Unofficial Finishing Positions: Carpentier (18th), Almirola (30th), Hornish (31st), Ambrose (32nd), Smith (36th)
Rookie of the Race: Carpentier. After missing the race last week in Bristol, Carpentier traveled to the west coast as a man on a mission and he succeeded. This time, there was no doubt that the No. 10 team made the field after their rookie driver turned in a top-five qualifying performance. While the finish may not have been as spectacular, 18th place was good enough to give Carpentier his fourth top-20 finish and sixth top rookie honor of 2008.
Tony’s Take: The Pepsi 500 turned out to be a race representing a good comeback for Carpentier, who may have been coming off one of the worst weeks in his career. After missing the show at Bristol, his Gillett Evernham team announced the signing of Reed Sorenson, without saying whether their rookie driver will return in 2009. While I like Carpentier’s reaction in the face of adversity, he will need to up his game in the final 10 races of the season if he wants to prove his worth to his owners. Becoming the first Rookie of the Year candidate to record a top 10 and taking home the R.O.T.Y. award would go a long way in convincing George Gillett and Ray Evernham that Carpentier deserves another year because apparently, outperforming your rookie counterparts in five of the past eight races is not enough.
Rocky Rookie Performance: Smith. Much like the February race at California, Smith was never a blip on the radar on Sunday night. The rookie dropped from his 25th qualifying position from the start, prompting crew chief Dan Stillman to call the No. 01 car down pit road early. However, the early changes never seemed to help as Smith rarely broke the top 30 for the rest of the race. It should not come as any surprise, though, that Smith struggled at this type of track. Now, I’m not saying anything about the abilities of the driver here, but rather the team. DEI has never shown any strength at those low banked, 1.5-2-mile tracks, which was emphasized by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s poor runs at these venues over the past few seasons with his father’s team. Apparently, not much has changed since he left. In 2008, outside of a 19th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600, Smith has not finished any better than 29th at tracks similar to Fontana.
Rookie Wreck of the Race: Ambrose. This one barely qualifies as a wreck, but with 32 laps to go, Ambrose “pancaked” the car on the wall in turns 3 and 4, bringing out the final caution flag of the race. The “wreck” barely impacted the Aussie’s night as he ran in the 30s for most of the night anyway. Ambrose could only muster a 32nd-place finish, hardly the run he hoped for after a last-place finish in his last start at Michigan. Other than Ambrose’s mishap, it was a quiet night for the rookies, who were not involved in any other incidents on the track.
Who Wasn’t Here?: Michael McDowell. This was the final week of McDowell’s unscheduled “summer vacation” as he is scheduled to return to the seat of the No. 00 car at Richmond. It will be interesting to see if McDowell can duplicate the same improvement that AJ Allmendinger displayed after returning to his ride after Mike Skinner’s evaluation earlier this year.
Rookie Quote of the Week: After DNQing last week at Bristol, Carpentier was back with a vengeance this week at California, qualifying his Dodge on the inside of row three. After qualifying, the Canadian commented on what a relief it was to make the show in the midst of so much uncertainly surrounding his ride for 2009.
“We needed it this week. I mean, with last week, the whole week was bad. I mean, for me it’s a sad situation but I know these guys, the Gilletts, and they’re putting a lot of money out of their pockets to do this and they need to make it happen when they’re going to have the full funding for next year and they’re trying to reorganize the team. Hopefully I’ll still be there next year. I know they’re working really hard with a fourth car and they’re working on that right now. But it’s a tough situation but I can understand it. Before I was on the other side and the sponsor needed me and where I was from and all that. I can understand it. They’ve been so great to me. I hope to be there next year.”
UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings
Hornish Jr. 181
McDowell 156 (DNS)
Franchitti 97 (DNS)
UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings
Hornish Jr.: 32nd (+1)
Smith: 35th (-1)
Carpentier: 36th (+1)
McDowell: 40th (0, DNS)
Almirola: 43rd (+2)
Dario Franchitti: 46th (-3, DNS)
Next Up: While none of the 2008 Rookie of the Year candidates are even close to being Chase contenders heading into Richmond, they certainly can play the spoiler. It could come in the form of being involved in a wreck that takes out a contender, or one just may surprise those going for the Chase by stealing one of those top spots away, similar to what David Ragan did with his third-place finish in this event last year. Richmond has historically been good to the rookies in recent years and maybe one of them will finally come home with a top-10 finish as they visit the venue for the second time this year.
Speaking of stealing the show, however, the Chevy Rock and Roll 400 will be the site of the highly anticipated Sprint Cup debut of Joe Gibbs Racing sensation Joey Logano. Look for the heir apparent to Tony Stewart in the No. 02 Camry on Saturday night.
Qualifying Next Week: The crowd of rookies outside of the Top 35 is certainly growing. With his 31st-place finish dropping his team outside the Top 35 in owner points, Hornish joins McDowell, Carpentier, Jon Wood and Logano, who will all need to qualify on time for next week’s event. For the most part, Carpentier and Hornish have had this qualifying deal down pat this year. If only one other rookie outside of the Top 35 gets in, who do you think that will be? Wood, McDowell or Logano? Hmmm….
Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: During the telecast, ESPN’s trivia question asked who the last driver to win three races in a row was, the answer to which, of course, was Jimmie Johnson. Looks like you can add Tony Lumbis to that category as I continue to make my late-season surge. Carpentier’s 18th-place finish means that I have made my third correct pick in a row. I thought that Carpentier would come back strong after a devastating DNQ last week and he certainly did.
You Make The Pick: Back in February, Hornish was involved in a nasty wreck that ended with the No. 5 car of Casey Mears on the hood of the No. 77 Dodge. You thought that he would seek revenge from that disastrous run, but Hornish was never a factor on Sunday night, finishing 31st.
Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: I think it’s time for me to ride the Carpentier bandwagon as I will go with him as the top-finishing rookie next Saturday night at Richmond. Gillett Evernham cars have traditionally run well at the Virginia track and after this past week’s announcement regarding Reed Sorenson’s move to the team, Carpentier may possibly be driving for his career. Look for him to follow up this week’s top-20 run with more of the same at the Chevy Rock and Roll 400.