Start: 12th; Finish: 5th
Summary: Joey Logano has been steadily trying to improve from a pair of horrendous finishes late last month, including his terrifying wreck at Dover. And in the early stages of the NASCAR Banking only from Bank of America 500, it looked as if the No. 20 team was going to emerge from their mini-slump in a big way. The Home Depot Camry rolled off the grid from the outside of row six and moved forward from the drop of the green flag, all the way into the top five… until disaster struck. On lap 34, the third caution of the day flew for rain, and just about every competitor hit pit road for service. It would be the first stop of the day for Logano, who almost blew right past his pit box after thinking he was pitting in front of the No. 9 car instead of behind it. The rookie realized his blunder at the last second, but it was too late – so he was forced to back up and re-enter at the correct angle.
Logano would restart way back in the 38th spot; however, the poor track position did not deter him. By lap 80, his neon orange and white machine had broken into the top 20, the freshman gaining confidence in the handling of his Toyota with every lap. A slow and steady approach was exactly what was needed to get Logano back into the top 10, and the team followed that plan to a T. In the final laps, not only was the young Connecticut native turning some of the fastest laps of the race, but he also went door-to-door with four-time champion Jeff Gordon to the checkered flag. Logano lost that battle, but won the war with his first top-five finish since his win at Loudon back in June. The finish was good enough for his 22nd rookie of the race honor in 2009.
Quote: “This is a really good run, something that we really needed with the Home Depot Toyota. I screwed up in the pits earlier, the first stop of the race I missed my box, put us in the back [but] we fought back. I couldn’t catch a break all day. Some guys took two tires and it worked for ‘em and never really did anything to help ourselves. I caught every caution at the wrong time, it seemed like, and gave up a little bit there. But overall it was really fun. Me and Jeff [Gordon] went hard there at the end, but that was cool. It was really fun. We needed a good top five and that was really good.”
Start: 8th; Finish: 12th
Summary: Brad Keselowski made his final Sprint Cup start (for now) for Hendrick Motorsports on Saturday night, and it was a good one. The rookie from Rochester Hills, Mich. started in the top 10, but unlike his counterpart Logano, he quickly fell back through the pack and ran as low as 29th by just the 60th lap. The two also suffered from the same ailment, as a pit-road blunder (in this case, speeding) left Keselowski with a penalty that put him at the end of the longest line and stuck back in traffic. However, Keselowski and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. were able to make the adjustments the car needed, and soon the driver was making progress back through the field once again. By the end of the event, the No. 25 Chevy was locked in a battle with Logano inside the top 10, the two going at it with only a handful of laps remaining. Keselowski could not fend off the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year, though, slipping to 12th at the finish while his rival jumped to fifth. However, the run marked his fifth top 15 in just 11 starts so far this year as Keselowski continues to impress.
Part of a partial schedule: Seven of Keselowski’s 11 starts were in Rick Hendrick’s No. 25 Chevy. In those events, he scored just one top-10 finish – a seventh at Darlington in May. However, his final two starts in that car were a 13th and 12th at Kansas and Lowe’s, respectively.
Start: 16th; Finish: 28th
Summary: The No. 82 team was looking to build upon a very good 21st-place run in Fontana last week, trying to build momentum as they look towards 2010. Their quest certainly started out well, when Scott Speed qualified on the outside of row eight for the NASCAR Banking only from Bank of America 500. However, it did not turn out to be a very good night for the Californian, who slipped back almost from the drop of the green flag. Speed struggled at or just outside of the top-30 mark for most of the evening, eventually finishing in the 28th position, two laps off the pace.
No Charlotte Repeat: When Speed last visited Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600, he recorded a very strong 18th-place finish. Unfortunately, the team could not duplicate that success the second time around.
Start: 40th; Finish: 41st
Summary: When Max Papis made the show last Thursday, it marked the third consecutive time the Italian made the race in as many starts. However, the third time was not a charm for the former open-wheeler who, after a very quiet day, was forced to retire due to engine problems on lap 286. It was only Papis’s second DNF in 13 starts.
Quote: “I was really excited. I think this is the best that we have run so far. We were competitive. It started to get a little slower and a little slower and it just seized up like a go-kart engine. Still a great night for us. We ran strong. I think we’re showing that we’re getting there. We’re making great improvement in the GEICO team. I raced, I was with people, they didn’t run me over as usual [smiles] and I was able to compete with people side-by-side, racing them hard. I feel a big improvement and really excited about our improvement.”
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.)
Even though the final finish did not show it, Marcos Ambrose and his entire Michael Waltrip Racing Team appeared to get over their intermediate track woes last week at Fontana and were hoping to continue the trend this week. A strong 13th-place qualifying effort and even better practice times indicated that the Australian was, in fact, ready to conquer the 1.5-2-mile ovals on a consistent basis. However, once the race started, engine and handling issues kept Ambrose from finishing as well as he could have. Despite those challenges, the almost rookie was still able to manage a 22nd-place finish, making it eight straight races that he has not finished any lower than 23rd.
Last week, Logano learned the lesson of making the best out of an ill-handling car by simply surviving to the finish. This week’s lesson is on how to handle adversity. Earlier in the season, this young rookie may have written off his chances after suffering an early race misfortune such as the one that happened on pit road during Saturday’s event. But after almost a full season of experience under his belt, Logano kept his cool, then proceeded to follow the advice of his crew chief and “kicked some ass.” This rookie continues to show progress in almost every race, especially when one looks beyond just the finishing position and to how he improved throughout the event.
Who Wasn’t Here?: All rookies who attempted to make the race last week successfully did so.
UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings
17th – Marcos Ambrose (0)
20th – Joey Logano (0)
35th – Scott Speed (0)
39th – Brad Keselowski (+2)
43rd – Max Papis (-1)
45th – Aric Almirola (-1, DNS)
53rd – Erik Darnell (0, DNS)
62nd – Dexter Bean (0, 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 that same time period.
Qualifying Next Week: Speed mentioned in his Frontstretch Driver Diary last week that he is very focused on making it into the Top 35 in owner points before the end of the season. He made up some ground on the No. 34 team, but is still 98 points behind and will have to qualify on time at Martinsville.
Next Up: The half-mile paperclip track in Martinsville, Va. is next up on the schedule where the Sprint Cup Series will go to compete in the TUMS Bring-It-On 500. The rookie class will certainly hope to have far better runs in the fall than in their first start on the half-mile this spring. Both Logano and Speed struggled throughout the event, where the No. 82 team was taken out in an accident with Kyle Busch and the No. 20 team finished four laps off the pace. Both drivers have shown improvement during most of their second visits to each venue so far, but one race of experience usually isn’t enough to figure out this track. Look for improvement from both Logano and Speed this time around, but don’t get too greedy, as just getting a top-25 finish would be considered a success. If you are looking for a better performance from a newbie, consider Ambrose, who has made the short tracks his personal playground in 2009.
Rookie Prediction Poll: The majority of you actually thought that Keselowski would in fact beat out both Logano and Speed on Saturday night. You were almost right, as he battled with Logano in the late stages of the race in order to become the first driver with a yellow stripe to cross the finish line. He could not quite hold on, however, and it was Logano who came out on top.
Martinsville Prediction: Both Speed and Logano had dismal finishes in the spring at Martinsville, while Ambrose had a very solid 14th-place run. Ambrose has run well on the short tracks this year… but Speed and Logano have shown the ability to improve as the season wears on. Can all three finish in the top 25 in Martinsville?
Tony’s Rookie Prediction: I did not think any of the rookies could beat Logano, including Keselowski, and I was right. I now take a two-point lead with only five events remaining.
As for Martinsville, Logano is starting another hot streak while Ambrose has not finished out the top 25 since Michigan in August. The wild card in this one is Speed, and I think he can pull it off; therefore, I will say yes, all three can finish in the top 25.
Rookie Poll Points: Readers 12, Tony 14