Start: 8th; Finish: 7th
Summary: Joey Logano wasted no time moving up from his career second-best eighth-place qualifying position, as he broke into the top five in the first five laps of the race. Once the race restarted after the brief rain delay, Logano faded a little as he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli worked on making the No. 20 car turn better through the corners. As they worked to make the handling improve, Logano briefly got shuffled back to mid-pack… and it almost cost him on lap 121. That is when the blue deuce of Kurt Busch and the No. 6 of David Ragan made contact, sending Busch across the track right in front of the Home Depot Camry. However, the rookie squeezed by and immediately started making another charge to the front.
On lap 145, the caution waved again for rain and confusion set in between Zipadelli and Logano. When the young driver asked for directions, he unknowingly spoke over his crew chief and opted to stay on the track – not what Zipadelli had in mind. The unintentional move put Logano in the top five and allowed him to race for the lead with Dale Earnhardt Jr. before another caution on lap 157 allowed Logano to come down pit road for fuel and tires. The stop put the Connecticut native well within the final fuel window, allowing him to sprint to the front in the remaining laps. The seventh place finish was Logano’s fifth top 10 of the season and 17th top-rookie honor of the race in 2009.
Quote: “We had a really good Home Depot Toyota. We started the race up front, were running up good in the top five – and track position was key as usual. Every time I got a restart it seemed like somehow, one way or another, I was getting shuffled around. I’ve got to figure out what I’ve got to do there to keep us in the hunt a little bit better. Overall, a seventh-place finish is good.”
Start: 12th; Finish: 24th
Summary: Brad Keselowski had his second best start of 2009 when he rolled off the grid on the outside of row 12 for the CARFAX 400 in his home state of Michigan. After the early rain delay, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. called his driver down pit road when race resumed under caution, the first team to do so, trying to make some handling adjustment to the Chevrolet. The fresh tires were not quite enough to help Keselowski, though, as he remained in the middle of the pack for most of the event’s first half. The second 100 laps started out as a turning point for the No. 25 team, as Keselowski started knocking on the door of the top 10. However, the team did not have the handling setup they were looking for when it counted the most – at the end. Keselowski faded to the 24th position, his third straight race outside of the top 20 after three consecutive top-10 finishes earlier this season.
Qualifying Quote: “It was pretty good. Almost as good as the Michigan [Wolverines] team is going to be this year. I predicted nine wins, by the way. I thought it was good. Really happy with Tony [Eury] Jr., and the effort on this GoDaddy.com Chevrolet. It has just been a good weekend. I haven’t come here and ran well before. I have two good cars to run well here, the Nationwide car is flying too. Really excited about that. Happy to be here in Michigan and back home and really happy to have two fast racecars.”
Start: 11th; Finish: 34th
Summary: While Brian Vickers has been fighting his way into Chase contention, his Red Bull teammate, Scott Speed, was also riding a streak of his own. The No. 82 team had ended a string of abysmal performances with two straight top-25 finishes going into Sunday’s event. Things got even better for the rookie on Friday with an 11th-place qualifying effort. Speed ran into issues early with his Red Bull Camry, as he fell out of the top 30 early into the running of the CARFAX 400. Crew chief Jimmy Elledge appeared to have made the adjustments Speed needed in the second half of the race, as he broke into the top 25 and seemed poised to keep his recent streak intact. However, he just didn’t have the right stuff as the laps wore down and came home with a disappointing 34th-place finish.
Qualifying Quote: I knew we were going to be good, we have had a good car all weekend so far. I just wanted to get us into the show, nice and easy. They made really good changes before qualifying to make the thing even better – it drove itself.”
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.)
What a difference a week makes for Marcos Ambrose. Just last week at Watkins Glen, the Australian came home with a career best runner-up finish and at one point was in position to win. Just one week later, Ambrose returned to a track where he struggled mightily in June, and turned in a repeat performance. After qualifying 26th, the 32-year-old moved up through the pack and broke into the top 20. However, the No. 47 Camry was not fast enough to stay there. He faded soon thereafter and ran outside the top 30 for most of the rest of the race en route to an uncharacteristic 35th-place finish.
It was a day where Logano reminded us that he was still a rookie, and then demonstrated how much he has grown as a driver by recovering from a mistake. After running in the top 15 for most of the race, miscommunication put the driver in the precarious position of being up front but having to pit off sequence. After a little help from Lady Luck, a timely caution allowed the rookie to get all the fuel he needed to run to the finish – and he made the best of it. As the series begins a streak of visiting tracks for the second time, I believe the consistent top-10 runs will continue for this team as long as the driver can avoid rookie mistakes.
Speed’s team will need to show resiliency next week and bounce back from a disappointing finish at Michigan. This team desperately needs momentum to break into the Top 35 in owner points, and they were building it this past weekend until running out of gas late. The Red Bull team will now need to steal some momentum from their teammate and avoid another streak of eight consecutive finishes outside the top 30 like they endured earlier this summer. Meanwhile, don’t bet any money on Ambrose later this year at Fontana, as the Australian has finishes of 22nd or worse on the three 2-mile D-shaped ovals so far in 2009.
Who Wasn’t Here? All rookies who attempted to make the Carfax 400 made the show this past weekend.
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’s 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 in the time period.
Qualifying Next Week: Speed will once again need to time his Camry into the field next week at Bristol. Papis also returns to the circuit and if he hopes to follow up his career best finish at the Glen with another strong run, he will have to be fast enough to make the show on speed. Finally, Keselowski will be attempting to make his second consecutive race, this time in James Finch’s No. 09 Chevrolet.
Next Up: It seems like a cruel joke, but the Sprint Cup series really does go from one of the widest, fastest tracks on the circuit to the tight and narrow corners of Bristol, where it will head for the Sharpie 500 this Saturday night. The spring race in Thunder Valley was certainly challenging for this year’s rookies. Logano fought hard throughout the event, but eventually succumbed to engine problems, the last time he recorded a DNF. Speed managed to finish, but only in the 28th position. This weekend, the rookie drivers will want to take what they learned earlier this year and find a way to run hard each and every lap at a track where there is no margin for error. At the same time, they want to be careful enough not to ignite a wreck that could take out one of the Chase contenders. Considering all these factors and the fact that it is Bristol, next weekend’s race may be one of the most exciting events yet in 2009.
Rookie Prediction Poll: You thought that experience would be just too much to overcome, as 63% of you thought that Keselowski could not top both Logano and Speed. Turns out that you were correct, as Logano had too much for both his rookie counterparts as he came home with a top-10 finish.
Bristol Prediction: Who do you think will be the highest finishing rookie or almost rookie next week at Bristol? It’s one of the most unpredictable races on the track, so will you go with or against conventional wisdom?
Tony Rookie Prediction: Despite driving for the hottest teams in NASCAR in 2009, I didn’t think that Keselowski and his Hendrick Chevrolet would have enough to beat both Logano and Speed. For a portion of the race, I thought that I would be wrong, but Keselowski eventually faded and Logano finished better by several positions. Both of us score a point, but my deficit remains at one.
As for Saturday night, Logano is probably the most logical choice at Bristol this weekend based on his recent performances. However, Bristol is one of those tracks where shockers happen, and I think Speed can best the rest of the rookies and almost rookies at Thunder Valley.
Rookie Poll Points: Readers 11, Tony 10