Start: 31st; Finish: 21st
Summary: Last Friday, Joe Gibbs Racing president JD Gibbs put to rest the rumors that had his team’s rookie driver out of a job before the end of his first season. But it looked like even a vote of confidence from the boss wasn’t going to be enough to help Logano out of his slump — at least in the beginning of the race. The No. 20 team qualified outside the top 30 and struggled for much of the first 100 circuits, losing a lap to the leaders. However, the team caught a break on lap 138 when the No. 12 Dodge of David Stremme wrecked, bringing out the third caution of the day. Logano was the first car a lap down at the time, giving him the free pass and a place back on the lead lap.
Given a second chance to improve, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and the Home Depot crew eventually made the adjustment their young driver was looking for. By the end of the evening, Logano finished a very respectable 21st, just one lap off the pace for his second-best performance of the year. It was his first finish inside the top 30 since Las Vegas, as well as his sixth top rookie honor of 2009.
Start: 18th; Finish: 34th
Summary: Speed and the entire No. 82 team rebounded from their Texas DNQ two weeks ago with a solid top-20 qualifying effort on Friday. Unfortunately for them, that was the end of the good news. Speed was never a factor for a good finish on Saturday evening, as his Toyota dropped back almost immediately. In the end, it was a quiet night for the Californian, who fell out of the top 30 by lap 75 and never regained that lost ground. Losing two laps over the course of the evening, the No. 82 Toyota never seemed to keep up with the adjustments needed after sunset.
At least it was a much better night for Speed than his previous visit to Phoenix last November, when the Ford of David Gilliland ended up on his hood. But while the car took the checkered flag in one piece this time, the finish wasn’t much better — in the end, the rookie could only muster a disappointing 34th-place run. To put his season in perspective so far, it was actually Speed’s third best finish of 2009.
Quote: On Friday, Speed sure had high hopes for his Subway Fit Fresh 500 weekend: “We qualified in a pretty good spot to start the race tomorrow, so we’re happy about that — but we’re also really glad that we get to race tomorrow night. Our race pace was really good in practice this morning, so as long as we stay out of trouble we should have a decent finish. I’m really happy for all of my crew guys. They’ve worked hard and they deserve this.”
UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings
Joey Logano 76
Scott Speed 64
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)
Unfortunately, there was no last minute sponsorship deal for the Earnhardt Ganassi team this week, forcing them to sideline driver Aric Almirola indefinitely until financial support can be found. Keeping the team at home meant that there wasn’t a No. 8 car at the track for the first time since 1999, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran the car on a limited schedule for his dad.
Meanwhile, it was just another day at the office for Marcos Ambrose and the Clorox bunch. While running midpack for most of the day, crew chief Frankie Kerr made a gamble during the evening’s fifth caution when he elected to put only two new tires on the No. 47 Camry for track position. Ambrose restarted the race in second place, and while he didn’t last up front for long, the strategy helped the team to finish a very respectable 14th. Saturday night marked the team’s third top-15 finish in the last four races, serving as a nice rebound from their DNF due to mechanical problems at Texas two weeks ago.
Tony’s Take: While youth has been the preference of many NASCAR owners over the last decade, it appears as though the trend may be reversed for the moment. On a night where the ageless wonder, Mark Martin, drove to Victory Lane at the age of 50 years young, the newbies of the sport continued to struggle with the handling of these Sprint Cup cars. While Logano started his Nationwide Series career with a bang and Speed decimated the ARCA field last season, both appear to be having a difficult time adjusting to new cars raced at the sport’s top level.
While Saturday night’s winner may be a far cry from the next generation in terms of years, there are certainly many connections that the wily veteran has to NASCAR’s future. In fact, Martin has many ties to several rookie drivers who have competed just over the past few years, including David Ragan (former Roush Fenway Racing teammate), Regan Smith (mentee at Bobby Ginn Racing and teammate at DEI), Almirola (mentee at Bobby Ginn Racing and DEI), Paul Menard (teammate at DEI), and Logano (handpicked by Martin to be Roush Fenway Racing’s next big star before Logano opted for JGR instead). Each of these drivers are currently facing challenging times in their respective careers. However, if they listened carefully to the advice of their former teammate and mentor, they will certainly win and win often — well into the twilight of their careers while gaining the respect of their fellow competitors along the way.
Who Wasn’t Here?
UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings
26th – Marcos Ambrose (+2)
33rd – Joey Logano (+2)
37th – Aric Almirola (0, DNS)
38th – Scott Speed (0)
46th – Brad Keselowski (0, DNS)
48th – Max Papis (0, DNS)
Qualifying Next Week: Logano’s 21st-place finish gave him a little breathing room, as the No. 20 team is up to 33rd in owner points and still guaranteed to make next week’s field. Speed, meanwhile, remains on the outside looking in and will have to qualify on time at Talladega. Italian Max Papis will also try to go three-for-three as a “go or go homer” when he makes his third attempt of the 2009 season this weekend.
Next Up: There is only one word to sum up the Aaron’s 499 event, and that is… “Talladega.” In a matter of seconds, any of this year’s Rookie of the Year candidates could see their season resurrected — or pushed beyond the point of no return. In fact, one of last year’s freshmen experienced both sensations in the fall race at this venue in 2008. After crossing the finish line in first place, Smith saw the victory that could have saved the fate of his DEI team slip from his hands when NASCAR officials determined that his No. 01 car went below the yellow line to make the pass.
So, the best advice for this year’s rookie crop is to expect the unexpected; and, if possible, try to survive until the finish. Because no matter where you are when the white flag waves, chances are you still have a chance to pull off an upset… and by all means, stay above the yellow line!!!
Rookie Prediction Poll: You thought that Speed’s DNQ at Texas would be only the beginning of bigger problems for Team Red Bull, as 55% of you thought that he would miss his second consecutive race at Phoenix. However, the team managed to regain their groove for qualifying, as Speed easily put his team into the field for the Subway Fresh Fit 500.
As for this week, Talladega has long been the site of upset wins and strong finishes where drivers who aren’t normally heard from all year long will outmaneuver those who are regular contenders. Will either Logano, Speed or Papis use the draft to their advantage and earn their first top 10 of 2009 at the Aaron’s 499?
Tony’s Rookie Prediction: I had more confidence in Speed’s qualifying abilities this week than you did, choosing correctly that he would be in the field for Saturday night’s race. We now have a neck-and-neck race heading into Talladega, as we’re all knotted up at two points apiece so far this season.
As for Talladega, I think Logano will keep his forward momentum going and pull a rabbit out of the hat this Sunday. Logano actually raced well in this Gatorade Duel event at Daytona earlier this season, so I think the kid has what it takes at restrictor plate tracks to sneak in a top 10 this weekend.
Rookie Poll Points: Readers 2, Tony 2