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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Michael McDowell Has Magnificent Return With Career-Best Finish

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Qualifying lineup set by points due to inclement weather) Regan Smith (29th), Sam Hornish Jr. (36th), Michael McDowell (38th), Patrick Carpentier (39th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: McDowell (20th), Smith (23rd), Carpentier (25th), Hornish (38th)

Rookie of the Race: McDowell. After a three-race layoff, McDowell returned to the seat of the No. 00 Champion Mortgage Camry – and it didn’t take him long to make quite an impression. At first, it looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for the 23-year-old, who started in the back due to his team’s position in owner points. That poor track position appeared to be drastically affecting his Champion Mortgage Toyota, as the team fell a lap down early. However, McDowell would start to turn his race around, beginning by positioning himself for the Lucky Dog award during the day’s fifth caution – caused when Roush Fenway teammates Matt Kenseth and David Ragan spun in turns 3 and 4.

STAFF: SPRINT CUP BUBBLE BREAKDOWN AFTER RICHMOND

Back on the lead lap from that point on, the call of the day for the No. 00 team was made after the 10th caution flag of the afternoon flew. Crew chief Peter Sospenzo decided to keep McDowell on the track with 13 other drivers, pulling off some strategy while the leaders all pulled onto pit road. That put the rookie in fifth place, joining his two Michael Waltrip Racing teammates inside the top 10 with just 100 miles to go. Running strong on older tires during the next 50 laps, it seemed like all McDowell needed was solid track position to kick his car into gear. He stayed in the top 20 for the rest of the afternoon, and wound up coming home 20th – the best finish of his young Sprint Cup career – to earn his fifth top-rookie honors award of the season.

Tony’s Take: There appears to be a new phenomena in NASCAR called the “Mike Skinner Effect.” For the second time this year, the veteran stepped in as an interim driver to help a struggling team, and it appears that he may be two for two in achieving success. Maybe it’s coincidence after all, but MWR had one of their best races as an organization following Skinner’s input; and next to David Reutimann, McDowell was the biggest beneficiary. Back in the spring, the rookie was an abysmal 40th after wrecking out at this track, so saying he’s improved since then would be an understatement. In this year of underachieving rookies, it could very well be McDowell who is positioning himself to steal the headlines in the final segment of this season.

Rocky Rookie Performance/Rookie Wreck of the Race: Hornish. While Roger Penske’s current IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves was enjoying the fine taste of victory in Chicagoland, his former open wheeler and current stock car prospect Hornish was dealing with the bitterness of defeat. Hornish had such an awful day that I felt the need to devote both negative categories of this piece to him. The No. 77 went down a lap early, and only the competition yellow would give him a second chance to salvage a decent race. It would never happen, though, as Hornish would continue to struggle in the back of the pack – falling a lap down again all before the 100-lap mark. On lap 201, Hornish’s day would get worse when he and the No. 1 of Martin Truex Jr. made contact and spun coming out of turn 4. Hornish would continue, but probably wishes he didn’t have to as the team could only muster a 38th-place finish – two laps off the pace.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Joey Logano and Jon WoodLogano burst onto the NASCAR scene on Friday, posting the 10th-quickest time in practice while beating names such as points leader Kyle Busch, current champion Jimmie Johnson and former titleholder Kenseth. The one name he could not beat, however, was Hanna. The wind and rain canceled qualifying, keeping Logano – who needed to make the field on speed – from making his Sprint Cup debut.

Wood was also scheduled to make a start in the No. 21 Ford, but was replaced by Bill Elliott in both qualifying and the race. Although no official word was given about the switch, one has to think that the Wood Brothers wanted the option of using the past champion’s provisional, given the team’s position in owner points and the impending weather forecast.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: McDowell offers his thoughts on a great afternoon, along with an interesting perspective on racing with Hornish late in the race:

“Well, I think [20th place] proves the fact that we belong here, this No. 00 group, and got us back in the Top 35 today – so I think that’s a pretty good deal. We [actually] ran top 15 and [just] gave up some spots there at the end. That’s really what we needed.”

“The No. 77 was a couple of laps down and he ran us pretty hard – [but] we’re racing for the Top 35, so I get it. Couldn’t afford to really get into him, move him, ‘cause that’d have just given him the right to move us back, and we knew we had enough points to get in. ”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 184
Hornish Jr. 174
Carpentier 174
McDowell 161
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Hornish Jr.: 33rd (-1)
Smith: 34th (+1)
Carpentier: 36th (0)
McDowell: 39th (+1)
Aric Almirola: 44th (-1, DNS)
Dario Franchitti: 46th (0, DNS)

Next Up: The suspense of who will be in the Chase is over, as the “sprint” to the championship begins next week at New Hampshire. For the rookies, it means 10 races left to try to record a top-10 finish while making a final push in the wide-open race for Rookie of the Year. Earlier this season, Carpentier stole the show in qualifying as he recorded his first career pole position at Loudon. However, during the race it was Almirola who took home our “Rookie of the Race” honors. Keep in mind that pit crews will be just as important as the drivers this Sunday afternoon, as track position is a huge factor at a venue where passing is at a premium.

Qualifying Next Week: Hornish dodged a bullet this past weekend as he was at the bottom of the practice charts – placing his chances to make the show in jeopardy. The rains fell and Hornish got in – but his rocky performance during the race will keep the No. 77 outside of the Top 35, putting them on the hot seat once again in New Hampshire. Carpentier will also need to make it in on speed, but that’s nothing particularly new for him. Finally, Logano may be tasked with putting the No. 96 in the show for what could be the biggest challenge in his early career – although the single car team finished third in the Spring with former driver JJ Yeley.

On the flip side, McDowell’s top 20 at Richmond placed his team back in the Top 35, and they will have the luxury of being locked into next week’s starting field.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: I thought that Carpentier would take this race hands down, especially after his self-announced free agency this week. However, the No. 10 car could never capitalize on the track position gained after staying out following the 10th caution flag of the day. Carpentier would eventually free-fall through the field and have a late-race encounter with Paul Menard that sent both drivers tumbling through the standings. By the end of the day, the Canadian was 25th; not a bad day, but not good enough to win top honors.

You Make The Pick: An overwhelming 68% of you thought that Carpentier would be the top finishing rookie of the race on Saturday night, beating second place Logano by over 40%. Perhaps my recent run now has you agreeing with me. However, any chance of anyone gaining a point went up in smoke when the No. 10 and No. 15 cars hit the spin cycle simultaneously on lap 369. Carpentier made a nice recovery considering the relatively few laps remaining, but the damage was done and he could do no better than a top 25 by the checkered flag.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: Smith. McDowell may have captured rookie honors this week, but for most of the first portion of the race, it was Smith that was turning in an impressive run. Although it hasn’t been officially announced, it is presumed that he too will be racing for a 2009 ride over the next 10 events, making a strong finish to the year a high priority. DEI is typically strong on flat tracks, and I think that will benefit Smith next week at the Magic Mile as he winds up coming out on top.

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 |
| Pepsi 500 | California | Carpentier | 18th | Hornish | 31st | Carpentier | 18th |
| Chevy Rock and Roll 400 | Richmond | Carpentier | 25th | Carpentier | 25th | McDowell | 20th |

2008 Score: Readers 4, Tony 3

About the author

Tony Lumbis has headed the Marketing Department for Frontstretch since 2008. Responsible for managing our advertising portfolio, he deals with our clients directly, closing deals while helping promote the site’s continued growth both inside and outside the racing community through social media and traditional outlets. Tony is based outside Philadelphia.

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