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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Rookies Find Checkers, Not Wreckers at ‘Dega with Keselowski, Speed, Logano Mastering Draft

Brad Keselowski
Start: Ninth; Finish: First

Summary: Brad Keselowski raced the Aaron’s 499 in the same manner as one would want to play a game of poker. After starting in the top 10, Keselowski spent much of the afternoon darting to the front of the pack, only to fall off the pace soon thereafter – leaving his competitors scratching their heads as to exactly what was under the hood of his Miccosukee Chevy. In fact, the Michigan native almost unknowingly twice caused an accident – once on lap 82 when the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. quickly came up on the back of the No. 09, forcing Keselowski below the yellow line; and then again with 55 circuits remaining, when he pushed Elliott Sadler to the front, only to lose momentum and create a logjam behind him.

Keselowski and his Marc Reno-led team showed their hand when it counted, however, and in the end they had a full house. With just four laps remaining, the rookie looked much like his mentor’s father when he emerged from his 11th-place position and pushed Carl Edwards to the front with just one lap remaining. Only this time, the Hendrick-powered Impala would not fade back into oblivion. This time, Keselowski squeezed his nose in between the No. 99 Ford and the infamous “out-of-bounds” double-yellow line through the tri-oval. Edwards did not realize the 25-year-old was there… until it was too late. The contact sent the Claritin Ford across the track, into the path of Ryan Newman, then launched the Roush Fenway Racing machine into the air.

The frightening wreck allowed Keselowski to drive off into the sunset and across the finish line unscathed for his first career Sprint Cup victory, coming in only his fifth career start at that level. Although Keselowski is not officially running for Rookie of the Year, the victory marks the first time a car with a yellow stripe entered victory lane since Juan Pablo Montoya won at Sonoma in June of 2007.

Quote: “Wow, pinch me. I don’t know, am I awake? How about this team? How about all them fans out there, man thanks for coming. This is the best show on earth. I’ve got to apologize to Carl [Edwards] for wrecking him at the end. The rule is you can’t go below the yellow line, and he blocked and I wasn’t going below it. I don’t want to wreck a guy, but you’re forced in that situation. There was nothing else I could do. We had a lot of fun today. Man, was that fun. I hope the fans did too because this is NASCAR racing and this is cool.”

Scott Speed
Start: Eighth; Finish: Fifth

Summary: Scott Speed turned in his best qualifying effort of 2009 when he placed his Red Bull Toyota on the outside of row four. However, before the green flag even waved, the bad luck that has plagued this team all season long reared its ugly head once again. The brakes were not working on the No. 82 Camry, and crew chief Jimmy Elledge make the call to bring Speed down pit road during the pace laps. As it turned out, a piece of wire that the crew used to tie the brakes up away from the wheel for qualifying was not snapping when Speed hit the brakes as designed, forcing a crew member to manually cut it in order to get it fixed. Unfortunately, the NASCAR officials viewed this action as working on the car before the green flag – illegal for an impound race – and penalized the team one lap as a result.

But after experiencing neglect from Lady Luck so many times this season, this particular Sunday afternoon would be different. As it turned out, Speed – who had lost the draft due to his penalty – missed the Big One on lap 8, which occurred right where had would have been racing. Not only did the rookie miss the crash, but he got the free pass as well, negating the penalty and getting his race back on track.

From that point on, the driver chose to hang at the back of the pack until the final segment. At that point, the former Formula One driver began making his way to the front with a little help from a friend, Kyle Busch, who was one lap down at the time. When the checkered flag waved, Speed had cleared the carnage on the frontstretch and had pushed up through the field at exactly the right time. Awarded with a fifth place finish, it was a Sprint Cup career best for the 26-year-old who didn’t even have a top 10 to his credit. His first top five also resulted in rookie honors for the race, Speed’s third award of 2009 and first since Bristol in March. Perhaps more importantly, the team is now only 18 points from the 35th position in the owner standings.

Quote: “We went back and forth. If you did this race a bunch more times over, I don’t think we’d end up there just because it’s so hard to get anyone to push you, especially me. Like I said, it was really lucky that Kyle was there at the end and was able to push me [laughs] because without anyone behind you, you know, supporting your row, you don’t go anywhere.”

Joey Logano
Start: 22nd; Finish: Ninth

Summary: Joey Logano did not waste any time in racing his Home Depot Camry to the front. On lap 8, Logano had pushed the No. 6 car of David Ragan to the lead in a move that may have very well saved the rookie driver’s race. By aggressively racing the front, the No. 20 was well ahead of the pileup that ignited when the Nos. 17 and 24 made contact. For the remainder of the event, Logano then looked like a restrictor-plate racing veteran, keeping his car at or near the front of the pack while showing plenty of muscle under the hood. In fact, the car was so strong that just before lap 100, crew chief Greg Zipadelli had to remind his driver not to take the lead, knowing that the rookie would only be hung out to dry by the more experienced drivers around him.

Logano would have to survive one near miss with less than 20 laps to go. After receiving a bump from Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch started to lose control of his Toyota, spinning right in front of his rookie teammate on the track. Logano just missed the No. 18 before continuing on, staying ahead of the final two Big Ones of the day while bringing the No. 20 home in ninth. The top-10 finish was a career best for Logano, whose previous best was a 13th earlier this season at Las Vegas.

Quote: “Just going down to the end of the race and I thought the No. 6 (David Ragan), if we had hooked up to each other we were going to go. Kept backing up and backing up [to find him]… but we never hooked up. I don’t know why. He hit me once and we tried to go and we couldn’t stay together and keep going, so we ended up losing spots because of it and that was kind of that.”

Max Papis
Start: 43rd; Finish: 18th

Summary: Max Papis received quite an introduction to restrictor-plate racing after starting last in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 and getting swept up in the first Big One of the day on lap 8. The Mike Hillman Sr.-led crew was able to make enough repairs to the GEICO Toyota in a timely manner, one that allowed Papis to stay on the lead lap and remain competitive for the rest of the event. Not only did the Italian gain valuable experience by completing all 188 laps, but he finished a career-best 18th, which represents the first top 20 of Papis’s young Sprint Cup career.

Quote (Mike Hillman Sr.): “I think he (Papis) learned a lot because he found out that he needed to keep somebody behind him, so when people were getting runs at him… I think he earned some respect, because the last half of the race people would push him where in the first half they’d just leave him out [to dry] all the time. You can always learn out there, and he did a good job today.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Logano 96
Speed 84
Papis 28

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 to be completely outdone by the rookies, Marcos Ambrose turned in his best performance on an oval when he crossed the finish line in fourth place with his Little Debbie Toyota. It was same song, different verse for Ambrose, who once again managed to stay out of trouble all day – even surviving getting cut off by his teammate Michael Waltrip. The Australian had worked his way into the top 10 for the final restart, quietly managing to keep the No. 47 up front to record his best finish of 2009.

Tony’s Take: It was just a week ago that I wrote about how the so-called “young guns” of the sport were getting spanked by the veterans. The series had gone over a full season without a single Rookie of the Year candidate finishing in the top 10, and it looked as though this class was not going to change that anytime soon based on early results. That all changed this past Sunday at Talladega, however, which certainly lived up to its reputation for producing unpredictable racing.

Sure, almost half the competition was eliminated or severely handicapped in the first 10 laps, and I am also well aware of the fact that equipment plays a much bigger role in restrictor-plate racing than the driver. Still, each and every rookie turned in career-best performances that most of them desperately needed.

Keselowski also should be commended for not only knowing the rules, but using them to his advantage. Learning from Regan Smith’s mistake last season, Keselowski resisted every temptation to drive onto the apron to avoid the closing machine of Edwards. Staying the course while knowing that your actions, while perfectly legal, could create a disaster, takes guts… and Keselowski showed NASCAR Nation that he had just that today. His interview in the winner’s circle was even more impressive, as he showed concern for his fellow competitors but also defended his actions, knowing he was in the right. If Keselowski continues to race with that kind of confidence, this will only be the first of many more victories. I’m just still shocked that win number one came in a car not “owned” by Hendrick, though….

Meanwhile, Speed and Logano had finishes that were just as good as wins. The two have struggled mightily this season to the point where both have been on or just outside the Top-35 bubble. But both drivers managed to avoid trouble on a day where trouble was everywhere, displaying enough patience to be in the right place at the right time.

And it’s important not to lose sight of another impressive performance amidst the top 10 finishes of the other rookies. Papis, who had never raced on a superspeedway in any of NASCAR’s top three levels, turned in a stellar top 20 performance in a beat-up racecar. The former open-wheel veteran is now three-for-three in qualifying this season, and is slowly building a nice part-time effort with his Germain Racing team.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Eric McClure was trying to lead the comeback for Morgan-McClure Motorsports when he attempted to qualify for the Aaron’s 499. Unfortunately, the familiar No. 4 team showed that it is far removed from its restrictor-plate glory days of the ’90s, missing the show by turning in the 44th-quickest time.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

19th – Marcos Ambrose (+7)
33rd – Joey Logano (0)
36th – Scott Speed (+2)
39th – Aric Almirola (-2, DNS)
41st – Brad Keselowski (+5)
47th – Max Papis (+1)

Qualifying Next Week: Speed will need to qualify on time once again next week. However, he is only a stone’s throw away from the Top 35 and can earn back his guaranteed qualifying spot with another good, solid run.

Next Up: While last week’s race was the prime territory for an upset win (go figure), Richmond will be quite a bit different, as the freshmen have struggled at short tracks so far this season. Strong performances are not completely out of the picture, however, at the 3/4-mile track in Virginia: both Tony Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. won at Richmond in their rookie seasons in 1999 and 2000, respectively. More recently, Ragan turned in a career-best third during his first full-time season in 2007. The two grooves at this short track produce some of the best racing on the circuit, but it is still a short-track race, meaning that drivers will need to stay up on the wheel for the entire 400 laps or risk falling a lap down in a hurry.

Rookie Prediction Poll – Where is the love??? The majority of you could not fathom even one rookie finishing in the top 10, let alone three, as the majority of you said that not a single rookie driver could do it. But wait; the poll specifically said “None of these drivers will finish in the top 10.” “These” did NOT include Keselowski, so technically, you are correct and I will give you a point. The “yellow line rule” wasn’t the only rule that was up for interpretation this past weekend.

It was a fierce battle among the rookies and almost rookies at Talladega to see who would record the best finish. Hopefully, the battle will continue with the same intensity under the lights this Saturday night. Who do you think will come out on top?

Tony’s Rookie Prediction: Logano looked more like the Logano of the Gatorade Duel and less like the Logano of the Daytona 500 as I expected. Therefore, we will go into next week tied once again.

While I don’t expect Speed or Logano to fall flat on their face next week, I would not be surprised to see them come back to down earth, either. I do expect Ambrose to continue his solid finishes and beat the other drivers carrying rookie stripes at Richmond.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers 3, Tony 3