Start: 16th; Finish: 8th
Summary: When Max Papis qualified in the 16th position on Friday, it set a career best for the Italian road-racing specialist. However, the extraordinary weekend would not stop there for the GEICO team. When the race finally began, Papis progressed forward from the drop of the green flag and by the time the event reached the one-third mark, the No. 13 Camry was in the top 10. Proving that his qualifying run was not a fluke, the former IndyCar veteran ran with the front pack for the remainder of the race, at times threatening to crack the top five. However, with a handful of laps to go Papis reported hitting a curb on the racetrack, which slightly altered his steering. He would then lose a battle with Kurt Busch in the closing laps of the Heluva! Good at the Glen, but still held on to finish eighth for his first top 10 of 2009. It was a career best run for Papis, and also good enough to earn him the Rookie of the Race award, giving him the sweep in that category on road-course events in 2009.
Quote: “A day like today it makes our head stand up a little taller, and to see the No. 13 on the top of the board twice in two days is a great sense of satisfaction because it’s the first-ever time in my career that it has ever happened in NASCAR. I had a little bit of a feel for what Jimmie [Johnson] feels almost every weekend [laughs].”
Start: 35th; Finish: 16th
Summary: It was a day of comebacks for the leading Rookie of the Year candidate at Watkins Glen on Monday afternoon. Joey Logano started the event mired outside of the top 30 but would make steady progress through the field, breaking into the top 20 by lap 30. However, his progress would be temporarily halted when he slid off the track in turn 1 while attempting to make a pass. Six laps later, the caution flew because of a wreck involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Reed Sorenson, crew chief Greg Zipadelli used the opportunity to bring his rookie down pit road for fresh rubber.
Logano would once again start making up the ground that he lost until lap 62 when Sam Hornish Jr. and Jeff Gordon, among others, were involved in a superspeedway-like crash in turn 9. Logano just barely maneuvered around Hornish’s demolished Dodge, but scraped the outside guardrail in the process. The Connecticut native apparently had one more charge left in him, though, as he battled forward into the top 20 in the final laps of the race, earning a respectable 16th-place finish.
Start: 26th; Finish: 22nd
Summary: It was a slow start for Scott Speed and his Red Bull Toyota as he raced at or near his 26th-place starting position for most of the first half of the race. However, the rookie ran a smart one as he kept the nose of his No. 82 Camry clean despite the several incidents that happened close to him. On lap 55, many of the leaders started to make what would be their final pit stop of the day. However, Jimmy Elledge, knowing he was on a separate sequence, employed a different strategy and kept his driver out longer than anyone else. As a result, Speed would pace the field for four circuits, making this the fourth time this year he has led an event. While the team did eventually have to give up their place in the catbird’s seat, the tactic appeared to pay off as Speed rejoined the race in a better position than he had been running prior to inheriting the lead. When the checkered flag flew, the Californian was credited with the 22nd position, his second consecutive top-25 finish.
Quote: “This was my first time to Watkins Glen, so we had hoped to have a decent finish. We didn’t have the day we were looking for today. We really struggled with getting the right setup on our car. Pit strategy allowed us to lead a few laps, which helped us gain a few extra points. It’s a shame we only have two road-course races on the schedule, I would have loved another shot at it.”
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.)
With a reputation of being an excellent road-course driver and a win in Saturday’s Nationwide Series event, Marcos Ambrose entered Monday’s race with a giant target on his back as most competitors knew that the Australian would be the man to beat. The Aussie known to some as the “Tasmanian Devil” didn’t disappoint, either. Poor fuel mileage forced crew chief Frankie Kerr to utilize off-sequence pit strategy that had competitors and announcers alike scratching their heads. However, in the end, the strategy could not have worked any better as he was in position to win on the lap 73 restart. And while fuel once again raised concerns in the No. 47 pit as the laps wound down, it was actually now five-time Watkins Glen champ Tony Stewart that proved to be the lone obstacle that prevented Ambrose from sweeping the weekend. The runner-up finish was the best ever for Ambrose on the Sprint Cup level, beating his previous best of third (’09 Sonoma and ’08 Watkins Glen).
Rookie Road-Course Ringers
It was a day of what could have been for some of the rookie road-course ringers on Monday afternoon. Andy Lally, who was driving the No. 71 Chevrolet in place of David Gilliland, had a very solid top-20 run going early on in the event after qualifying 15th. However, Lally could not quite steer clear of the carnage created by the lap 63 wreck between Hornish and Gordon. His car was not the same after sustaining damage, but he still brought home a respectable 27th-place, lead-lap finish in his first ever Sprint Cup start.
Ron Fellows, who is normally always a threat at the New York raceway, never really had a chance to be competitive after a broken starter on his No. 09 Phoenix Racing Chevy forced him behind the walls for repairs on lap 28. PJ Jones in the No. 04 Toyota and Tony Ave in the No. 37 Dodge also both retired early from the race.
Well, once again we were forced to wait until Monday for the race because for some reason NASCAR feels that it is absolutely necessary to get the entire pre-race show in. I remember back in the day, flipping the race on at 12:30 p.m., expecting to see the pre-race show, and instead found the pace laps in progress because weather was threatening. Guess we’ll never see that kind of common sense anymore… but I digress.
Once we got the show on the road – literally – the rookie drivers again put on a good performance, much like they did in Sonoma just a few short months ago. Despite the fact that he has a road-racing background, Papis had quite an impressive showing on Monday. He didn’t just back into his finish using fancy pit strategy, he earned it by battling with the leaders all day long. This team has struggled during the second half of the season, as they DNQ’d in their two attempts since Sonoma. However, the top-10 run has to give Papis, crew chief Peter Sospenzo and the entire Germain Racing team the confidence to know that they do have what it takes to run competitively.
Logano could have had a better finish if it weren’t for a few on-track incidents, one of his doing and one that was not. Despite the setbacks, the rookie never gave up and still managed a very respectable finish that gives him something to build on for the road courses next year. And speaking of never giving up, the entire No. 82 Red Bull team is showing that they are not quitting on the 2009 season. It has been a nightmare of a summer so far for Speed; however, finishes of 23rd and 22nd at Pocono and the Glen, respectively, are just what the doctor ordered. The next six events on the schedule are all at tracks this team has raced at earlier this season, so there is no time like the present to start turning this year around.
Who Wasn’t Here? Road-course ringer Brian Simo, driving Tommy Baldwin’s No. 36 Toyota, was not fast enough to make the field for this week’s event at Watkins Glen.
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 and his No. 82 Red Bull Racing team along with Keselowski in Rick Hendrick’s No. 25 Chevy will need to be quick enough to make next week’s event at Michigan on time.
Next Up: The series will make its second trip to the Irish Hills of Michigan for the Carfax 400. Normally, this track is “rookie-friendly” with its wide racing surface that is more forgiving of mistakes than many tracks on the circuit. But that definitely was not the case for this year’s rookie crop in June, as Logano’s struggles in the first half of the race were too much for him to overcome in the second half, while Speed was off the pace for most of the day before succumbing to a mechanical failure. The experience these drivers did pick up will be extremely important, though, as this track is known for its long green flag runs which give crews only a handful of opportunities to work on their machines. Unloading fast off of the truck will be the key for giving these drivers the upper hand for the race this coming Sunday. (Did you get that, Mother Nature? SUNDAY!)
Rookie Prediction Poll: I have to admit that your confidence in the rookies has even surprised me this week, as 81% of you thought that all four drivers COULD, in fact, record top-20 finishes. Well, you were actually VERY close to being right. Speed fell just two spots short from making this happen.
Michigan Prediction: During Sunday’s rain delay, Speed reiterated just how big of a role that experience plays as it relates to improving as a driver at this level. Keselowski may have logged numerous laps at the Michigan International Speedway in a Nationwide car, but has not run a single competitive lap at this venue in a Sprint Cup car. With that being said, can he finish better than his two rookie counterparts who have competed in the race here just two months ago?
Tony’s Rookie Prediction: I really thought I had a chance to steal a point from you this week. It was not to be, though, as not only did we choose the same result… we chose the wrong one. It wasn’t looking good for awhile, as both Logano and Speed were well outside the top 20 in points. However, both charged forward and in the end, we only got three out of four.
As for Michigan, Keselowski has come home with some pretty impressive finishes in 2009, but he has cooled down in his last two starts with finishes outside of the top 20. I think he will run well this weekend, but I don’t foresee him beating out both of the 2009 Rookie of the Year candidates.
Rookie Poll Points: Readers 10, Tony 9