NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Patrick Carpentier’s Momentum Continues at Indy Only to be Shut Down at Pocono. Why?

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Patrick Carpentier (15th), Marcos Ambrose (24th), Michael McDowell (30th), Sam Hornish Jr. (38th), Regan Smith (42nd)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Carpentier (18th), Hornish (21st), Ambrose (22nd), Smith (31st), McDowell (34th)

Rookie of the Race: Carpentier. Despite graduating from the open-wheel ranks, this year’s running of the Brickyard 400 represents only the second start for Carpentier at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway; and in the end, the Canadian’s stock car outing proved to be more successful than his 21st-place finish in the 2005 Indy 500. To get that second shot, he first had to qualify for Sunday’s main event. But once again – appearing unfazed at having to put the No. 10 Dodge in the field on time – Carpentier laid down a qualifying time good enough for 15th, his sixth top-20 run starting position of the year.

Simply putting the car into the show on Friday proved to be the easy task of the weekend for this rookie. Carpentier would find himself in the middle of the Goodyear roller coaster ride throughout Sunday afternoon, one that saw him running strongly inside the top 20 for a portion of the race and just about falling out of the top 30 at other points. Still, crew chief Mike Shiplett and his driver would handle the wacky tire strategy better than the rest of the rookies to come home in 18th position, his fourth highest finishing Rookie of the Race award of this year – as well as his third in a row.

HENDERSON: EARNHARDT OR CARPENTIER? MARKETABILITY MATTERS

Note: The struggles of this year’s rookie class have been so significant that we have to leave the country in order to get some good news about them. During an exclusive Frontstretch interview this past June, Smith told us about his plans to run in the Carquest Pro Stock Tour IWK 250 at the Riverside International Speedway in Nova Scotia. Well, that event occurred over the off weekend and Smith took home the win in front of 10,000 fans north of the border. All joking aside, we would like to congratulate Smith on his well-deserved victory.

Tony’s Take: For the first time since 1998, a rookie driver has failed to finish in the top 10 at the Brickyard 400. I believe this sobering fact is a direct result of a rookie field that is ill-prepared for this season (in terms of lack of stock car experience, and/or financial support) and that the five rookies in Sunday’s field had no more than about 12 green-flag laps at a time to increase their positions. That’s the bad news for the weekend.

The good news is that NASCAR may have a future star on their hands that it never expected in Carpentier. The 36-year-old now has three straight Rookie of the Race finishes, two of which were top 20s. The only thing that can stop Carpentier’s momentum are his car owners, who have asked him to vacate the No. 10 Dodge at Pocono so he can concentrate on running the Nationwide Series in Montreal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for hometown pride and putting yourself in the best possible position to win. But this move clearly is not in Carpentier’s best interest, considering the way his season is taking a turn for the better. Not only does he have a legitimate chance of stealing the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award from the struggling frontrunners, but a run at Pocono could allow this team to capitalize on additional momentum heading into Watkins Glen the following week – where it led seven laps last year with Carpentier behind the wheel. It’s time to think long-term, and Mr. Gillett and Mr. Evernham need to give Carpentier every opportunity to gain experience at the Sprint Cup level – if that is, in fact, their driver of the future. More importantly for this financially strapped team, they need to give Carpentier a public vote of confidence if they are to attract the full-time sponsorship dollars they need for 2009 and beyond.

Rocky Rookie Performance: McDowell. Once again, McDowell was positioned to turn in another surprising top rookie run, as he ran in the top 25 for much of the race. However, McDowell, in his first race with new crew chief Peter Sospenzo, seemed to get lost in the shuffle of competition yellows and finished 34th, worst among the rookie competitors.

Rookie Almost Wreck of the Weekend: Hornish Jr. One advantage to having a caution every 10 laps or so is that you have very little time to wreck, which benefits those drivers seeing this track for the first time in a stock car. Not one of the rookie competitors were involved in an accident on Sunday; however, Hornish Jr. was darn close. On lap 5, Michael Waltrip’s No. 55 Camry broke loose in turn 2 as he was running side-by-side with Hornish; the spinning car of Waltrip just barely touched the No. 77, sending the Mobil 1 Dodge into a fishtailing ballet of sorts down the back straightaway. Fortunately for Hornish, he was able to save the car and continue on to a solid 21st-place finish. Don’t be surprised if you hear Hornish lobbying NASCAR to institute the competition caution 10-lap rule at Pocono next week – the site of his three wrecks back in June.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Nobody. The stakes were high for the season’s second most prestigious race, and all the rookies stepped up as each one made the event – although not without some excitement. Smith smacked the wall on his first qualifying lap, and was forced to take the No. 01 car right to the garage. Fortunately for him, his team was locked into the starting field, and the worst that happened was that the rookie was forced to a backup car and to the tail end of the grid for Sunday’s race.

One surprise was Ambrose, who avenged his New Hampshire DNQ earlier this season by placing the No. 47 into the field. That’s something his Wood Brothers teammate, former champion Bill Elliott, could not accomplish in the No. 21 Ford.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Even Rookie of the Race Carpentier was venting his frustrations about the running of the Brickyard 400.

“It was crazy out there today. I felt sorry for the fans and the people that spent a lot of money to come watch us race. You realize that it’s happened here before in F1, and NASCAR decided to run the race with the way that the track was and there was nothing that teams could do about it. At the end of the race, it got a little bit better and the fans got a bit of a show. I think Goodyear and IMS need to do something about the track to try and improve it. With the CoT, the center of gravity is so high that it just makes it really difficult to drive these cars under situations like today.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 173
Hornish Jr. 169
Carpentier 162
McDowell 135
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 34th (0)
Hornish Jr.: 33rd (0)
Carpentier 36th (+1)
McDowell 39th (0)
Dario Franchitti: 41st (0 – DNS)
Aric Almirola: 47th (0)

Qualifying Next Week: Officially, McDowell is the only rookie who will have to qualify on time for next week’s Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500, as the No. 00 team sits one spot outside of the Top 35. If the executives at GEM change their minds (hint hint), then Carpentier will also need to time into the field at Pocono as well.

Next Up: The series returns to the Tricky Triangle for the second time this season, or as most of the rookie competitors know it as, the scene of the crime. Hornish Jr., Carpentier and Franchitti were all involved in multiple incidents throughout the Pocono 500. However, out of those three, only Hornish will be making the start at the northeastern Pennsylvania track and will have the opportunity to avenge his June disaster.

Doug’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Last week my fill-in, Doug Turnbull, believed that Hornish Jr. would duplicate his open-wheel success at Indianapolis in NASCAR with a strong finish on Sunday. Hornish definitely put up a valiant effort en route to this 21st-place finish, but fell three positions shy of Carpentier.

You Make The Pick: You went with the other former open wheeler, Carpentier, as the highest-finishing rookie and once again came out on top. You are now three for three with Carpentier over the past three events, giving you an almost insurmountable lead over me heading into August.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: This past spring at Pocono, Smith all but had the Rookie of the Race wrapped up in the final laps, until his No. 01 Impala dropped suddenly through the standings. In the end, he finished one position behind McDowell, who captured the rookie honor in his place. This time, I think Smith will hold on and cross the finish line first among the rookies.

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 |
| Save Mart 350K | Infineon | Carpentier | 23rd | Hornish | 31st | McDowell | 21st |
| Lenox Industrial Tools 301 | New Hampshire | Smith | 27th | Ambrose | DNQ | Almirola | 23rd |
| Coke Zero 400 | Daytona | McDowell | 25th | Carpentier | 14th | Carpentier | 14th |
| Lifelock.com 400 | Chicagoland | Hornish | 37th | Carpentier | 30th | Carpentier | 30th |
| Allstate 400 | Indianapolis | Hornish | 37th | Carpentier | 18th | Carpentier | 18th |

2008 Score: Readers 4, Tony 0

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