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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Where Have All the Rookies Gone? Sent Home by Idealistic Owners

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Due to rain, qualifying was canceled and the field was set by owner’s points): Regan Smith (29th), Sam Hornish Jr. (36th), Chad McCumbee (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Hornish (22nd), Smith (23rd), McCumbee (35th)

Rookie of the Race: Hornish. After missing his first race of the season last week, Hornish was probably relieved to see the rain on Thursday as his No. 77 team was locked into the field at Lowe’s. However, the bad luck continued for Hornish when he hit the wall in practice and was forced to a backup car for the race, relegating him back seven positions to the final starting spot. The Ohio native would then face many challenges throughout the Bank of America 500 that would hinder his progress to the front. The Mobil 1 Dodge was exceptionally “moody” for Hornish as it would go back and forth between loose and tight throughout the race. To make matters worse, Hornish would bounce his car off the wall several times and get caught with a pit-road speeding penalty. But despite all the issues, Hornish and crew chief Travis Geisler eventually figured out how to get around the quad oval and were able to beat out fellow rookie contender Smith by one spot when the checkered flag flew. The 22nd-place finish was Hornish’s eighth rookie honor of the season and second at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Brad Keselowski, Bryan Clauson, Scott Speed, Patrick Carpentier and Michael McDowell. The rain put an end to the hopes of three rookies who had planned to make their Sprint Cup debut at the Bank of America 500. Keselowski – who was making a start in a fifth Hendrick entry, Clauson – entered in the No. 40 Dodge, and Speed – who was planning a highly anticipated debut in a third Red Bull car, were all sent home when the skies opened on Thursday evening. I don’t think that many debuts have been halted in one race in quite some time… perhaps ever.

STAFF: SPRINT CUP BUBBLE BREAKDOWN AFTER TALLADEGA

Missing for a different reason was Carpentier, who was released from his ride this week after a well-documented shouting match with crew chief Mike Shiplett after missing the show at Talladega. Finally, McDowell continues to sit on the sidelines as Michael Waltrip Racing has instead turned their focus to getting the car back in the Top 35 in owner points. No word on if or when McDowell would be back behind the wheel of the No. 00.

Tony’s Take

Hornish had yet another solid performance at Lowe’s. In fact, it would be interesting to see what this driver and team could do if they stopped shooting themselves in the foot each week. However, the focus of this race isn’t so much on those that were in it, which is why “Who Wasn’t Here” takes the center stage of this piece.

The true rookie story of this race is about those drivers who were not here. Yes, some anticipated debuts were ruined by the weather, but it is not Keselowski, Clauson or even Speed that I am talking about. No, it is the dismissal of Carpentier and the continued sabbatical for McDowell that disturbs me.

I would really like to know what goes on inside the head of a Sprint Cup owner when they set expectations for a rookie driver with little to no experience at racing’s top level. I’m beginning to think that some team executives expect a driver to jump into the seat of a stock car for the first time and immediately race his way into the Chase.

Carpentier was given the opportunity to drive the No. 10 Dodge after putting a Nationwide pole and second-place finish at Montreal on his stock car resume… and that’s about it. Now, I can’t say that I agreed with this move at the time, at least not without giving the Canadian some more starts in NASCAR’s lower series. However, once Ray Evernham and George Gillett made the call that Carpentier was their guy, then at the very least they owed him a commitment for a full year. It’s not like Carpentier has had a terrible season, either. After missing the first two events of the year, the 37-year-old went on a hot streak during the summer that included three straight Rookie of the Race finishes to sneak back into the competition for the overall award. The move to cut him with a handful of races left because he DNQ’d at a track where his car just plain sucked was ludicrous. Perhaps it’s decisions like this by GEM management which are the reason why the team has all three cars sitting outside of the Chase.

It’s the same scenario for Michael Waltrip, who last year chose to put the future of his organization in the hands of McDowell, a man who had most of his stock car experience in the ARCA series. Now, for the second time this season, MWR made the decision that getting the No. 00 into the Top 35 in points was more important than developing the driver they had so much confidence in just one year ago. Once again, considering his lack of experience, McDowell has not had an awful year. In fact, he just earned his first career top 20 at Richmond just five races ago. Adding insult to injury, the team was considering putting JJ Yeley behind the wheel next week (the organization eventually decided on Mike Bliss). That’s right; MWR has no confidence in their own driver, but they will put the fate of the team into the hands of one who couldn’t do crap in the car Kyle Busch dominated with this year, and missed races with the No. 96 team that didn’t have one DNQ in its existence prior to his arrival.

Finally, the ironic twist in this whole scenario is the driver who replaced McDowell this past week and will drive the No. 10 car for the rest of the year is AJ Allmendinger, who himself was fired just as he was recording some of the best runs of his career. So, here is a note to all owners who will have a 2009 ROTY candidate driving one of their cars next season: If you have enough confidence to sign the guy, then give him the time to learn the cars, develop a relationship with the crew chief, and log hundreds of laps of Sprint Cup experience without expecting a Jeff Gordon-like season right off the bat.

Rocky Rookie Performance/Rookie Wreck of the Race: McCumbee. The revolving door of drivers in the Petty Enterprises Dodge saw another face behind the wheel on Saturday night, and this time it was McCumbee, who has been in and out of that ride over the past two seasons. But it was not a great evening for the kid who celebrates his 24th birthday this week, as he rode around the back of the pack before going on a wild ride on lap 194. McCumbee went through the grass to avoid the wrecking cars of Tony Raines, Travis Kvapil and Matt Kenseth, leaving his splitter sticking straight up in the infield. Then, during the night’s eighth caution, the rookie suffered another equipment malfunction as the hood flew straight up and stuck itself to the windshield of the No. 45. By the end of the night, McCumbee was only able to bring his bruised and battered machine home in 35th.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: After a week to cool down, Smith talks about his near win last week at Talladega, his conversations with Tony Stewart, and even his thoughts on how the race would’ve turned out if his name has was “Jr.” (The fans certainly have had their opinions on it during the last part this week, so I figured it would be good to see what Smith himself thinks).

You met Tony Stewart at a Charity Event earlier this week.
“They were having fun with it, and I got an opportunity to go see him. We talked about the race for a minute. He knew the move I was going to make and I knew the block he was going to make to do it. And when I went down to the bottom I thought I was good to go and clear and was able to get away with the move. Maybe another six inches and it might have been a different story.”

Did you convince him that you were right and he was wrong?
“Naw. The two of us never had any discrepancy. We were just racing hard for the win. He did what he thought he had to do for the win and I did what I thought I had to do to win, so there was never any issues there. For me, it’s cool and it’s a privilege to be racing with someone like Tony Stewart to get a win at Talladega. That place has a lot of history and means a lot to a lot of people, myself included. I grew up a Dale Earnhardt fan and he got his final win there. Talladega to the company, DEI as a whole, means a lot. I was also a big Davey Allison fan and got to know Allison family real good when I was younger. Davey got his first win as a Raybestos Rookie there. I was sitting here in the car after the race thinking, ‘I just got my first win as a rookie at Talladega, too. This is incredible.’ That quickly changed to ‘Oh, what happened?’ Nonetheless, it was a good day for DEI and that’s the main thing that we’ve been trying to make sure that everybody takes out of it is how good of day it really was for us.”

If your name had been Dale Earnhardt Jr. do you think you would have been declared the winner?
“I wouldn’t say anything like that. I think that NASCAR was in a situation where they had to make a very difficult decision. They’ve got to do what they feel is right, and looking at the videos, you can make an argument both ways and they made the call that they felt like was right. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes in some of those decisions. I really wouldn’t want to because it’s tough decisions no matter what. Regardless of whose name it is out there racing or anything like that, I think the fans saw a good race, and hopefully, they had something they could talk about this week.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 191
Hornish Jr. 190
Carpentier 184
McDowell 169
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 34th (0)
Hornish Jr.: 35th (0)
Carpentier: 38th (-1, DNS)
McDowell: 39th (0, DNS)
Aric Almirola: 42nd (0, DNS)
Dario Franchitti: 48th (-1, DNS)

Next Up: The shortest and slowest track on the circuit is next as the series heads to Martinsville, Virginia. The most important goal for the rookies at this paper clip-shaped venue will be to keep their car as clean as possible, as it seems as though drivers are running into someone or something on every lap. Almirola learned this the hard way, as he was involved in three separate incidents at this track back in March. Smith, meanwhile, will try to duplicate the career-best finish that NASCAR didn’t take away when he returns to the site of his 14th-place run this past spring.

Qualifying Next Week: And then, there were two. Smith and Hornish are the only two ROTY candidates left in the series, and the analysis for next week is simple. Smith is in no matter what, while Hornish will have to make the field on time. However, there are plenty of other freshmen who will be making starts in Virginia. Speed will finally get his chance to race on the Sprint Cup level, and will be guaranteed a spot by virtue of the No. 84 team remaining just barely inside the Top 35. McCumbee will return for Petty Enterprises, but will also need to qualify for the appropriately named TUMS QuikPak 500. Finally, Almirola is also starting next week, but his No. 8 car is well within the Top 35 in owner points.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Hornish probably wishes all Sprint Cup events could be run in Charlotte. After missing the show last week, Hornish recorded a 22nd-place finish on Saturday night, his best since Michigan in August.

You Make The Pick: Over 50% of you thought Smith would capitalize on his almost win last week, and he almost did. Smith was the front-running rookie for most of the night; however, in the end, Hornish just beat out Smith, giving me the lead in the prediction competition for the first time all year.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: Almirola burst onto the scene with a top 10 at Bristol earlier this year, and continued his short-track achievements with a third-place qualifying effort the next week at Martinsville. While things didn’t work out as well for Almirola in his second start of 2008, he would later establish himself as a force on the short tracks with a 13th-place finish at the night Bristol event. I think he will continue his success at the tracks less than a mile next week and come home as the top-finishing rookie at Martinsville.

| 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 |
| Bank of America 500 | Charlotte | Hornish | 22nd | Smith | 23rd | Hornish | 22nd |

2008 Score: Tony 6, Readers 5