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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Sam Hornish Jr. Bounces Back from Crash to Widen Lead at Atlanta

Rookies in the Starting Lineup (Due to rain, qualifying was canceled and the field was set by owner points): Regan Smith (32nd), Scott Speed (34th), Sam Hornish Jr. (36th), Marcos Ambrose (38th), Chad McCumbee (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Hornish (24th), Ambrose (29th), Smith (30th), Speed (34th), McCumbee (36th)

Rookie of the Race: Hornish. From the drop of the green flag, it looked like it would be a long afternoon for Hornish. Yet again, his No. 77 team was forced to start from the rear of the pack after qualifying was rained out on Friday. Then, on lap 2, the rookie was involved in a wreck with veteran Bill Elliott and subsequently penalized a lap for pitting too early following the incident. But not all was lost for the driver of the Mobil 1 Dodge, as both he and crew chief Travis Geisler would continue working on the machine until it was good enough to make its way to the front. It may have taken most of the day to reach that point, but after running outside of the top 30, Hornish made a late-race charge that resulted in a 24th-place finish, two laps off the pace. It was the rookie’s first top-25 finish since Charlotte two weeks ago and only his second in the last 11 events; however, despite that record, Sunday was actually Hornish’s third Rookie of the Race honor in a row and 10th this season.

Tony’s Take: Hornish’s recent run of rookie honors may have most fans saying “Where did he come from?” The former open wheeler has actually made the race for the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award a tight one between himself and Smith, the only two drivers eligible for that honor remaining in the field. The reason for the surprise is a bad one, and that is because hardly anyone is paying attention to this race in a year where not one ROTY candidate has broken into the top 10 with three events remaining. Yes, this battle is tight, but only because nobody stood up and established themselves in the lead running in a year where rookie attrition has been at perhaps its highest ever due to both sponsorship and performance woes.

Not all is lost for Hornish, however, as he is the only 2008 ROTY candidate with a guaranteed ride next season… at least as of today. So, while on paper this finish may be just another lackluster result in a season where there have been plenty, in reality, it represents just a hint of momentum to take into the offseason. Perhaps Sunday could serve as a symbol for how this team needs to view their entire season; for even when things look their worst, persistence and hard work could still pay off in the end.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Speed. Speed set the stock car world on fire this year when he won in only his sixth Craftsman Truck Series start, while also taking home the checkers several times in ARCA competition and almost winning the championship in that series. However, it looks like it may take this promising young rookie a little longer to adjust to the top level of NASCAR competition. Speed’s second straight Sprint Cup Series start resulted in a finish of 30th or worse, and the No. 84 Camry has not looked competitive in either one. On a positive note, Speed did finish the race and was not involved in any incidents for the second week in a row (despite having brake issues at Martinsville). He even led his first lap when crew chief Jimmy Elledge elected to keep his driver on track during the day’s second caution. Look for this team to be hungry for much more in the final events of this season as they look to build for 2009.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: Hornish. It’s not often that the “Rookie of the Race” is also involved in the “Rookie Wreck of the Day,” but that’s exactly what happened in a somewhat quiet race for this year’s freshmen. On lap 2, Hornish made contact with the No. 21 Ford of Elliott coming off turn 2, as the veteran may have backed off slightly to avoid being squeezed by Smith. The contact sent both the cars of Hornish and Elliott spinning down the back straightaway. The Wood Brothers Ford would make contact with the wall, but Hornish came away with relatively little damage in comparison. However, both cars would end up equally handicapped, penalized a lap by NASCAR for pitting too early under the yellow flag. Despite the early problems, the Defiance, Ohio native would defy the odds on Sunday to recover from a near disaster and come home with a top-25 finish.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Bryan Clauson, Joey Logano, Patrick Carpentier and Michael McDowell. It has been a record year in terms of qualifying rainouts, and perhaps nobody has been impacted more by a moody Mother Nature than Clauson. Clauson attempted his Sprint Cup debut in Chip Ganassi’s No. 40 Dodge earlier this month at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, but his chances were taken away when rain canceled qualifying. His next scheduled event was this past weekend and it was same song, different verse for Clauson as the guitar on his hood fell silent when wet weather invaded the Atlanta metropolitan region.

Meanwhile, the only good run for Logano so far this year has been during a practice session in the No. 02 car at Richmond. Logano never got a chance to see what that car could do in the race because… you guessed it… he was sent home after qualifying was rained out. Since then, the rookie has looked out of place in the Hall of Fame Camry, riding at or near the end of the pack before leaving that ride in frustration a few races back. It looks like Logano will have to wait even longer to display his talents in Joe Gibbs equipment as his second attempt in the fourth JGR entry was spoiled by rain once again.

It looks like we may not see Carpentier or McDowell for the rest of 2008. Carpentier still hasn’t been picked up after being released by Gillett Evernham Motorsports; meanwhile, it has been announced that Ambrose will finish the season for Michael Waltrip Racing, which presumably means that McDowell is out after only participating in 20 events in the No. 00 Camry.

Rookie Quote of the Week: Speed got a jumpstart on the Texas culture by spending some time in Fort Worth on Tuesday. Doing what, you ask? Riding a mechanical bull, of course! Speed got to spend some time with bull riding champion Tuff Hedeman, who showed him his technique using a mechanical bull as a teaching tool. Speed shared his unusual experience along with the Texas culture:

“It’s definitely one of those things that’s way harder than it looks,” Speed said. “I’ve been riding for the last hour, and I am WORN out. My groin muscle is destroyed. I am so tired. I wanted to ride a real bull – that was my first idea – but that got ixnayed by the lawyers.”

“I’m really having a great time here in Texas,” Speed continued, “in my little cowboy hat and cowboy uniform experiencing this culture and hanging out with Tuff. I enjoy experiencing different cultures and different ways of life. I’m really lucky to be able to do all that.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Hornish 196
Smith 193
Carpentier 184
McDowell 169
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 34th (0)
Hornish: 35th (0)
Carpentier: 38th (0, DNS)
McDowell: 39th (0, DNS)
Aric Almirola: 42nd (0, DNS)
Dario Franchitti: 48th (0, DNS)
Ambrose: 49th (+1)
McCumbee: 52nd (+2)
Speed: 62nd (+3)

Next Up: Premiering this coming Sunday at a NASCAR theater near you, it’s the stock car sequel entitled “Atlanta: Take 2.” Well, maybe not exactly, but the configurations of Texas Motor Speedway are the same as AMS, so expect the crew chiefs to utilize similar setups to those used this past weekend. That may be bad news for the freshmen who did not fare well this past Sunday afternoon. Considering the now-unemployed Carpentier’s 28th-place finish was good enough to best all rookies in the Lone Star State this spring, it’s clear the rookies still have work to do on these 1.5-mile cookie cutters. Perhaps this weekend, the sixth and final race in 2008 on this type of configuration will translate into the positive experience the freshmen need to bring home a good finish… but I doubt it.

Qualifying Next Week: The No. 01 team of Smith still remains well above the cutoff in owner points, and can continue to reap the benefits of having a guaranteed starting spot next week. Speed’s Red Bull team has less margin for error, but he still remains 80 markers ahead of the No. 47 (formerly No. 00) team driven by fellow rookie Ambrose. Finally, the rain has saved Hornish from qualifying on time through the last three events. However, if we finally have a dry Friday, he too will need to make the Dickies 500 on speed. Also of note: Brad Keselowski will attempt to make his Sprint Cup debut this weekend after the rain spoiled his plans two weeks ago. But he’s another one that needs make the race on time, as the No. 25 team is mired back in the 58th owner points position.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: It looks like Speed, my pick for this week, may need a few more Sprint Cup starts before he breaks through. The rookie struggled throughout most of the Pep Boys Auto 500, and was never a factor to even crack the top 30. My streak of correct picks has been stopped, but I maintain the lead with only three events remaining.

You Make The Pick: You were still riding the Smith train this week, but he was on the long list of rookies who were barely heard from during the entire race. Smith apparently shared the same struggles that plagued teammates Mark Martin and Paul Menard as DEI continues to struggle to get a handle on the intermediate tracks this year. The rookie could do no better than 30th, giving up more rookie points to counterpart Hornish in the ROTY battle.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: The only driver to show any sort of life on the quad ovals this year was Hornish, at both the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte earlier this year. He was also the highest finishing rookie at this track earlier this season who is still on the entry list for next week. I think Hornish has the best chance to best the rest of the rookie field again this Sunday; however, don’t look for it to happen in an impressive manner.

| 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 |
| TUMS Quik Pak 500 | Martinsville | Almirola | 20th | Smith | 42nd | Almirola | 20th |
| Pep Boys Auto 500 | Atlanta | Speed | 34th | Smith | 30th | Hornish | 24th |

2008 Score: Tony 7, Readers 5