Start: 23rd; Finish: 38th
Summary: In Sunday’s FOX “rookie profile,” Logano alluded to the fact he thought it was a crazy idea to make a half-mile track like Bristol – a place so small, yet so quick. Logano actually had a decent day going for him at Thunder Valley at one point, but it was the “quick” part that the No. 20 team appeared to struggle with throughout the Food City 500. A multi-lap battle with leader Kyle Busch eventually ended in defeat, as Logano found himself one lap down just past lap 120. The 18-year old would fall yet another lap down later that afternoon before finally finding his groove and settling in. Despite contact with the No. 12 car of David Stremme in the closing laps, Logano actually kept the nose of his Home Depot Camry unblemished, quite a feat for a rookie at Bristol. However, the racing Gods were not about to reward this kid for his efforts. With just a handful of laps remaining, Logano’s motor dropped a cylinder and then expired in a plume of smoke with just eight circuits remaining. While the youngster may have seen his chances for a top-30 finish and rookie honors for the fourth consecutive race come to a heartbreaking end, the team somehow… some way… still managed to stay in the Top 35 in owner points by just 14 markers, giving them a locked-in position heading to Martinsville.
Quote: “It’s very frustrating [to blow an engine] after running the whole race and getting that close to the end. Can’t do much about that. We’ll go back and see what happened and fix it for next week.”
Start: 11th; Finish: 28th
Summary: A 28th-place finish certainly won’t be Speed’s most memorable moment as a rookie, but the fact he simply finished Bristol in one piece certainly made for a great day. Speed’s afternoon in Thunder Valley started out well, rolling off the starting grid in 11th, his second top-15 start of the season (ninth at Fontana). However, he ran into problems early, receiving a pit-road speeding penalty that sent him to the back of the lead lap under an early caution. By the time the race reached its one-fifth mark, the Californian had already fallen a lap down and was struggling with the handling of his Red Bull Toyota. Speed had a very similar afternoon to his rookie counterpart Logano, however, and made it through the entire event without tearing up his racecar. The difference is that Speed’s machine was able to make it to the end, bringing home rookie honors for the second time in 2009 and his first since Daytona. However, the top-30 finish was not enough to elevate the No. 82 team into the Top 35 in owner points, meaning they will have to qualify on speed next week in Virginia.
Quote: “My knees hurt just from sitting down for so long, but I’m fine. We definitely got our car handling a lot better after first two pit stops, and then at that point, it’s a little bit too late… but we were all right there at the end.”
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)
Not even a dropped cylinder could get in the way of Australian Marcos Ambrose’s first career top 10 on an oval track. After starting a very respectable 13th, Ambrose used crafty driving and pit strategy by crew chief Frankie Kerr to gain favorable track position. While Ambrose may have had some help from atop the pit box to break into the top five, the impressive thing is that he stayed towards the front and, at times, appeared to have a car quick enough to lead. The No. 47 car was a mainstay in the top 10 throughout the afternoon, and left many wondering what could have been had all eight cylinders remained under power. The inspiring performance proved that Atlanta was just a hiccup and that this team is a true contender.
On the other side of the spectrum, Aric Almirola was heading into Bristol hoping to replicate his top-10 run in this event last year. In fact, one could say that the entire team needed that type of finish, as they are desperately trying to secure financial backing for the rest of the season. Much like the first four races of 2009, though, the No. 8 bunch never really had a chance. On lap 60, the No. 55 of Michael Waltrip turned the No. 64 of Todd Bodine into the wall. The spinning car left Almirola with nowhere to go but into the side of the Bodine’s Camry. During that caution sequence, the team was slapped with an additional penalty after coming onto pit road before it was open, one of what would turn out to be two pit infractions on Sunday. Almirola never was able to recover from the damage or the poor track position after that and could only manage a 35th-place finish, eight laps off the pace. The result means that you can also add this team to the list of those who need to qualify on time next week.
The results certainly weren’t much to get excited about, but I said last week that given their experience levels, both Rookie of the Year candidates should only worry about finishing at Bristol. Looking at it from that perspective, Speed met his goal and Logano certainly would have if it weren’t for some nasty engine gremlins. However, with five races in the books, both drivers should look at their respective points position as wakeup calls for the remainder of the season. Given the fact that there is no testing this year, don’t expect the duo to light the series on fire. However, with Speed now outside of the Top 35 and Logano squarely on the bubble, they’re going to need to step it up to avoid putting themselves in jeopardy of missing races. One top-20 finish between the two certainly cannot be acceptable to their teams, crews and most importantly, the drivers themselves.
On a brighter note, when JTG Daugherty Racing announced last year that they were forming an alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing, I thought that they were setting themselves up for failure… but I could not have been more wrong. MWR appears to be on the upswing in 2009, and Ambrose may be turning into one of the most underrated drivers in the garage area. The guy has been finishing races and gaining experience, all while coming home with good results. The Australian’s reward is that he has absolutely nothing to worry about during qualifying next week at Martinsville. In fact, it may not be surprising to hear the team start talking about the “Ch-word” in a few months if they continue with these top-10 performances.
Who Wasn’t Here?
Nobody. All rookies, or almost rookies who attempted to make this field at Bristol were in the race. Note that Max Papis and Brad Keselowski did not attempt to qualify for the Food City 500, as both are running a part-time schedule in 2009.
UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings
24th – Marcos Ambrose (+4)
34th – Joey Logano (-1)
35th – Scott Speed (+2)
36th – Aric Almirola (-1)
48th – Max Papis (-1, DNS)
49th – Brad Keselowski (0, DNS)
Qualifying Next Week: As previously noted, Speed and Almirola will have to time into next week’s field after losing their guaranteed Top-35 position now that the series uses 2009 owner points. Note that the discrepancy between the owner and driver points for Speed and Almirola is due to the No. 71 team. That car is in the 35th position in owner points, but their driver David Gilliland is actually lower in the driver standings because he has one less start.
Next Up: If the rookies think that next week is going to get any easier, they better think again. The bumping and banging will continue in the Old Dominion state, where drivers once again will not get a chance to breathe as they battle a conveyor belt of competitors. The difference this time is that speed certainly won’t be a factor at the circuit’s slowest track… but finesse certainly will be. Martinsville is one of those tracks were the oxymoron “slower is better” is often times the case. Drivers will have to go easy on their brakes and hit their marks perfectly for 1,000 turns if they are to successfully navigate the paperclip-shaped track. Out of the four rookies or almost rookies, only Speed and Almirola have Cup experience there, so once again, simply finishing will be considered a success for drivers not named Ambrose.
Rookie Prediction Poll: Wow, a whopping 76% of you had no confidence in this year’s Rookie of the Year candidates at Bristol, as a strong majority of you thought both would land behind the wall by the end of the event. You were almost completely wrong until the very end. In fact, only 2% of you accurately predicted that Speed would finish while Logano would not. That’s pretty harsh!
As the series turns to the 2009 owner standings to determine which teams get locked into the field, Speed and Almirola sit on the outside looking in while Logano is on the bubble. What do you think the bubble will look like for these three leaving the treacherous Martinsville racetrack next Sunday evening? Will all three be out, in, or something in between?
Tony Rookie Prediction: Looks like I was going to tie up the score with you fans until 10 laps to go, when the No. 20 car decided to spew oil and smoke all over the track. As old the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and grenades; and since we’re not playing either, you continue to lead me by one.
For next week, I think Almirola certainly has the talent to finish well, but it appears that he just does not have the luck in 2009. Therefore, I will say that the No. 8 team will remain outside of the Top 35, while Speed and Logano will find themselves safely in after leaving the historic venue.
Rookie Poll Points: Readers 1, Tony 0