Start: 10th; Finish: 30th
Summary: The weekend started out strong for the Joe Gibbs Racing newcomer when he recorded his second best Sprint Cup qualifying effort and his best under “normal” procedures (Logano’s “career high” is a ninth-place start earned through the Gatorade Duels for the 2009 Daytona 500.)
But 10th would be as good as it got for the No. 20 team when Logano dropped like a rock at the start of the race. After the first 20 laps, the Connecticut native was not even seen in the top 20 as he struggled with the handling of his Camry. Making a bad day even worse, Logano bounced off the wall with less than 100 laps remaining as he exited turn 4. By the end of the day, he was four laps off the pace, finishing 20 positions behind where he started. However, by default, Logano takes home another rookie of the race honor, extending his Rookie of the Year lead on Scott Speed, who failed to qualify for Sunday’s event.
Quote: Logano comments on his qualifying run: “It went better than I thought it would. I thought we were going to go backwards pretty quick after our qualifying run. I think we were third out of four of the first ones out. I was actually surprised how good it stood. It’s a little bit too tight getting back to the gas and it pushed up a little bit. Overall, it was a pretty good Home Depot Toyota.”
Summary: Things have gone from bad to worse for Speed in 2009. After a rough outing in Martinsville last week, Speed, whose No. 82 team had fallen outside of the Top 35 in owner points, could not muster enough speed to make the field last Friday. Speed’s time of 29.065 was only 44th quickest on the time chart and not even close to what was needed to get into the show.
Start: 40th; Finish: 23rd
Summary: It was a tale of two races for Keselowski on Sunday. Driving the Hendrick Motorsports GoDaddy.com Chevy for the second time this season, the rookie got off to a slow start, falling a lap down within the first 100 circuits. However, in a similar fashion to what both teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson did, crew chief Lance McGrew continued to work substantially on the car throughout the 500-mile event, leading to vast improvements during the second half of the race. Although he was two laps down, Keselowski kept the nose of his neon-green Impala clean and fought his way to a 23rd-place finish.
Start: 39th; Finish: 35th
Summary: It was almost as if the GEICO Toyota did not exist during the Lone Star State event on Sunday afternoon. While making the race was once again a big achievement for this “go or go home” organization, Papis struggled to break into the top 40 for the first half of the event. Making just the second oval start of his career in Cup, the Italian never appeared to find the speed at one of the quickest tracks on the schedule and finished the race eight laps off the pace.
Quote: “I think we did a pretty decent qualifying effort. Grip level came up a lot in qualifying and I was not expecting it. I drove it like I did in practice and I left something on the table, for sure. I accomplished goal number one and that was making the show. You always want to do better, but at the same we’ll take the satisfaction of knowing we’re in the show because that’s what we’re here for.”
UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings
Joey Logano 75
Scott Speed 63
Max Papis 19
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 seems like the only thing that can stop the No. 47 team in 2009 is the No. 47 team itself. After rolling off the grid in 11th, Marcos Ambrose appeared to have another solid top-10 run going through the first 130 laps of the race. But just when he seemed headed towards another strong finish, the engine started to sour and eventually blew up on lap 220, bringing out the third caution flag of the day. Ambrose drove the smoke-filled Clorox Camry behind the wall, where he officially retired and finished 41st — the team’s worst showing of the season. The only other time that the Aussie finished outside of the top 25 this year was at Atlanta, where again engine gremlins sidelined this team before the finish. If the poor mechanical trend continues, don’t bet on this team at Lowe’s Motor Speedway next month for the 600-miler.
Ladies and gentlemen, Metallica has left the building, as it appears that the guitar on Aric Almirola’s hood may fall silent after this weekend. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has stated that they cannot go beyond Texas with the No. 8 team if financial backing is not secured, and Almirola and Company certainly did not do anything to help their cause during the Samsung 500. This team has never been strong on the intermediate tracks in recent years, and it was never so painfully evident as it was on Sunday afternoon. After barely making the field, the No. 8 team had to scrape to even get a glimpse of the top 30 during the race. By the end of the day, the Guitar Hero Metallica Chevy was credited with a dismal 33rd-place finish.
Tony’s Take: They say that everything is bigger in Texas; and in the case for most of the rookies and almost rookies, it was bad news that loomed large this past weekend. Keselowski offered the lone bright spot as he once again shined in his Hendrick ride, finishing in the top 25 for the second consecutive race at the track. Ambrose may have also offered some good news if it weren’t for a faulty engine. I mentioned earlier this season that the No. 47 team may have an outside shot at the Chase, but they are quickly seeing those chances disappear as their engine department has not been able to keep pace with the rest of the team.
Last week, rumors surfaced that Martin Truex Jr. would replace Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing, possibly in the next few weeks. While those rumors seem far-fetched, the young rookie certainly isn’t doing his part to squash them this season. It was another pitiful day for the Home Depot team, which could not capitalize on their top-10 start and struggled throughout the entire day. As of right now, this team is hardly a shell of its former self and now has to fight for its life to keep a guaranteed starting spot in the field.
But the news is even worse for Almirola and Speed. I’ve already noted Almirola’s sponsorship woes, which — if nothing changes — could actually be the break this driver needs. With Truex struggling and Juan Pablo Montoya fighting just to earn top-10 finishes, the Earnhardt Ganassi team appears to be in for a long season. It could be in Almirola’s best interest to become a free agent and shop his services if no sponsor can be found.
Last Friday, in his exclusive Frontstretch diary, Speed stated that he was not concerned about qualifying due to their success in that department so far in his young Sprint Cup career. He may want to rethink his strategy, though, as the only thing that had any speed on Friday was his name. The No. 82 team was way off the pace in qualifying, missing the race for the first time since Las Vegas with AJ Allmendinger more than a season ago. And if Team Red Bull can’t stop the bleeding now, more drastic measures may need to be taken to get them back on track. Anyone know what Mike Skinner is up to these days?
Who Wasn’t Here?
As previously mentioned, Speed missed his first race of 2009.
UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings
28th – Marcos Ambrose (-7)
35th – Joey Logano (-1)
37th – Aric Almirola (-1)
38th – Scott Speed (0)
48th – Max Papis (0)
46th – Brad Keselowski (+3)
Qualifying Next Week: Despite his DNF, Ambrose still sits comfortably within the “safe zone” for qualifying next week. Logano is also guaranteed a spot in next week’s race, but has no margin for error as the No. 20 is 35th, only 23 points ahead of the No. 71 team. Almirola, if he is entered, and Speed will both have to make the field on time.
Next Up: Next week, the Sprint Cup competitors get to enjoy a rare weekend off for the Easter holiday before it’s off to the desert southwest for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in Phoenix. The race will throw many curveballs at teams, as the race starts in sunlight and ends in darkness in what should theoretically be run in the hottest temperatures of the year. Of course, the track itself offers its own challenges with the lack of banking, long sweeping turns, and dogleg on the backstretch. The rookies and almost rookies will be somewhat prepared, however, as Logano is the only one in that group that does not have Sprint Cup experience at this venue.
Rookie Prediction Poll – Either you still don’t have much confidence in this year’s Rookie of the Year class or were just as impressed as I was with Keselowski’s performance in Texas last fall. Over 50% of you thought Keselowski would be the best finishing rookie and you were correct, earning another point for the year.
Meanwhile, Speed is in the precarious position of trying to qualify on speed and can no longer afford to miss two races in a row. Will he make the Subway Fresh Fit 500?
Tony Rookie Prediction: I am on the board for the first time in 2009, as I accurately predicted Keselowski as the top finisher amongst rookies. Unfortunately for me, you agreed; therefore, I remain at a one-point deficit for the season.
As for this week’s poll, I have enough faith in Speed not to discount his solid qualifying performances in the past. I think Texas was an anomaly, and the No. 82 team will rebound and make the race in the Arizona desert.
Rookie Poll Points: Readers 2, Tony 1