After one of the most economically brutal NASCAR offseasons in recent history, it’s finally time to start focusing on performances on the stopwatch instead of on the balance sheet. This also spells good news for Professor Lumbis as I get to preview and critique this season’s rookies once again. The 2008 season was not kind to rookie drivers as only one, Sam Hornish Jr., still has a full-time ride in 2009. That success rate, or lack thereof, may have owners changing the way they think about who will give them the best chance of success behind the wheel. Instead of reaching out to the open-wheel talents of other series, general managers are instead opting for stock car veterans to pilot their machines. The result is a much smaller rookie class this season, as only two drivers will compete full time for the Rookie of the Year Award while a handful of others will make spot starts throughout the next several months.
No. 09/25 Brad Keselowski – Keselowski’s life has never been the same since June 30, 2007. That was the day he filled in for the suspended Ted Musgrave in the No. 9 Germain Racing Toyota Tundra at the Memphis Motorsport Park. The Michigan native made the most of his that opportunity, putting his truck on the pole and then in the lead with only 10 laps remaining before being booted by Travis Kvapil. Keselowski did not win the race, but he did win over the confidence of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Just a few weeks later, the then 23-year old was behind the wheel of the No. 88 U.S. Navy Chevy in the Nationwide Series. In 2008, Keselowski became a member of the Hendrick camp by default when his owner joined NASCAR’s most powerful team. The JR Motorsports Nationwide team and their driver would capture two victories en route to a third-place finish in the NASCAR’s minor league series.
I believe Keselowski will surprise people in 2009. While continuing his duties in the No. 88 Chevy in the Nationwide Series, Keselowski is scheduled to make 17 starts on the Sprint Cup level in a rather unusual manner. 10 of those races will be with the No. 09 Pheonix Racing Chevy, which will supposedly have Hendrick engine support. The remaining seven will be in a fifth Hendrick entry, the No. 25 GoDaddy.com Impala. Keselowski finished a very respectable 19th and 23rd at Texas and Homestead last fall and I would not be surprised to see at least a top 10 from this kid before the season is over.
No. 13 Max Papis – This year’s rookie field still has a bit of an open-wheel flare to it as Papis and Germain Racing have teamed up once again in 2009, after two DNQs last year. This time, they plan to attempt 18 races with the No. 13 GEICO Toyota starting with the Las Vegas event in March. “Mad Max” certainly brings one of the most diversified backgrounds to NASCAR which includes experience in Grand-Am, Le Mans, IROC, IRL, CART, SCCA and even Formula 1 among others. Still, the Italian represents a rather odd choice for a driver for a team that has very little experience at this level. Papis, who turns 40 this year, has only 11 starts in NASCAR’s top three series, with his only top 10 coming as a road-course ringer in Montreal in 2007 (third). It will be an interesting case study to see how he does this year, especially in light of the recent failures of open-wheel converts in 2008.
No. 20 Joey Logano – It has been a long time since the NASCAR world has been so excited for an up and coming star as Logano, who has been garnering attention since before he could walk. OK, maybe not that far back, but we’re all familiar with his story and how he caught the attention of Mark Martin before he even had a valid driver’s license. Then came the saga over Logano and his father’s change in alliance to Joe Gibbs Racing. Still, more drama was raised when NASCAR set the legal age limit for its series to 18 and then contemplated raising the age to 21, which had conspiracy theorist crying foul about a plot against Logano.
This February, all the speculation and drama finally comes to an end when Logano will become the youngest driver ever to enter the Daytona 500, as he embarks on his first full Sprint Cup Series season. The road to this point has gone a little different than most envisioned however. Logano lit the Nationwide Series on fire as he scored three poles and one win in his first three starts. However, later in 2008 the sensation could do no better than 32nd in his three Sprint Cup starts (two for Hall of Fame Racing; one for JGR), leading some to believe that the youngster needed more experience before competing at the top level.
Tony Stewart’s surprise departure from JGR would not allow for that however, and Logano was asked to step into one of the most coveted rides in NASCAR, the No. 20 Toyota Camry. Perhaps never in the history of the sport has there been such a mismatch between team and driver experience. The result will surely include some mistakes mixed in with great performances and a lot of excitement through it all. One thing is for sure though, everyone will be paying attention to the Home Depot Camry in 2009.
No. 82 Scott Speed – After a stint in F1, the man with racing in his blood and a last name to match decided to switch gears and try the top form of racing in America. Learning from the mistakes of other open-wheel converts, Team Red Bull decided that Speed would benefit from gaining experience with the heavier stock cars by driving for Eddie Sharp Racing in the ARCA series. The result? Think back to the movie Talladega Nights where F1 veteran Jean Girard dominated the field while drinking coffee and reading a book. Yep, that is what Speed seemed to do at times as he easily ran all over the ARCA field, only to lose the championship in a controversial ending.
Speed has said that losing that championship does not bother him as he is focused on bigger and better things, such as the Sprint Cup championship. The brazen 26-year old certainly has his sights on pulling off the upset over rookie rival Logano for ROTY and perhaps even more. The 2009 season will not be without it’s challenges, as Speed will be driving for a team that is still for all intents and purposes considered fairly new entering its third year of competition. The California-native got a glimpse of life at the top as he struggled out of the gate in his Sprint Cup debut, before showing signs of life at the season finale where he qualified second and finished 16th. However, Red Bull Racing certainly appeared to be on the upswing as an organization and with veteran crew chief Jimmy Elledge on top of the pit box for the No. 82 team, I certainly would not be surprised to see Speed make a formidable run at the rookie title, and perhaps even a race win.
Not quite Rookies, but not really sophomores either.
There really isn’t a well defined label for Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose, who ran too many races in 2008 to be considered a ROTY candidate in 2009. However, neither of these drivers have a full year under their belt and they will still be true rookies at many tracks this season. Therefore, we will keep an eye on them as well this year as they try to break into the Sprint Cup Series on a full-time basis.
No. 8 Almirola – If there was ever a driver who felt that the racing gods were working against him, it has to be Almirola. We all remember in 2007 when he caught the national spotlight while leading a Nationwide event in Milwaukee before being forced to give up the seat to eventual winner Denny Hamlin. That was enough to catch the eye of Bobby Ginn however, who signed Almirola as the newest member of his organization. The thing was, Ginn really didn’t have the cash to sign another driver, or keep his current ones for that matter. His team was eventually swallowed up by DEI, but fortunately for Almirola, he was included in the team’s 2008 plans, which led to a full-time gig for this season… almost. Once again, following more financial trouble and yet another merger, this time with Ganassi Racing, Almirola is fighting for his career.
In a case of deja vu, Almirola may be relegated to a part-time role if Earnhardt Ganassi Racing cannot find a full time sponsor for his No. 8 Chevy. However, if the money comes in, the 24-year-old could enjoy a solid season. The team, which struggled through an off year in ’08, has been injected with new resources from Ganassi racing and what will surely be a new management style from Chip himself. With veteran crew chief Doug Randolph calling the shots, Almirola has the talent he needs behind him to make his first full season in Sprint Cup a successful one.
No. 47 Ambrose – In 2008, Ambrose proved that he could bring much more to the race track than a cool accent. The Aussie enjoyed one of his best seasons in the Nationwide Series which included his first career victory at Watkins Glen in August. Ambrose also turned some heads on the Sprint Cup level while driving for the Wood Brothers when he ran in the top three at Sonoma before transmission problems ended his day; he finished third two months later at the Glen.
After being heavily rumored to become Ford’s newest team in 2009, JTG Daugherty Racing made the surprise announcement that they were forming an alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing and would run Toyotas instead. Ambrose got a head start on his first full-time gig when he was asked to drive the final four events for the “new” team (essentially the No. 00 from MWR), and performed admirably with two top-25 finishes.
The advantage to this alliance is that the No. 47 team, which will operate out of the MWR shop, will not have to go through the growing pains of being a truly new organization. Furthermore, the recent shuffling in owner points, which has even the brightest MIT students stumped, somehow moved the team into the Top 35, guaranteeing them a spot through the first five races. The table has been set for this popular 32-year-old, so the question is: Can he take advantage of the opportunity that has been presented?
Next Up: The Great American Race is less than a week away and with the amount of new teams in this field, there is a very good chance that a driver may be in position to pull off an upset in this year’s running of the Daytona 500. In fact, don’t be surprised if one of this year’s rookies is one of them as a freshman driver has finished in the top 15 in the last three consecutive season openers. (2006: Clint Bowyer – sixth; 2007: David Ragan – fifth; and 2008: Hornish – 15th)
Tony’s Pick: Success at restrictor-plate racing often comes down to being at the right place at the right time, making it very difficult to predict who will come out on top. While the No. 20 car has never gone to victory lane in this prestigious event, it has always been one of the most competitive cars in the field, which is good news for Logano. Speed certainly has no fear behind the wheel of his machine, an attitude which could just as easily put the No. 82 Camry up front as it can in the wall. However, you cannot ignore the strong runs James Finch’s cars have had at the plate tracks, which is why I’m going out on a limb and picking Keselowski as the top finishing rookie this year in Daytona.
This year, I look forward to bringing you a full analysis of the rookie performance after every race in a slightly new format for 2009. Once again, you’ll still have the chance to go up against me in making race predictions. However, this year we’ll go beyond simply asking for the highest-finishing rookie for some races. For now, we’ll start out in familiar territory. Who do you think will be the highest-finishing rookie or almost rookie this Sunday, and as a “non points” question, who do you think will win Rookie of the Year?