NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Joey Logano Makes His Debut, But Aric Almirola Steals the Show

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Qualifying lineup set by points due to inclement weather) – Aric Almirola (15th), Regan Smith (29th), Michael McDowell (35th), Sam Hornish Jr. (36th), Patrick Carpentier (39th), Joey Logano (40th), Chad McCumbee (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Almirola (18th), Smith (23rd), McDowell (27th), Hornish (30th), Carpentier (31st), Logano (32nd), McCumbee (42nd)

Rookie of the Race: Almirola. For the second time this year at New Hampshire, the driver of the U.S. Army Chevrolet takes home our top-rookie honors. Almirola started in the top 20 due to the efforts of both he and Mark Martin, who have kept the No. 8 team in a favorable owner points position throughout 2008. The rookie kept up a quick enough pace to stay reasonably close to that, running mid-pack for most of the day; however, he was not quite fast enough early on to avoid losing a lap to the leaders. After the race, Almirola admitted the slow start was due to a lack of proper feedback about the car’s setup from him to the crew during practice. But he had 300 miles to learn how to make the car better on Sunday, and DEI’s top prospect proved he was a quick study.

The U.S. Army team got the chance to show their stuff after lap 229, when the day’s fifth caution waved for a big wreck in turns 3 and 4. The rookie was in position for the “Lucky Dog” award, placing him back on the lead lap for the remaining 71 laps of the race. By this point, but Almirola and crew chief Tony Gibson had hit on something with their setup, and their efforts would be rewarded with a top-20 finish – Almirola’s third of the 2008 season.

Note: While Almirola beat the 2008 Rookie of the Year candidates, as he has done several times this year, Smith officially won his eighth Rookie of the Race honor at New Hampshire.

Tony’s Take: It should not come as too much of a surprise that the two leading rookies on Sunday afternoon belonged to the DEI organization. For several years now, that team has been a threat on the flat tracks, and both Almirola and Smith capitalized on their success. This is also a good sign for Almirola, who will also be behind the wheel of the No. 8 Impala at Martinsville, Phoenix and Talladega later this season. This rookie has a great chance to build some momentum of his own heading into his first full-time season in Cup next year.

Meanwhile, I am surprised that Carpentier was never on the radar this weekend; well, at least until he hit the spin cycle late in the race. After qualifying on the pole and running in the top 10 for the first segment of the Magic Mile event back in June, many thought that Carpentier would be a force here in the fall. However, the Canadian could never recover from being buried in the pack at the start of the race, and was one of the first cars to go a lap down. This is hardly the performance this freshman needs during his 10-week “audition” for a 2009 ride.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Logano. Last week, Logano never had the chance to capitalize on his top-10 speeds turned in during practice, as qualifying got rained out. This week, he probably wishes he was able to make his debut at Richmond, as New Hampshire was a much different experience for the phenom. Logano had an ominous start to his Sprint Cup career when he left his pits early, and took the jack with him during the day’s first caution. Driver and team were never able to recover from the penalty, as the freshman remained at or near the back of the pack for the entire afternoon.

However, you have to consider Logano’s ride when analyzing his run. This No. 96 team has not performed well with anyone behind the wheel in 2008, firing main driver JJ Yeley midseason and throwing a handful of drivers behind the wheel with mediocre results. The NASCAR community will be watching this kid closely through the next few months, and the team that Logano drives for cannot be overlooked when passing judgment on his success… or lack thereof. Pay close attention to how the rookie performs in the No. 96 car versus the No. 02 Camry each and every time he hits the track – only then will we know whether the equipment or the driver is to blame.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: McCumbee. New Hampshire may be a virtually flat racetrack, but that doesn’t mean the transition to the apron won’t upset the handling of these cars. McCumbee, filling in for Kyle Petty, found that lesson out the hard way. On lap 229, McDowell slowed up entering turn 3, as he tried to save his loose racecar and avoid the swarm of cars behind him. In that angry hornet’s nest was McCumbee, who dropped the left tires of his car onto the apron to avoid the mistake. As soon as he did, his No. 45 Dodge broke loose and nailed the Ford of Matt Kenseth, igniting the biggest wreck of the day. David Gilliland then t-boned Kenseth and collected Brian Vickers and Casey Mears in the process, causing the race to be red flagged to clean up the mess. McCumbee, whose car was badly damaged during the incident, was forced to retire for the afternoon and finished a dismal 42nd.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Nobody. This time, Mother Nature could not foil the plans of the Sprint Cup rookies, as each one was in position to make the race when rain canceled qualifying. This included Logano, whose team got him in his first Sprint Cup race by paying attention to the weather radar instead of engineering data. By placing Logano in the No. 96 car instead of the No. 02, NASCAR’s brightest star was put in a position to inherit a spot in the Sylvania 300 when qualifying was rained out.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Logano shares his thoughts about his Sprint Cup debut.

What is your reaction to the race?
“Not what I wanted – that’s for sure. It was a tough one. We tried hard, but it just wasn’t there the whole time. It seemed like the end of the race we were getting it close from where we started the race to where we finished the race. If we could have worked on it from there, then it would have been a lot better. We started so far back in the hole trying to get this car good… and we just got close to it too late.”

How different was testing to actually racing the Cup car?
“You’re racing the same car, so it’s not much different. Racing is racing. I learned a lot, and I take a lot from this for when we come back here next time. I just wish we would have had a little better run than that.”

What did you learn today?
“Just a lot of give and take out there. Again, there’s a lot of take — believe me. You see what these guys are doing, and we’ll see what we can do for the car for the next time we are here. We learned a lot there, so we’ll just have to take what we got.”

Are you relieved that the first race is over?
“No. The other races are coming up. I didn’t think it was a big deal making my first start — I was ready to go as soon as we started.”

Were you able to earn respect today?
“I definitely did that. Deep down inside, I really wanted a better finish than that. After our practice session at Richmond, I thought we were going to have a lot better racecar than that. We just missed it and got too close to it at the end. We got close to where we needed to be – just too late in the race and we weren’t able to work on it from there.”

Can you describe the experience of your first NSCS race?
“It was fun – I enjoyed it. By lap 200 I wanted it to end because we weren’t running worth a dang. But we are going to take what we learned and go at it.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 186
Hornish Jr. 183
Carpentier 175
McDowell 164
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Hornish Jr.: 33rd (0)
Smith: 35th (0)
Carpentier: 36th (0)
McDowell: 39th (0)
Almirola: 42nd (+2)
Dario Franchitti: 46th (0, DNS)

Next Up: The Monster Mile is up next, as the Chase moves on to event number two of 10. This track is famous for chewing up racecars; but back in June, not a single rookie competitor was involved in a wreck. In fact, all four rookies in that event finished in the top 30, quite a feat for this year’s class. The other challenge the freshmen face at Dover is effectively communicating what they need from the car to the crew chief. The track is known for having long green-flag runs, giving teams very few chances to adjust on their equipment during the race. As a result, this will be a good test to see how well the rookies can use what they learned in June and apply it the second time around.

Qualifying Next Week: A dropped cylinder in the Sylvania 300 kept Hornish from making any headway towards getting his team back in the Top 35 in owner points. He’ll join Carpentier and Marcos Ambrose on this list of rookies who will need to time into the field at Dover.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Smith turned in one of his better performances of the year on Saturday afternoon, as his 23rd-place finish allows him to lead the Rookie of the Year standings for the 10th consecutive week. However, while he did officially earn rookie honors, his part-time freshman teammate Almirola bettered him by five positions – denying me another point.

You Make The Pick: Many of you seemed to take stock in the “Mike Skinner Effect” theory and thought that McDowell would follow up his top-20 finish with another strong run at New Hampshire. As it turns out, he had a pretty rough weekend. First, McDowell lost control of his Camry just long enough to start the afternoon’s most significant wreck. Then, in the closing laps, he and AJ Allmendinger made contact on the front straightaway, sending the No. 84 hard into the outside retaining wall. As a result, you continue to lead me by just one point with nine events left in the season.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: With nine races remaining, I have to admit that it is getting darn near impossible to pick the top finishing rookie. Through the first 27 events of 2008, there has been next to no consistency among this year’s candidates, making it a complete crapshoot as to which freshman driver will the best rest at any given race. Next week, I am going to go with McDowell, who has been showing some signs of life down the stretch. He had the best run of his career at Richmond – although he followed it up with a less than stellar run last weekend. I think he will rebound next week, however, and best the rest of the field at Dover.

| 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 |
| Sylvania 300 | Loudon | Smith | 23rd | McDowell | 27th | McDowell | 18th |

2008 Score: Readers 4, Tony 3

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