Start: 32nd; Finish: 24th
Summary: It certainly wasn’t flashy, but Scott Speed finished the race 24th, with a car in good shape. That’s about everything Team Red Bull can ask at this point, considering that the Top 35 is all but out of reach and that the organization’s focus is square on the No. 83 car and securing a Chase berth, not working on developing a rookie driver. The other good news for Speed was that in his now third trip back to Atlanta, he posted his first top-25 finish, a result 10 places better than he produced in the spring. The measuring stick for all rookies is with regard to improving on repeat visits, and Speed did just that on Sunday.
Notable Stat: Speed has now finished inside the top 25 in four of the last five races, the first time in his brief Cup career that he’s managed to do so.
Start: 34th; Finish: 22nd
Summary: After a disappointing effort in qualifying, Joey Logano enjoyed a solid evening for well over three-quarters of the race, methodically moving through the field and remaining on the lead lap as the evening progressed and the treacherous Atlanta circuit underwent a complete transformation under the lights. Unfortunately for Logano fans, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and his young driver lost their handle on the track, going too far on adjustments to make the No. 20 car loose. The resulting over-correction sent Logano into a spin in turn 4 on lap 269. Though Logano would leave the pits 19th after the spin, the handle on the No. 20 never came back, and he finished one lap down in 22nd.
Quote: “I don’t really like this joint. This is the toughest place I’ve come to so far. We were top 10 at one point. We were running with the No. 9, running with those guys that won the race. I don’t know what went wrong. I know Kyle [Busch] was up there winning the race at the beginning of the race and he went down a lap with me. I don’t understand how you can go from that good to junk I don’t know.”
Start: 39th; Finish: 40th
Summary: Max Papis and the No. 13 car scraped its way into the field by narrowly outrunning Regan Smith, only to run in the back amidst the start-and-parkers until a hard crash on lap 101 left the Italian without a right side to his car and a 40th-place finish.
Quote: “I drove it into turn 2 the thing just went straight into the wall. Don’t know exactly what happened. It was a really hard impact and thank God for the soft wall and the good quality of my GEICO Toyota car.”
Start: 42nd; Finish: 30th
Summary: Darnell made waves in the days leading up to this race when it was announced that he would be replacing popular veteran Bobby Labonte in the No. 96 car. It took owner points to get the former Truck Series regular into the field. And after starting in the back in 42nd, those watching Sunday’s race heard next to nothing and saw none of Darnell’s Cup debut. Running in the back, racing the track and not the pack, Darnell slugged his way to a 30th-place finish. Darnell actually managed to outrun Roush Fenway teammate David Ragan and had Jamie McMurray in his sights when the checkers fell on Sunday’s race.
Notable Stat: The good news is that Darnell’s debut in the No. 96 car was actually better than that of “Sliced Bread” himself, Logano. The bad news? The driver he displaced, Bobby Labonte, flat showed him up… in the No. 71 car.
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 freshman as they embark on their first full season in 2009.)
While Marcos Ambrose on the No. 47 team have made massive strides in 2009, the intermediate circuits of the Cup slate are still proving enigmatic. Ambrose’s 11th-place qualifying effort was, sans Chicago and Las Vegas, his best of the season on a mile-and-a-half track, but the accomplishments ended there. Ambrose dropped back at the start and was mired in the pack for the entire 500 miles. Visible only in passing during the TV broadcast, Ambrose eventually ended up 23rd in the final running order, which while an improvement over the team’s 35th-place outing at Michigan was still lacking for a group seeking to challenge for the Chase in 2010.
Bryan’s Take: Much as ESPN’s focus was on the Chase and the drivers contending for it, the action at the front of the pack was largely veteran, with the rookies in the field left to run their own races and to figure out an already difficult circuit under the lights. And while Logano managed to crack the top 15 and run with the leaders (including eventual race winner Kasey Kahne), the ever-changing track conditions at Atlanta proved too much for even the Rookie of the Year leader, as the No. 20 car lost their handle and faded late. On a night where the best in the Cup field had the added pressure of qualifying for the Chase, though, the rookie class stayed out of trouble and caused none for the guys running for a title. So while the results were nothing to write home about (no rookie finished inside the top 20), that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for the race prior to Richmond.
Who Wasn’t Here? Dexter Bean and the No. 51 Blackjack Racing team were nowhere to be found at Atlanta, and after the team’s crew chief, Ryan Bergenty, sustained an injury, it remains to be seen if and when the team will return to the track.
UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings
17th – Marcos Ambrose (0)
19th – Joey Logano (0)
35th – Scott Speed (0)
40th – Brad Keselowski (0, DNS)
43rd – Max Papis (0, DNQ)
44th – Aric Almirola (0, DNS)
59th – Erik Darnell
60th – Dexter Bean (-1, DNS)
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 in the time period.
Qualifying Next Week: Keselowski will have full funding for Phoenix Racing’s No. 09 car at Richmond, and that sort of backing from the Hendrick Motorsports camp should easily place Special K into the field. Speed still sits outside the Top 35 and must race his way in, as fellow open-wheel convert Papis will have to do as well in Germain Racing’s No. 13 Toyota.
Rookie Prediction Poll: An overwhelming 65% of you thought that Ambrose would be the highest-finishing driver in Sunday evening’s race.
Richmond Prediction: Next week’s final race before the Chase cutoff will have its fair share of freshmen drivers competing in it. Who will be the highest finishing driver in Saturday night’s Chevy Rock and Roll 400?
Bryan’s Prediction: I’ve got no qualms about Keselowski being able to qualify for Saturday night’s show at Richmond, and expect him to contend for a top 20. Keselowski already has three top-10 finishes in Cup competition in 2009, and is driving the same No. 09 car that Mike Wallace finished 12th and fourth with in the 2003 and 2004 fall races at RIR.
Rookie Poll Points: Readers 11, Tony 11