Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Michael McDowell Terrifies at Texas

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Sam Hornish Jr. (17th), Patrick Carpentier (27th), Regan Smith (34th), Michael McDowell (40th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Carpentier (28th), Hornish (32nd), McDowell (33rd), Smith (35th)

Rookie of the Race: Carpentier. The No. 10 Dodge qualified for their fourth event in the last five races on Friday, and the momentum did not stop there… although it could have. The Valvoline Charger started Sunday afternoon in the 27th position, but did not progress through the field immediately. In fact, Carpentier and crew chief Mike Shiplett were faced with finding a cure for a particularly “moody” car throughout the race. “We started out loose-in tight in the middle, and then we fixed the loose-in… then, we went after the tight in the middle and he was pretty happy there at the end,” remarked Shiplett.

However, as many drivers have observed this season, the success or failure of a team lies more in the hands of the driver now with the new car than ever before, and the Canadian is learning how to step up to that challenge: “I was happy with too tight, then I found a way to still keep going on the track and too loose, I found another way, so that’s good,” said Carpentier. “I’ve never had that before.”

Shiplett’s adjustments combined with Carpentier’s improving abilities behind the wheel resulted in a 28th-place finish, his best ever on an oval track. It was also the GEM driver’s first ever Rookie of the Race honor, allowing him to close in slightly on the trio of Smith, Hornish and Dario Franchitti in the Rookie of the Year race.

Tony’s Take: Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the difference in a driver’s career, and that situation applies to our Rookie of the Race this week. Carpentier just barely finished in the top 30, hardly something to get excited about in this sport. However, if you are this 36-year-old rookie or anyone else on this struggling Gillett Evernham Motorsports team for that matter, Sunday’s performance was a huge confidence booster.

Looking at Carpentier’s performance in 2008 in further detail reveals that he has improved his performance in each of the four events that he qualified for, and beat his personal best on an oval the previous two times out. When you are in Carpentier’s shoes – with all of six starts in a stock car coming into 2008 (three in Sprint Cup, three in Nationwide) – you don’t look to set the world on fire, you just simply improve each week.

Don’t get me wrong, this entire team still has a long road ahead of them as they still sit 171 markers out of the 35th position in owner points. Still, if the upward trend in his finishes continues, not only can this team dig themselves out of their hole, but Carpentier himself can prove to the nay-sayers (including myself) that he does belong at the Sprint Cup level.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Smith. The new sole points leader in the ROTY standings is Smith; but there is really not much of a reason to celebrate in the No. 01 camp. After finishing as the best ROTY candidate the previous two weeks, Smith did not register above his 34th qualifying spot on the scoring chart for almost the entire event on Sunday.

It has become painfully evident that this team is out to lunch with its intermediate-track program, finishing no better than 31st on tracks that are 1.5-2 miles in length so far this season. This is a huge problem in a series that contains its fair share of cookie-cutter tracks with those same dimensions. However, Smith and company still managed to remain in the Top 35 this week; just don’t expect this sought after position to last long if they continue to perform like they did on Sunday.

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: McDowell. None of the four rookies who competed in the Samsung 500 were involved in a single incident during Sunday’s event; and honestly, it really didn’t matter if they were. McDowell not only endured the worst wreck of the weekend during his qualifying run on Friday, but one of the most violent crashes I’ve seen in the 16 years that I’ve followed this sport.

While attempting to make his second career Sprint Cup start, the young rookie headed for turn 1 during the second lap of his qualifying run when the back end of his No. 00 Camry suddenly broke loose. By the time the Goodyear tires were able to find grip again, it was too late, and McDowell was already heading straight for the outside retaining wall. The impact was so severe that it tore apart the SAFER barrier and sent the Dream Machine into a nightmarish barrel roll through turn 2.

It’s been repeated about 100 times since the wreck, and I will make it 101; thank you to the teams, NASCAR and track owners everywhere for the safety innovations that allowed this rookie, with his entire life ahead of him, to walk away from a horrific accident. McDowell’s circus act reminded me of Davey Allison‘s tumbling Ford at Pocono in 1992 and Rusty Wallace‘s Miller Genuine Draft Grand Prix flipping across the finish line at Talladega a year later.

Both drivers sustained injuries in their respective incidents; furthermore, McDowell’s impact was all too familiar to the one that took the life of Dale Earnhardt during the Daytona 500 in 2001. But unlike those drivers before him, McDowell walked away unscathed, a testament to “how far we’ve come” as Matchbox 20 proclaims in the overplayed commercial during every racing telecast.

As for the 2007 ARCA Rookie of the Year himself, after being the center of a controversy involving Jeff Burton at Martinsville and stopping the hearts of NASCAR fans and participants at Texas, a nice, uneventful weekend in Phoenix would be a welcomed relief.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Franchitti, Chad McCumbee and Burney LamarThe three rookies who missed the show at Texas represented three entirely different situations; however, the degree of disappointment had to be the same across the board. Franchitti missed the first event of his Sprint Cup career, and it could signify only the beginning of rough times ahead for the defending Indy 500 champ, who was sharing the ROTY points lead until his DNQ.

The Scotsman could not capitalize on his team’s locked-in position during the first five events of 2008, and just barely made the show at Martinsville without the Top-35 rule to fall back on. The Texas-sized disappointment led team owner Chip Ganassi to state that he would not hesitate to make personnel changes outside of the driver on the No. 40 team if their performance did not turn around soon.

See also
Bubble Breakdown: Jeremy Mayfield Out, Sam Hornish Jr. Back Inside Top-35 Safety Net

McCumbee was brought on board the No. 45 team in hopes the change of pace would help the struggling operation. No such luck there; McCumbee was one of only three drivers to be sent home on Friday afternoon. Finally, Lamar continues his chances with the underfunded E&M Motorsports team, but once again was not fast enough to make the field, illustrating the continuing struggle for single car operations to survive in today’s environment.

Rookie Quotes of the Week: For the second week in a row, McDowell is the man we all want to hear from as he continues one of the more memorable rookie debuts in recent history over the past two weeks. McDowell shares some of his thoughts about Friday’s wreck:

Did you get in the oil or oil dry?
“Honestly, it got away from me so fast it felt like oil or something broke. It’s unfortunate, ’cause I don’t want to blame anybody. I’m in the driver’s seat and maybe I just tried to open up the entry a little bit because we were a little tight the lap before and maybe I got up into the oil. It’s unfortunate. I don’t think that NASCAR did anything that they wouldn’t normally do. We trust them to go out there whether the track’s good or not. When you go out to qualify, you can’t go out there 90%. You’ve got to go all out. I think we maybe crossed the line a little bit there.”

Did you close your eye during the accident?
“I should have [laughter] but I didn’t close my eyes, no. I just kind of rode it out [laughs]. It wasn’t a fun ride, that’s for sure. I stand here with a smile on my face because I’m fortunate and I do feel bad about the car and about everyone that works on the Aaron’s Dream Machine. I just want to thank the guys back at the shop for working so hard to make these things safe because they spent a lot of time the last couple of weeks switching drivers. It’s been tough. We haven’t had a lot of time to do that. They took the extra effort to make sure that the car was safe, and I appreciate that.”

Have you talked to your family yet?
“I did. That was the first thing I made sure. My wife’s here right now and my dad, I know he was upset at home watching so we tried calling him there. I’m feeling fine. I’ve got no problems right now. The doctors checked me out and said I was all right.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Smith 68
Hornish Jr. 67
Franchitti 61
Carpentier 39
McDowell 18

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Hornish Jr.: 34th (+1)
Smith: 35th (-1)
Franchitti: 38th (-1)
Carpentier 43rd (+2)
Almirola 46th (-1, DNS)
McDowell 47th (+1)

Qualifying Next Week: Franchitti and Carpentier will have to qualify on time at Phoenix.

Next Up: The Sprint Cup boys will make their first visit to the Valley of the Sun when they rev the engines for the Subway Fresh 500 this Saturday. Phoenix International Raceway, one of the flattest tracks on the circuit containing a distinct dogleg on the backstretch gives it a unique shape unlike anything else the drivers race on. Still, the Arizona venue does not represent unfamiliar territory for the freshmen. Hornish and Carpentier both made starts in the desert last November, while McDowell and Smith have raced there in the Nationwide series.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Predicting Smith finishing as the top rookie for the third straight week proved to be the kiss of death, as the only time the No. 01 car was seen on TV is when the leaders were using it as a pick, or as they were lapping past the moving chicane of Smith. Sorry, Regan; seems like I spread my negative karma to you this weekend.

You Make the Pick: There was at tie this week for the top-finishing rookies among the readers, but it doesn’t matter as neither of your picks, Smith and McDowell, fared very well on Sunday.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: My apologies in advance to McDowell for the jinx, but I am choosing him as the top finishing rookie in the Subway Fresh 500. After what transpired this week, I don’t think the “Tony Curse” can do much more damage to this rookie’s young career so far. I think McDowell will rebound and benefit from his Nationwide experience last fall to finish best among the rookies on Saturday night.

| Event | Track | Tony’s Pick | Finish | Reader’s Pick | Finish | Top-Finishing Rookie | Finish |
| Daytona 500 | Daytona | Smith | 37th | Franchitti | 33rd | Hornish Jr. | 15th |
| Auto Club 500 | California | Hornish Jr. | 43rd | Hornish Jr. | 43rd | Smith | 31st |
| UAW-Dodge 400 | Las Vegas | Carpentier | 40th | Hornish Jr. | 41st | Franchitti | 33rd |
| Kobalt Tools 500 | Atlanta | Franchitti | 33rd | Hornish | 25th | Hornish | 25th |
| Food City 500 | Bristol | Smith | 26th | Hornish | 29th | Almirola | 8th |
| Goody’s Cool Orange 500 | Martinsville | Hornish | 28th | Almirola | 42nd | Smith | 14th |
| Samsung 500 | Texas | Smith | 35th | McDowell/Smith | 33rd/35th | Carpentier | 28th |

2008 Season Score: Readers 1, Tony 0

About the author

Tony Lumbis has headed the Marketing Department for Frontstretch since 2008. Responsible for managing our advertising portfolio, he deals with our clients directly, closing deals while helping promote the site’s continued growth both inside and outside the racing community through social media and traditional outlets. Tony is based outside Philadelphia.

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