consider suspending the operations of the team during the season’s second half. This kid from upstate New York certainly has more potential than what he’s been able to show with a struggling organization. But that potential better become reality rather quickly – for unlike McDowell, Smith is not just fighting for a sponsor. He’s fighting for a future ride all together, as indications are he’ll most likely become a free agent by this November.
No. 8 – Aric Almirola
2008 Basic Stats: Five starts, one top 10.
Average Finish: 26.8
Best Finish: Eighth (Bristol)
The part-time driver of the U.S. Army Chevrolet burst onto the scene in 2008, with a strong run at Bristol that resulted in a career best top-10 finish. Almirola followed that run up immediately with another career-best, this time on Friday when he put the No. 8 Impala on the inside of row two at Martinsville. But it turned out the euphoria was short lived; the rookie finished next to last in that event, and has yet to record a top-20 finish since his season debut back in March. Despite the cooldown, DEI officials see potential in Almirola and offered him a full-time ride for 2009, making him the future and perhaps the face of their organization. The goal for the 24-year-old is now to learn as much as possible from his teammates during this season’s second half – especially because there is a chance that none of them will be representing the Earnhardt legacy anymore once Daytona rolls around in February.
No. 10 – Patrick Carpentier
2008 Basic Stats: 16 starts, zero top 10s.
Average Finish: 31.2
Best Finish: 14th (Daytona – July)
This may be perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2008 rookie class. The numbers aren’t exactly spectacular – until you look at the Canadian’s season in context. Carpentier was taking over a ride that was outside the Top 35 in owner points and suffered six DNQs throughout 2007 with veteran Scott Riggs behind the wheel. And as if the team itself didn’t present enough challenges, Carpentier only had six starts split between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series. Clearly this was a season which had disaster written all over it for both team and driver, and it showed in the first two events. Carpentier wrecked out of the Gatorade Duel 150 and missed the Daytona 500 before being left on the outside looking in when rain washed out Fontana qualifying. Since then, though, the 36-year-old rookie has qualified for every event on time (except for Bristol when time trials were rained out), bringing the No. 10 team to 226 markers out of a locked in position in the Top 35. Carpentier will need to spend the rest of the season improving on his finishes, and he may climb that mountain of the Top 35 yet – perhaps putting himself in contention for the ROTY title. Regardless, he will also be assured of a ride next season – something two of his sidelined rookie counterparts cannot say.
No. 40 – Dario Franchitti
2008 Basic Stats: 10 starts, zero top 10s.
Average Finish: 34.3
Best Finish: 22nd (Martinsville)
Franchitti’s 2008 season can easily serve as a microcosm of what is going wrong in this sport today. NASCAR presents its own set of unique challenges for drivers, meaning that wins or championships in other series do not necessarily translate into success in the stock car ranks. And just like with anything in life, you need to walk before you run. After four starts in the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series in 2007 with finishes no better than 25th, Franchitti tried sprinting into Sprint Cup – and became winded before hitting the first turn. Poor finishes, compounded by an injury at Talladega which sidelined the Scotsman for five races, left him mired in 41st position in the driver standings following Loudon. Indy 500 champion or not, if these open wheelers aren’t given the proper opportunity to adapt to these heavier cars, the results will reflect their lack of stock car experience.
The second side of the story is the negative impact the slow economy has had on a sport that relies heavily on millions of corporate dollars, which – in an age of cost cutting – is hard to come by. The trend over the last decade or so has been that if a driver was young, good looking and marketable, there were sponsors knocking on the door even before a single trophy was hoisted in victory lane. But that’s not the case anymore. Even a European with a superstar wife who gained worldwide recognition last year could not help his owner Chip Ganassi generate enough sponsorship interest to keep the No. 40 team afloat. As a result, Franchitti, who was picked by many – including myself – as a favorite to win the Rookie of the Year title, instead represents one of the biggest disappointments of 2008. If Franchitti is serious about his NASCAR career, he needs to spend the rest of the season driving anything he can get his hands on and continuing to log those laps to get a second chance.
No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr.
2008 Basic Stats: 19 starts, zero top 10s.
Average Finish: 29.5
Best Finish: 13th (Charlotte)
After six Sprint Cup DNQs in 2007, many were surprised at Roger Penske’s decision to still give Hornish a full-time opportunity to run the 2008 season in the series. The Captain got creative, however, and swapped the No. 2’s owner points position with the No. 77, guaranteeing Hornish at least five starts to begin the season and take the pressure off qualifying – at least for a little while, anyways. Well, the strategy paid off as the Defiance, Ohio native is the only rookie to start in all 19 races this year. Hornish has actually performed better than many expected, capturing a top-15 finish in the Daytona 500, almost winning the Sprint Showdown and finishing a career-best 13th the following weekend at the Coca-Cola 600. In fact, his finish in the Memorial Day weekend classic is the best among all Rookie of the Year candidates in 2008.
Among those bright spots, however, have been some pretty ugly runs, which is evident in the fact that the No. 77 sits in the 34th position in owner points after starting the year in seventh. Tire issues, wrecks, and just plain poor runs have impeded this team from gaining any sort of momentum over the long haul. For the rest of the season, Hornish and crew chief Chris Carrier need to figure out what created their magic at Lowe’s and repeat it. If they can duplicate that success, the ROTY award will be theirs.
Jacques Villeneuve – The pairing of Bill Davis Racing and Formula 1 champion Villeneuve was one of the most highly publicized driver signings in NASCAR since the Ganassi/Juan Pablo Montoya announcement in the summer of 2006. But neither one of these men could have imagined the difference a few months would make, as February’s Gatorade Duel would be the last start Villeneuve would make in the No. 27 Camry. In a situation that mirrors that of Ganassi and Franchitti, the allure of an iconic name in racing could not generate a full-time sponsor for the team, and a Daytona DNQ sidelined the effort before it could even begin. However, while Villeneuve may be off the track, he certainly is not out of the headlines, as his name resurfaces about once a month in the NASCAR rumor mills. Look for the Canadian to make his first Nationwide start of 2008 in his the No. 32 Braun Racing machine at the track that bears his father’s name in Montreal.
Jon Wood and Marcos Ambrose– These two rookies were given the opportunity to run the Wood Brothers Ford in select events this season, as the famed team searches for a long-term solution to its current driver problem. But Wood DNQed at Richmond and Charlotte, and never had the chance to show his stuff in Talladega and Daytona as the No. 21 car was called to the garage immediately after the start of both events to reverse the aggressive setup that got them into the show.
Ambrose has done better, putting on a spectacular outing in Sonoma until a broken transmission cut his day short. However, the Aussie followed up his strong run with a DNQ the very next week in Loudon. So, it looks like the future remains questionable for both these drivers and this team.
Professor Lumbis is extremely disappointed with the performance of this year’s freshmen to date. As the Frontstretch newsletter pointed out last week, none of the ROTY candidates have finished in the top 10, something no other rookie class has failed to do this late in the season during NASCAR’s modern era. But the ironic twist is that no other rookie class has featured a caliber of names such as Hornish, Franchitti and Villeneuve, all known for their accomplishments in other major racing series. The only light at the end of the tunnel for these freshmen is that the entire second half of the season remains filled mostly with tracks these drivers are now familiar with. Let’s hope the final grades after Homestead reflect vast improvements over the midterm report cards; heck, let’s hope there are still rookies to report on by the time November rolls around at this rate.