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Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Regan Smith Wins! Then NASCAR Taketh Away

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Aric Almirola (third), Regan Smith (fourth), Jon Wood (27th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Almirola (13th), Smith (18th), Wood (33rd)

Rookie of the Race: Almirola. On Friday afternoon, rookie Almirola led a DEI assault on the top 10 in qualifying when he placed his U.S. Army car on the inside of row two. The third-place effort actually tied Almirola’s career best earned at Martinsville earlier this year; but this time, he was prepared to turn a top-five start into a top-five finish with his No. 8 DEI Chevrolet. Indeed, it didn’t take long for the 24-year-old to drive his car to a familiar spot at Talladega – the front. With help from teammate Paul Menard, it was like old times again in restrictor-plate racing as the Nos. 8 and 15 were leading the pack by lap 14. Almirola would be shuffled back and forth in a wild start to the race, but it almost ended prematurely on lap 68 when Brian Vickers lost a tire, igniting the first Big One of the day. The DEI cars of both Martin Truex Jr. and Almirola were caught in the melee, but only the rookie was able to continue with minimal damage to his car.

Almirola would again charge to the front after the crash, this time pushing the former occupant of his seat, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to the lead. Soon thereafter, Almirola’s current DEI teammates Menard and Smith would find each other once again as this time, the three remaining cars would work together for the final laps of the race to remain near the front. With two laps to go, Almirola would try to hang back on the restart to gain an advantage on the front cars – but the move proved costly. Anxious drivers jumped out and passed by the Impala like it was standing still, and by the time Almirola regrouped, he was on his way to a disappointing 13th-place finish. That caused him to lose the rookie of the race honors to his teammate Smith… but wait. When Smith was penalized for a pass below the yellow line, he was relegated to 18th, making Almirola the highest-finishing rookie in the Amp Energy Drink 500.

Even though it’s probably a small consolation, Smith still took home the official Rookie of the Race award, as he was the only such candidate in the field. It was his ninth such honor of the year.

Tony’s Take: Almirola looked like a veteran racing on the high banks of Talladega on Sunday, as he seemed to make the right maneuvers at the right times to keep his Chevy up front for most of the race – even leading three laps. In fact, the only mistake Almirola made was on the final restart of the afternoon when he held back for too long, ending his chances of a top-five finish. As good as Almirola was today, though, the day should have belonged to Smith.

The rookie waited until the very last second to make his move and after snookering Tony Stewart to the outside, he took the only option that was left, which was sticking the nose of his Impala to the inside of the No. 20 and not backing off. Stewart, making the only move possible for him, tried to close the door, forcing the rookie down to the apron. Smith stayed in the gas and crossed the finish line, but was ultimately punished by NASCAR for not holding his line and wrecking the field.

KEITH: TALLADEGA EVERYTHING RIGHT, WRONG WITH NASCAR TODAY

We should have all seen this coming. The rule has been controversial since its inception, and the main reason is this paraphrased clause: “A driver will not be penalized if it is deemed that is he forced.” Suddenly, it’s not a black and white issue anymore, it becomes a judgment call… someone’s opinion. If you ask 10 different officials what they believe is considered “a force out,” you will probably get 10 different opinions. It’s just human nature… but it should not be allowed in the rulebook of any sport.

But I will take this one step further and ask, why do we even have an “out of bounds” in the first place? Yes, I know, safety was the key factor behind this rule, but have the Big Ones really been stopped since the rule has been instituted? It sure doesn’t seem that way. The rulebook will never be able to stop a mistake, which nine times out of 10 is the reason for the mammoth accidents at restrictor-plate tracks… and it should stop trying. If it’s not a bonzai move onto the apron, it will be an ill-timed bump in the corner that’ll cause the crash – as was the case with Carl Edwards on Saturday. Let’s face it, NASCAR, the only thing that will prevent the Big One from happening is to remove the restrictor plates. If they are not going to do that, then they have to accept the nature of the beast and keep their opinions out of trying to control it. It’s in bounds or out of bounds. A driver can bump draft or they can’t bump draft. As soon as you try subjecting these rules to someone’s judgment, the issue of interpretation will arise and could possibly impact someone’s career as it did today.

When the green flag dropped, I thought I would be ranting about only one Rookie of the Year candidate making the field for this weekend’s race. Instead, the top story is, and should be, about a promising rookie who has suffered through a hellish season and is in jeopardy of losing his ride redeeming his year. Instead, Smith had a possible career-saving finish ripped from his hands because someone had the “opinion” that his winning pass was illegal.

Rocky Rookie Performance/Rookie Wreck of the Race: Wood. For the first time in 2008 on a restrictor-plate track, Wood wasn’t forced to bring the No. 21 Ford down pit road in the first five laps to undo an overly aggressive setup used to get him in the show. Unfortunately for Wood, the garage would’ve been the safer option. On lap 54, David Reutimann lost a tire, causing his car to dart to the inside, right into the path of Jeff Gordon. Gordon tried to miss the wounded No. 44 Camry as he drove to the outside lane, but unfortunately, Wood was right there. The Wood Brothers Ford sustained enough damage to force the team to bring the car to the garage for repairs; Wood did return to the track, but could only manage a 33rd-place finish, many laps off the pace.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Michael McDowell, Patrick Carpentier and Sam Hornish Jr. This weekend turned out to be a disaster for the rookies before they even took the green flag. The wheels are starting to fall off Carpentier’s qualifying efforts, who until recently has handled having to put is team in the field on time without much of a problem. However, he recorded his second DNQ in the past six races on Friday. Matters were made worse for the freshman when his crew chief, Mike Shiplett, entered into a public shouting match about the driver’s poor performance following an effort that fell just short.

Meanwhile, Hornish, has been on the bubble of the Top 35 all year long – either just inside or just outside of the cutoff. The close calls finally caught up to the rookie, though, as the Penske driver recorded his first DNQ of 2008.

After McDowell missed the show last week at Kansas, Michael Waltrip Racing made the decision to put veteran Kenny Wallace behind the wheel of the No. 00 Camry this past weekend. The move paid off, as Wallace finished 12th and pulled the team within 39 points of the Top 35. It is unclear at this time if and when McDowell will return to the driver’s seat.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: Smith shares his thoughts on the final lap and NASCAR’s ruling:

Were you surprised to learn that Stewart won the race?:
“A little bit, yeah. I was pumping my fists like we won it because I thought we did. I still do think that we did. We’ll see what happens here.”

You were pushed down below the line?:
“I had a nose inside and my only alternative was to wreck ‘em, so next time that’s what I’ll do [laughs]. And that’s not a knock against Tony. I like Tony a lot. He’s a great guy, but I wanted to win pretty damn bad there.”

What is your understanding of the rule?:
“The rule is, that number one on the last lap, anything goes. They always tell us that in the drivers’ meeting. They always say ‘Well, on the last lap it’s NASCAR’s discretion.’ I guess that was NASCAR’s discretion, but I felt like I got forced down there. We needed a good run. We needed a good run for the company. It’s been a long week for us and I’m just proud of everything everybody on the marketing side, Max [Siegel], John Story, what all those guys are doing. Everybody on the competition side, whether it be the engines, whether it be the cars, everybody at the DEI race shop… they’re all doing an awesome job. Bobby Hutchens is a great addition. Dan Stillman (crew chief) and these guys gave me a great racecar today. We’ll take what they give us here.”

How was this explained to you?:
“They’re saying that I could have checked up or I wasn’t forced down there, and I don’t know how else to say it. The only alternative I had was to wreck Tony. This ain’t about him. Congratulations to those guys for winning the race. He ran a great race and did an awesome job, but I don’t think this is right.”

They are telling you that with the finish line coming up and you’re racing for the win, that you should have checked up?:
“Yeah, basically, and they’re telling us the exact opposite thing that they tell us in the drivers’ meeting each time that we come to the restrictor-plate places. I nearly asked that question this morning in the meeting [smiles]. I’m not enough of a veteran to ask questions in the meeting. That’s how it goes.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 189
Hornish Jr. 185
Carpentier 180
McDowell 169
Franchitti 97

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 34th (-1)
Hornish Jr.: 35th (0, DNQ)
Carpentier: 37th (0, DNQ)
McDowell: 39th (0, DNS)
Almirola: 42nd (+1)
Dario Franchitti: 47th (0, DNS)

Next Up: The Sprint Cup boys return to their “home track” in Charlotte, North Carolina for the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night. Perhaps no rookie is happier to return there than Hornish and the No. 77 team, who almost took the All-Star preliminary race and finished a career best 13th in the Coca-Cola 600. It could not come at a better time for the former open wheeler as he has appeared to hit a new low this season, coming off a DNQ.

Qualifying Next Week: Same song, different verse this week as Smith is the only ROTY candidate who is locked into a starting position for Saturday night. This fact has become more significant than ever, as the rookies are now struggling just to make the field as of late.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Like Smith, I was also ready to take the lead, but had it taken away by NASCAR. I thought that Smith would have a solid day because of his DEI/RCR horsepower, but I never imagined a win… or… a win that wasn’t. Regardless, I have to live with the ruling, just like Regan does, and as a result I have lost out on my correct prediction.

You Make The Pick: Carpentier just barely beat out Almirola by one vote and as a result, for the second week in a row, you have picked a driver that DNQ’d. Sounds like the ROTY candidates will be hoping they are not the “chosen one” in this week’s poll.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: I think Hornish will rebound from missing the show this week to crossing the finish line as the top rookie next week. As bad as things are in the No. 77 camp, based on their strong performance at this venue back in May, I am hard pressed to believe that they can’t translate what they’ve learned in the spring into a solid finish this Saturday.

| 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 |
| Camping World 400 | Dover | McDowell | 29th | McDowell | 29th | McDowell | 29th |
| Camping World RV 400 | Kansas | Carpentier | 29th | McDowell | DNQ | | Carpentier | 29th |
| AMP Energy 500 | Talladega | Smith | 18th | Carpentier | DNQ | | Almirola | 13th |

2008 Score: Readers 5, Tony 5

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