Start: 42nd; Finish: 30th
Summary: Throughout Sunday’s telecast of the Kobalt Tools 500, we heard several times how the Atlanta Motor Speedway was racing just like its neighbor about 300 miles to the north, Darlington Raceway. The way the surface was eating through tires forced crews to bring their driver in for fresh rubber almost every chance they had.
Well, it was no wonder why rookie Logano thought that this was the week to put the Darlington stripe on the right side of his Home Depot Camry. Whether it was by himself, or getting help – like from the No. 44 and No. 14 machines of AJ Allmendinger and Tony Stewart, respectively – “Logano is in the wall” was a common phrase called out by the FOX announcers all afternoon.
The young kid from Connecticut actually didn’t have quite as bad of a day as it seems from that description. After starting a dismal 42nd, Logano struggled throughout the first portion of the race, falling a lap down before the 50-lap mark. An ill-timed pit stop put the No. 20 team another lap down and before they knew it, Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli were behind the 8-ball. It was still early in the race, however, and the rookie would continue to scratch and claw his way through the field, making it as high as 22nd with just 50 to go. In the end, though, it would be contact with Allmendinger and Stewart that would damage Logano’s car far more seriously, ruining his chances of making it two top-20 finishes in a row. However, a 30th-place run was enough to earn him the top Rookie of the Race award for the third consecutive week.
Quote: Logano comments on his improvement from Friday’s qualifying effort: “I’m pretty sure it’s not the car. I’m pretty sure it was me there. I’m just working on talking to everybody, talking to my teammates, talking to Mark Martin, [Mike] McLaughlin and all those guys watching tapes, talking to Zippy, it all keeps adding up and it keeps improving me as a driver; and then when I go out, I can put it to use. It’s part of the game. Nothing is easy. You’ve got to work at it. It’s been paying off; it just takes me a minute. You can’t go out there and first lap on the racetrack expect to be golden. We were good when we did that in Vegas… but this place is a beast of its own.”
Start: 26th; Finish: 35th
Summary: Speed returned to AMS with high hopes of improving on his 34th-place finish from last fall. Um… it’s safe to say that things didn’t go according to plan. The Californian was hoping to build upon his best performance to date in 2009 last week in Vegas, but both he and his No. 82 team could never seem to get any forward momentum going on Sunday afternoon. After a mid-pack qualifying effort, Speed dropped back almost from the start and rode around near the rear of the field for most of the first half of the race. With about 100 laps to go, the Red Bull Camry finally broke into the top 30 – but his stay would be short lived. On lap 268, Speed’s Toyota pushed up the track coming off turn 4 and right into the path of the Ford of David Ragan. The contact launched Speed’s vehicle into the outside retaining wall, ending his day and perhaps his misery. The 35th-place finish places his team 30 points out of the Top 35 in the owner standings with only one race left to claw his way back before the 2008 rankings are no longer used for qualifying.
Quote: “Our car was junk all day. It was a mistake to start up front with people that have a ton more grip than us.”
UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings
Almost Rookie Recap: (These drivers are not official rookies because they made too many starts in 2008. For all intents and purposes, however, they are still basically Sprint Cup freshmen as they embark on their first full season in 2009)
It took a faulty engine to finally bring down Marcos Ambrose, who was performing admirably so far in his first full-time Sprint Cup season. It was a typical day for the Aussie, who started in 34th position but methodically worked his way forward throughout the first portion of the race – making it as high as 23rd. Indeed, Ambrose seemed poised to record his fourth consecutive top-25 finish of the season before the engine let go with just under 150 laps remaining. But despite finishing in the 38th position, the No. 47 team still sits 28th in owner points and – barring a disaster – should still be locked into the field when Martinsville rolls around.
Speaking of disaster, it seems like the only problem with this team is not the inexperience behind the wheel, but behind pit wall instead. When a tire got away from the team during green-flag pit stops, a crew member made the bonehead move of chasing it halfway into the infield, prompting NASCAR to quickly throw a caution flag – one which consequently caught a number of competitors a lap down. The incident certainly gave new meaning to “equipment outside of the pit box.”
Meanwhile, Aric Almirola finally got the finish he and his team were looking for at Atlanta… in other words, they got to finish. After two consecutive DNFs, the No. 8 team stayed out of trouble and came home in 21st position. Whether it was avoiding other people’s messes or the neon paint scheme that blinded his competition, Almirola was able to change his luck on Sunday and recorded his best finish of 2009. The team will have to pick up the pace, however, as they remain on the Top-35 bubble, just 11 points outside the cutoff.
Tony’s Take: I knew Atlanta and its high speeds would be a challenge for this year’s newcomers, but I didn’t quite anticipate the debacle that happened in the Peach state. I am encouraged by Logano’s brief charge to the front, however, as it is not unheard of for a rookie to start out a race slowly before getting settled. On the other side of the coin, Speed and the No. 82 team never showed up after a decent qualifying effort on Friday. This team will have to re-evaluate its intermediate program before the series returns to Texas, a sister track to Atlanta. They shouldn’t go need to go far, at least, to get the information they need. Teammate Brian Vickers is one of the best when it comes to racing on the high-speed 1.5-milers, and scored his first top five of the season in Sunday’s race.
The positive story of the day has to be related to Almirola’s solid top-25 run. Hopefully, the team can use it as a turning point as they are in need of sponsorship if they are going to run the full season. A guaranteed spot in the sixth race of the year would most likely go a long way to secure the financial assistance the Earnhardt Ganassi team desperately needs.
Who Wasn’t Here? Nobody. All rookies, or almost rookies who attempted to make this field this weekend were in the race. Note that Max Papis and Brad Keselowski did not attempt to qualify for the Kobalt Tools 500, as both are running a part-time schedule in 2009.
UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings
28th – Marcos Ambrose (-8)
33rd – Joey Logano (-1)
35th – Aric Almirola (+3)
37th – Scott Speed (-1)
47th – Max Papis (-1, DNS)
49th – Brad Keselowski (-1, DNS)
Next Up: After a week off, the series heads to one of the most unique and challenging, but exciting tracks on the circuit. In case you didn’t figure it out, that’s the Bristol Motor Speedway. Almost rookie Almirola probably has the best chance of success at half-mile oval. He came home with both of his best finishes of 2008 at this track, which were an eighth and 13th, respectively. Ambrose, Logano, and Speed have all have recorded starts at the bullring in NASCAR’s lower ranks. However, the key to this week for all these drivers will be to simply survive. Chances are, if these drivers can bring their car home in anything close to one piece, they will have had a good day.
Rookie Prediction Poll – You also thought that at least one of the two rookie drivers will better their finish from last week, as just under half agreed with me that driver would be Speed. However, both Logano and Speed had big letdowns after their uplifting finishes in Vegas, and neither even came close to improving on their best 2009 runs recorded in “Sin City.”
As previously mentioned, simply finishing the Food City 500 should be considered a victory for this year’s Rookie of the Year candidates. That is easier said than done, however, at the track where a team’s day can end in seconds. As a result, this week’s poll question asks if either Logano or Speed can be around to see the checkered flag in Bristol.
Tony Rookie Prediction: I really thought Speed would capitalize on his good run in Vegas and his experience from 2008 at Atlanta, but it did not happen, and I took you down with me. As a result, you continue to hold a one-point lead in our competition heading into the off week.
As for Bristol, I think both drivers will see the checkered flag from behind the wheel and not from the infield. Logano finished a very respectable 16th in the Nationwide race last August, while Speed sat on the pole and finished third in the Camping World Truck Series race. Therefore, I think both know enough about Bristol to finish – at the very least.
Rookie Poll Points: Readers 1, Tony 0