NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Aric Almirola Amazes Again at Bristol!

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Regan Smith (fourth), Aric Almirola (23rd), Sam Hornish Jr. (35th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Almirola (13th), Smith (14th), Hornish (37th)

Rookie of the Race: Almirola. For the second time this season, Almirola was behind the wheel of the No. 8 DEI Chevy at the Bristol Motor Speedway. The rookie came into this weekend on a mission: hoping to duplicate the top-10 run he turned in at the half-mile back in the spring. “Bristol is my kind of track. You bump, you grind and just battle for 500 grueling laps. It’s a blast,” remarked an enthusiastic Almirola leading up to the race.

As it turned out, the weekend’s events would leave this driver just as excited.

At first, it seemed like Almirola may have lost his magic from his previous run here when he could only muster a 23rd-place qualifying effort Friday afternoon. The U.S. Army would not hang in mid-pack for long, however, as the 24-year-old driver would carve his way through the field and into the top 10 by the race’s halfway point. From there, it was deja vu all over again as the rookie would battle with the leaders through the rest of the evening – just as he did five months ago. In fact, the only thing that could slow this kid down turned out to be himself. After running as high as seventh, Almirola bounced his Impala off the wall late in the race, forcing an unscheduled pit stop under yellow to repair the damage. The rookie would not lose too many positions due to the incident; however, it was too late to work back into the top 10, and the team would have to settle for a 13th-place finish. But even though the final result may have been a bit of a letdown, Saturday night’s race represents Almirola’s second-best career finish.

Note: The Rookie of the Year candidate to win the official honor went to Smith, who took advantage of a late-race Lucky Dog award to capture a 14th-place finish. The result represented his seventh Rookie of the Race award in 2008, and tied his career best finish overall (spring 2008 – Martinsville).

STAFF: REGAN SMITH BUILDS BUBBLE CUSHION WITH TOP 15 AT BRISTOL

Rocky Rookie Performance/Rookie Wreck of the Race: Hornish. Little did Hornish know that his disappointing 35th-place qualifying effort would translate into his race ending before it even began. But when you start in the back at Bristol, bad luck seems to find you – and that’s exactly what happened to Hornish. On lap 95, Hornish attempted to slide in front of the No. 09 driven by Sterling Marlin, but the two made contact, which ripped the back bumper cover off of the No. 77 and sent it into the wall. The incident also collected Jeff Burton and Joe Nemechek and brought out the second caution of the evening.

Hornish was able to continue, but probably wished he had retired for the night given what was in store for him. Just 21 laps later, Casey Mears and Michael Waltrip would tangle down the frontstretch and collect a slew of other drivers, including Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson, Robby Gordon and yes… Hornish. The rookie had nowhere to go but right into the pile of sheetmetal in turn 1, reducing the front of his car to a twisted pile of rubble. The No. 77 would return to the track in “modified” fashion to run a handful more laps, but would eventually retire and finish a disappointing 37th, spoiling the debut of new crew chief Travis Geisler.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Patrick Carpentier, Brad Coleman, and Michael McDowell. Carpentier never got a chance to turn in a lap in race trim at Bristol earlier this year when qualifying was rained out and the No. 10 team was sent home. Apparently, that lack of experience hurt the Canadian as he was way off the pace in qualifying – resulting in a shocking DNQ. Missing the show puts a temporary halt on his amazing charge through both the rookie and owner points over the past two months. “I was just really loose getting into [turns] 1 and 2. The car slipped up the track and I had to catch it,” Carpentier stated after his qualifying laps, as he could explain what happened – but was at a loss for words as to why.

On another note, Coleman is scheduled to run seven races for Hall of Fame Racing; but apparently, Bristol was not one of them. The team opted for veteran Ken Schrader instead, and considering Coleman’s lackluster performance at Michigan, that was probably a good move. There is no word on when Coleman is scheduled to drive the No. 96 again; however, the latest rumor is that Joey Logano will make his Sprint Cup debut in this ride at some point before the end of the season.

Last but not least, rookie contender McDowell continued his three-race sabbatical while Mike Skinner drives the No. 00 Camry. Expect him to return at Richmond in two weeks.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Hornish tries to explain what happened in his second wreck of the night; but, as is usually the case at Bristol, that is easier said than done.

“I don’t know. It looked to me like the Nos. 5 and 55 got together. Everybody is running so close after the restart that it just looks like there’s nowhere for anybody to go once that all breaks loose. I just wish that the Mobil 1 Dodge, you know, had been able to make it to the end. It just looked like everybody kind of got together. Everybody was pushing each other real hard, not a lot of room out there, and when everybody gets together and runs that tight, you know you get one car sideways and there’s not a whole lot of room for everybody to go. Yeah, we’re running at a half-mile, we’re running on some of the slower speeds that we’re going to run all year long – but when things start to happen, there’s not a whole lot of time to make adjustments for it.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 181
Hornish Jr. 179
Carpentier 168
McDowell 156 (DNS)
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Hornish Jr.: 33rd (0)
Smith: 34th (+1)
Carpentier 37th (-1, DNQ)
McDowell: 40th (0, DNS)
Dario Franchitti: 43rd (0, DNS)
Almirola: 45th (+2)

Next Up: There’s a reason why Bristol is put right in the middle of Michigan and California, and that is the drivers need a race on a wide, sweeping track to both prepare for and recover from the track. OK, that’s not really the reason; but for the drivers, it’s kind of nice that it works out that way. The trip out West will be a test of concentration for many, as they will be spending much of a 500-mile race running by themselves as the field tends to get strung out. Expect another strong run from Hornish – who was the top rookie in both races at the sister track in Michigan – as well as Carpentier, who is looking to rebound from a miserable weekend in Tennessee.

Qualifying Next Week: Carpentier and Marcos Ambrose will have to qualify on time to make the Pepsi 500 this Labor Day weekend. If Coleman starts in the No. 96, he will have to do the same.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Last week, I finally broke through for my first point this season; and now, it’s two in a row! Almirola proved that his 2008 debut was not a fluke and came through with another strong performance at Bristol. As the Rolling Stones said, “Once you start me up… I’ll never stop…” well, for two races anyway.

You Make The Pick: The voting was widespread this week, meaning that 37% was all that was needed for Hornish to be chosen as the top-finishing rookie this weekend. Many of you may have thought that a new crew chief was exactly what this team needed to turn their season around; but as I documented earlier, Hornish endured the night from hell as he never had the opportunity to show his stuff in the Mobil 1 Dodge.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: Hornish may be the rookie king of the D-shaped ovals so far in 2008, but Carpentier had an excellent run going for the first half of the 3M Performance 400 at Michigan last week. Couple that with the fact this team has a giant chip on their shoulder after DNQing at Bristol, and I think they will be back with a vengeance in Fontana. Therefore, Carpentier is my choice for the top-finishing rookie on the left coast next Sunday evening.

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 |
| Sunoco Red Cross 500 | Pocono | Smith | 25th | Hornish | 26th | McCumbee | 17th |
| Centurion Boats At The Glen | Watkins Glen | Carpentier | 20th | Carpentier | 20th | Ambrose | 3rd |
| 3M Performance 400 | Michigan | Hornish | 22nd | Ambrose | 43rd | Hornish | 22nd |
| Sharpie 500 | Bristol | Almirola | 13th | Hornish | 37th | Almirola | 13th |

2008 Score: Readers 4, Tony 2

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