The Sprint Cup Series marked the season’s halfway point with an “off week” shortly thereafter, which gives Professor Lumbis a chance to take a breath and evaluate this year’s crop of rookies. It certainly has been an odd season for the 2009 freshman class, as we’ve seen wins, DNQs, “bubble trouble,” and even outside Chase contenders emerge from this group. But the one thing that has been absent from this year’s performances across the board is consistency. It seems like it has either been feast or famine for the Rookie of the Year candidates, a habit that’s not uncommon for first-timers but one they’ll be looking to break entering the second half.
With that said, it’s time to delve into the differences between each of these wheelmen and give out their report cards. I evaluated each driver carrying a yellow stripe on their back bumper, then assigned each of them a mid-term grade based on their progress to date….
No. 09/25 Brad Keselowski
7 Starts, 1 Win, 1 Top Five, 3 Top 10s, 2 DNQs (Daytona 500, Dover)
Average Finish – 18.7
Best Finish – 1st (Talladega)
The year certainly did not start out well for Brad Keselowski, as he failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 while driving for James Finch’s No. 09 team. However, it would be a much different story the next time he got behind the wheel of the Miccosukee-sponsored Chevy at a restrictor-plate race, as Keselowski pulled off an exciting and improbable win at Talladega by using a dramatic last lap pass over Carl Edwards to get to victory lane. The stunning upset set off a string of good finishes for the Michigan native in both the No. 09 and No. 25 cars (a fifth team for Rick Hendrick), an impressive feat considering that he does not get the weekly experience with one crew as most drivers do.
The rookie’s sudden success may have cooled off a bit in recent weeks, with two finishes outside of the top 20 at Daytona and Chicago, but his name continues to be a hot one in the rumor mills after such a strong start. With JR Motorsports announcing that it will not move up to the Sprint Cup Series in 2010, Keselowski has now been mentioned as a candidate for rides at Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Red Bull and Penske Racing. The win is surely responsible for that, rising his stock during Silly Season in a year where he’s proven to be a quick learner in a variety of Sprint Cup equipment. In all honesty, those two DNQs are the only thing preventing him from an “A” grade.
No. 8 – Aric Almirola
7 Starts, 0 Wins, 0 Top Fives, 0 Top 10s
Average Finish – 32.9
Best Finish – 21st (Atlanta)
When Aric Almirola started the 2009 season, he knew the pressure was on to accomplish a lot in just a short time. That was because the third Earnhardt Ganassi entry had just enough funding to run the first seven races; beyond that, he’d likely be sitting on the sidelines unless more sponsorship was secured. Unfortunately, outside of a 21st-place finish in Atlanta, the “almost” rookie could not manage any run higher than 30th in his other six starts, hardly the performance needed to raise the interest of any potential backers. Following the April race at Texas, EGR laid off employees and suspended operations of the No. 8 car, leaving both it and Almirola sitting on the Sprint Cup bench ever since. So, while hardly the start this driver envisioned, since Almirola never had much of a chance to settle in with his new team I cannot assign a grade to his performance at this time other than “incomplete.”
No. 13 – Max Papis
7 Starts, 0 Wins, 0 Top Fives, 0 Top 10s, 2 DNQs (Dover, Daytona – Coke Zero 400)
Average Finish – 30.4
Best Finish – 12th (Sonoma)
The stats certainly do not paint a rosy picture for the Italian IndyCar convert, Max Papis. However, when you consider that the Italian has next to no experience in NASCAR and is driving for a rookie team on the Sprint Cup level, the performance is actually quite solid under the circumstances. What is most impressive to me about this rookie is his ability to keep making races. “Mad Max” has only DNQ’d twice, and one of those times (Daytona in July) was because of a qualifying rainout. Considering the fact that I thought “two” would represent the number of races this team would make in 2009 – not miss – I think their season is actually going better than most people would have thought. Also, while Papis has spent most of his starts riding in the back, none of them have resulted in a single DNF, allowing him to gain the oval-track experience he so desperately needs to gain traction in the series. And as for the road courses, Papis’s past experience there led to another final surprise, as he pulled off the rookie honor of the race in Infineon with a 12th-place finish. This driver may not be making front-page headlines as of yet, but he is overachieving enough to earn a satisfactory grade for his progress.
No. 20 – Joey Logano
19 Starts, 1 Win, 1 Top Five, 4 Top 10s
Average Finish – 21.0
Best Finish – 1st (New Hampshire)
It has been a tale of two seasons for Joey Logano so far in 2009. Just seven races in, Logano had five finishes of 30th or worse and was sitting in the 35th position in driver points following the Samsung 500 in Texas. Then, just a few weeks later, “Sliced Bread” recorded his first Sprint Cup top-10 finish at Talladega with a ninth-place run, then finished in the top 10 in two of the following three events. Since that breakthrough performance in late April, Logano has not had a finish lower than 25th, surged to 20th in points, and, of course, recorded his first career victory at his home track, New Hampshire, using both fuel mileage and foul weather to his advantage. Most noteworthy of all is that the rookie is starting to feel more comfortable working with crew chief Greg Zipadelli, evident in the his overall confidence level and the way this team improves during the second half of races. It has been a roller-coaster season thus far, but Logano is on the upswing, and I believe the best is yet to come.
No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose
19 Starts, 0 Wins, 2 Top Fives, 5 Top 10s
Average Finish – 18.4
Best Finish – 3rd (Sonoma)
Marcos Ambrose may not be an official rookie of the year candidate, but one has to consider that he is still seeing most of the tracks on the circuit for the first time in a Sprint Cup car. With that being said, the Tasmanian’s performance has been the most impressive out of all freshmen. While he doesn’t have the glitzy stats, Ambrose has become the master of “the best run you never saw,” to use a “Frontstretchism” from our daily newsletter that honors the driver with the best finish you just don’t hear about. Week after week, this driver quietly hangs in the top 20 for most of the race and, usually, makes a late surge at the end to improve his position to a top 15 or even a top 10. Even more importantly, Ambrose finishes races, recording only two DNFs so far this season – both due to engine failure. What is the most surprising about the 2009 season for this “almost rookie,” though, is that he sits 18th in owner points, 218 markers out of a Chase spot. With seven races left until the cutoff, that makes him a long shot at best… but unlike successful veterans Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick, at least he still has a shot. Ambrose’s success appears to validate JTG Daugherty Racing’s decision to join forces with Michael Waltrip Racing, who is enjoying their best year to date and happily facilitating this driver’s consistent improvement in 2009.
No. 82 – Scott Speed
18 Starts, 0 Wins, 1 Top Five, 1 Top 10, 3 DNQs (Texas, Darlington (Raced No. 87), Sonoma (Raced No. 87)
Average Finish – 31.2
Best Finish – 5th (Talladega)
Scott Speed and his No. 82 Red Bull team cannot seem to gain any momentum this year. In the first five races of the season, Speed had two DNFs and four finishes of 28th or worse to lose his guaranteed starting spot inside the Top 35 in owner points. The team has never quite recovered from that slow start out of the gate, recording three DNQs which put the team in a near-impossible hole to simply get back to 35th. However, Speed was still able to log laps in two of those events while driving for NEMCO Motorsports, giving him the experience needed to adjust at the Cup level at those tracks.
But despite the ugly times in qualifying, it has not been all gloom and doom for this Formula 1 convert. Speed recorded a career-best finish of fifth at Talladega and has also had some good runs of late which were spoiled by nothing more than plain awful luck. This month has proved the perfect example, as the rookie was poised for solid finishes over the past two events until each ended prematurely due to wrecks not necessarily of Speed’s making. If this team can capitalize on their first-half experience and shake their bad racing vibes, they should certainly see things begin to turn around. However, the first half of 2009 registered far below expectations for both this team and driver, who now has almost no chance of catching Logano for this year’s official top-rookie honors.
It is not unusual for freshmen to experience a vast improvement in their performance when the series visits tracks for the second time in the latter half of the season. I think this year’s rookies have the potential to do just that, meaning I expect every single grade to improve by the time final grades are issued in November. For every driver outside of Ambrose, the key to getting better is simple: record more consistent finishes in order to establish a strong weekly rhythm during a 17-week stretch that includes no time to stop and catch your breath. And as for Ambrose, who is already one step ahead of the rest, a win is not out of the question before the year is out. Look for that to happen at Watkins Glen, where he enters the race an established favorite after a top-five run for the Wood Brothers last season.
But no matter how these freshmen perform in the second half, one thing will always stay the same. Keep reading Frontstretch to get all these drivers’ latest news, information, and post-race analysis in the second half of 2009!