Start: 24th; Finish: 1st
Summary: On Friday afternoon, it looked as if the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 weekend would be a special one for rookie Logano. The 19-year-old was returning to his home track, which was also the site of the of his Sprint Cup debut back in the fall of 2008. The adrenaline appeared to be working early on, as the team went to the top of the charts during the first practice session of the weekend. However, when the green flag waved on Sunday, the superman cape quickly fell off and was replaced once again with that inexperienced yellow stripe.
Logano struggled early in the event, as has normally been the case this season. The rookie could not break into the top 20 from his 24th starting position and, in fact, was battling just to stay in front of leader Jimmie Johnson by lap 140 – a battle he would eventually lose. Following what appears to be the protocol for the No. 20 team in 2009, Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli continued to make their car better as the event wore on, positioning themselves for the “Lucky Dog” on lap 169 when New Hampshire’s seventh caution flag of the day waved.
Just 19 laps later, though, the New England native suffered another setback when the rear tire on his Home Depot Camry blew out in turns 3 and 4 following contact with both Ryan Newman and David Reutimann. Unable to react in time, Logano hit the spin cycle and then pit road after coming to a stop right outside of the pit entrance. With the help of a subsequent caution, the entire team was able to work on the race car and get it back onto the track without losing an additional lap. Adding insult to injury, Logano would be penalized to the tail end of the longest line after both pitting before pit road was open and speeding on entry. But those penalties would prove to be a small price to pay as four laps later, another spin allowed Logano to get the Lucky Dog and get right back on the same lap as the leaders. During that caution, Logano made a pit stop for gas and tires as he was going to start at the back of the lead lap, anyway; it was a crucial stop that would make a major difference several laps later.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was hardly heard from during the entire rest of the event… until lap 264. That is the moment where Newman sputtered onto pit road with an empty gas tank, handing the lead to Logano – who was also stretching his fuel mileage. Just four laps later, the skies opened up and the final caution of the day was waved for Mother Nature. As the rains came down harder, yellow turned into red and then black and white atop the flagstand, making Logano the youngest winner ever in Sprint Cup history at 19 years, one month and four days old. Not only did that beat Kyle Busch’s previous mark by over one year, it was actually the freshman’s first career top-five finish as well as his 13th rookie honor of the race.
Quote: “Yeah, this is so special. I think your first win – no matter where it’s at – is huge. Obviously, it’s not the way you want to win your first race, in the rain, but 20 years down the road when you look in the record books, no one will know the difference. I’ll take them any way I can. This is my home track and where I watched my first Cup race. And Zippy, all of the guys, a lot of the guys at Joe Gibbs Racing are from the northeast, so it’s cool to get a win here.”
Start: 36th; Finish: 6th
Summary: It seems all Keselowski has been able to do lately is find a way to finish in the top 10 – although it didn’t seem like it would end that way early on. For virtually the entire race, the No. 09 Impala raced under the radar, even falling a lap down to the leader early on in the race. But while the chips may have been down for team Miccosukee, they were certainly far from falling out of the game. Pit strategy and the wave around rule allowed Keselowski to gain his lap back without the aid of the “Lucky Dog.” As he has done so often this year, the rookie slowly and methodically worked his way to the front, positioning himself to make his final pit stop of the day later than everyone else. Crew chief Marc Reno’s strategy could not have worked any better, as the team had not yet stopped for fuel when the rains fell and, as a result, they were credited with the sixth-place finishing position. The part-timer has now finished first (Talladega), seventh (Darlington) and sixth in his last three appearances, with a DNQ at Dover being the only blemish on his recent track record.
Quote: “We played the strategy [card] the whole time anticipating this. We kept pitting under the yellows to top-off, even if we didn’t need it. We had probably a better car than where we were running. We kept pitting to make sure we were covered for this situation. And, low and behold, we got a break when this situation came up. We put ourselves in position to take advantage of it… and here we are.”
Start: 37th; Finish: 36th
Summary: After a gut-wrenching DNQ last week at Sonoma, Speed and his entire Red Bull team rebounded by making it into the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 on Friday once qualifying got rained out. However, making the show would be the only positive thing for this team in the Granite State. While mired back outside of the top 30, Speed was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the No. 19 Dodge of Elliott Sadler got into his Camry, sending him into the No. 55 of Michael Waltrip. The rookie did not make it through the wreck entirely unscathed, however, as the NAPA Camry clipped the side of the No. 82 car. However, Speed was able to continue without much damage, and the rookie soldiered on as best he could.
Speed slowly started to make progress, breaking into the top 30 by the event’s halfway mark. But luck, or lack thereof, would once again be the Achilles Heel of this team as the California native became a victim of circumstances for a second time on Sunday. On lap 189, his Toyota sustained heavy contact with the outside retaining wall in turn one after contact with another car, ending the rookie’s day. His most recent 37th-place finish means that Speed has not had a top 30 since the Coca-Cola 600 over one month ago.
Quote: “I spun out. I think the car behind us got into us a little bit, obviously, and spun us out. Other than that I really can’t tell you. Maybe Brian paid someone off for yesterday, I don’t know. We did good all weekend, honestly. Obviously we were in a pretty reasonable spot. We’ve got to keep our head up because we had a great weekend. Both cars, the Nationwide car and this car, ran really well all weekend. Can’t really change that, I mean that’s just up to fate. We’ll keep pushing on.”
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.)
Following a weekend of attention as one of the favorites to win at Sonoma, Marcos Ambrose fell back into the category of “average” at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway; but for him, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From the beginning of the race, crew chief Frankie Kerr knew that his car was not yet fast enough to be a contender, so he called his driver in for service when the first caution flew on lap 16. Pitting off sequence did not prove to be enough to get the No. 47 Camry to the front, as he rode around in about the 20th–25th position for a large portion of the race. At one point, Ambrose and company needed to utilize the new wave around rule just to remain on the lead lap – a move that worked out in their favor when Paul Menard wrecked on lap 171, allowing the No. 47 to get back on the same pit sequence with the leaders. By the end of the day, Ambrose was able bring home a very solid 23rd-place position, coming back down to Earth following a top-five finish last weekend.
A steal, the ultimate example of how it’s better to be lucky than good, a cheap win… these are all phrases that may be used to describe Joey Logano’s victory on Sunday afternoon. While yes, it certainly was unconventional and quite a bit of luck was involved, the NASCAR faithful should not take anything away from this rookie’s New Hampshire win. Winning in this sport requires having a solid team effort that positions their driver to win, and that’s exactly what the Home Depot team had this weekend. The pit crew stayed cool under pressure when Logano brought a torn-up racecar to their attention, making the necessary repairs in a timely fashion and keeping their driver on the lead lap. Logano showed patience as he made his way back through the field after the tire incident and followed his veteran crew chief’s instructions perfectly during the final caution laps, even as Jeff Gordon attempted to “intimidate” the teenager into using more fuel than necessary.
Finally, one can’t say enough about Greg Zipadelli, who has now managed to get two drivers into victory lane during their rookie seasons (Tony Stewart in 1999). Whether he’s got a hotheaded driver behind the wheel or a young, quiet kid who has been thrown into a pressure cooker, Zipadelli gets the job done and that should not go unnoticed – no matter how he gets his team into victory lane. With that kind of braintrust atop the pit box and considering that we’ve just barely begun to see what Logano can do in the driver’s seat, there is no telling what this team can do in the future.
I also have to say that if a victory had to “fall into someone’s lap”, it could not have happened to a better person. Logano has been given every reason to become an arrogant punk. Let’s face it, you can’t blame a guy for becoming just a bit cocky when he is told since he was 15 that he is the greatest thing since “Sliced Bread” and will be the next Jeff Gordon. But despite the accolades he’s received throughout his young career, Logano has remained modest, good-natured… and most of all, he has remained real. When he had to look at his uniform to remember his sponsors, that wasn’t an act. No, that was a 19 year-old who is genuinely excited about the opportunities that he has had to date and wants to ensure that he does not miss a single person or company that has made it all possible. NASCAR has its villains, and I think that that is a good thing for the sport. But for every villain, there has to be a good guy, and I think that Joey Logano will successfully fill that role for years to come.
Who Wasn’t Here?: When rain canceled qualifying for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301, it meant that Dexter Bean and Ted Christopher had to go home, as neither had enough 2009 attempts to make the show on points.
UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings
Note – The discrepancy between the driver standings and owner points for Speed is due to the fact that John Andretti fell behind Speed in driver points after missing two events due to Indy 500 commitments, but his No. 34 team remained in 35th because of the efforts of Tony Raines during that time period.
Qualifying Next Week: Speed’s bad luck combined with Andretti’s 16th place finish means that the No. 82 team has fallen even further behind the Top 35 in owner points, meaning they’ll have to qualify on speed once again at Daytona. Papis will also need to time his GEICO Toyota into the field as well, while Keselowski will be making his second consecutive start for James Finch as he looks to win his second consecutive restrictor-plate race following Talladega in April.
Next Up: It is the first “return trip” of the season this Independence Day weekend as the Sprint Cup series heads back to Daytona for the Coke Zero 400. While most of the rookies have been looking forward to racing at a venue where they have prior experience, they should refrain from getting too excited just yet – Daytona under the lights in July is a much different track than it was back in February. Also, we all know that for the most part, the drivers are just along for the ride at this track where restrictor-plate engines level the playing field for all. The one positive note is that most of the rookie contenders have much more draft experience under their belt at this point of the year, which will certainly help on Saturday night. For the most part, however, their strategy will be to stay out of trouble and try to be in contention at the end, where anything can happen… just ask Keselowski.
Rookie Prediction Poll: Just over 60% of you believed that Ambrose would use last week’s third-place finish to start a hot streak of his own and beat the rest of the rookie contenders last Sunday. While Ambrose did not have a bad day, it certainly wasn’t great as he finished behind both Logano and Keselowski. Only 16% of you thought Logano would finish best at his home track. It looked like most of you had the right idea… until the final segment of the race.
Daytona Prediction: It was a rough kickoff to the season for the Rookie of the Year contenders in Daytona earlier this year, as Logano finished dead last and Speed did not do much better with a 35th place finish. Ambrose did better as he was sitting in 17th when it began to pour. Meanwhile, Keselowski missed the show, while Papis did not even attempt the Great American Race. So, how much does experience matter at this place? You can weigh in by letting us know which group the highest finisher will come out of: Logano/Speed/Ambrose, who ran the Daytona 500, or Keselowski/Papis, who have not.
Tony’s Rookie Prediction: I had confidence in Logano and his ability to pull off a good finish at the track that means a lot to him personally. While it wasn’t quite in the fashion I expected, the rookie did, in fact, beat Keselowski, Ambrose and Speed, allowing me to pull back within one point of you.
As for this week’s prediction, I am going with the Keselowski/Papis group next week due to Keselowski’s recent abilities to find a way to be near the front at the end. His recent hot streak combined with Finch’s record at superspeedways will certainly put this duo on everyone’s radar Saturday night, despite the driver’s lack of experience at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
Rookie Poll Points: Readers 8, Tony 7