Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Sam Hornish Jr. Carries Banner for Penske Racing

Editor’s Note: Regular Rookie writer Tony Lumbis is off this week, so our resident Nationwide Series expert Bryan Davis Keith filled in. Tony returns from vacation in time for next Monday’s edition.

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Dario Franchitti (21st), Michael McDowell (29th), Sam Hornish Jr. (31st), Patrick Carpentier (37th), Regan Smith (38th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Hornish (20th), Franchitti (32nd), Carpentier (33rd), McDowell (34th), Smith (35th)

Rookie of the Race: Hornish. Hornish’s day did not start well at all at Phoenix. After being openly disappointed with his 31st-place qualifying run, the open-wheel convert slipped to as far back as 40th in the opening portions of the race and became a moving roadblock on the inside line for more than one restart. However, Hornish and his team worked hard on adjusting to the track’s transition from day to night, preventing the car from becoming too tight as the track cooled off.

Later in the race, with fuel mileage an issue, Hornish went into fuel-saving mode, running smooth laps and saving gas in a way that had crew chief Chris Carrier beaming after the race. “It’s just an incredible job for him to do that this many races into his Raybestos Rookie season,” said Carrier, acknowledging the freshman’s sudden and successful progress. Hornish saved enough fuel to stay on track for the final portions of the race, finishing one lap down in the 20th position while others around him had to pit.

That result was Hornish’s best since a 15th-place run in the Daytona 500, and it proved good enough to move the No. 77 to 33rd in the owner points, locking them into the field at all-important Talladega in two weeks. Even more surprising, Saturday’s race also marked the first time that Hornish was the top-finishing car at Penske Racing; Kurt Busch struggled with handling all night en route to 23rd in the final rundown while Ryan Newman lost an engine and finished 43rd.

As expected, Hornish was pretty pleased after the event. “Today, we kind of kept up with the track,” he said. “We didn’t go on the good side, but we kept up with the track, so I was real happy with that.”

The run left Hornish the current leader of the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings after Phoenix.

Writer’s Take: Hornish was not a top-20 car, and scoring a top-20 finish certainly involved a good deal of luck. However, the Indy veteran is showing improvement on the racetrack. Hearing that a rookie driver who is still learning not just Sprint Cup, but stock cars in general expects more out of his qualifying runs and adjustments eight races into the season demonstrates a building confidence in both himself and his team.

Hornish has also demonstrated a greater ability to deal with the pressure of running among the world’s best week in and week out. Since falling out of the Top 35 at Martinsville, Hornish has notched both his career-best qualifying run (17th at Texas) and finish on a downforce track (20th this weekend), all while locking the No. 77 back in the Top 35. Given the success Hornish showed at Daytona, he way well be a darkhorse for a good finish at Talladega when the Sprint Cup Series returns to action in two weeks.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Smith Granted, Smith was joined by fellow rookies Franchitti, Carpentier and McDowell in finishing outside the top 30, but so much more is expected of Smith, who since finishing 14th at Martinsville has scored back-to-back 35th-place finishes. The central New York native, who has largely been a backmarker in both qualifying and on race day all season, was never even remotely a factor at Phoenix, a track on which DEI has tremendous pedigree.

But while teammates Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr. were top-10 cars all race long and Paul Menard recovered from a terrible start to finish only one lap down in 21st, Smith ended the race a dismal 14 laps off the pace, worst of all the rookies in the race. The No. 01 team somehow stayed in the Top 35 despite their struggles; however, they lost the lead in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings to Hornish.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: None

Who Wasn’t Here? Every rookie driver entered qualified for the Subway Fresh Fit 500k, only the second time in 2008 that the entire rookie class made the show. Franchitti’s solid 21st-place run in qualifying was a particular relief to everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing; after Ganassi’s tirade against his team’s performance earlier this week, it was vitally important for the No. 40 to make the field.

That team better hope that Franchitti got a lot of confidence from racing his way in at Phoenix, though; the No. 40 will have to do the same at Talladega in two weeks, and the Ganassi restrictor-plate cars were all very slow in single-car runs at Daytona in February.

Carpentier’s timing into the field is also fairly noteworthy; since missing three of the season’s first five events, Carpentier has now qualified for three consecutive Sprint Cup races, a career first for the driver of the No. 10 Dodge.

Rookie Quote of the Week: Hornish was the best finishing Penske Racing driver on Saturday, a surprising first for the rookie.

“It was rough for sure; we didn’t have that great of a car, but we just kind of did what we needed to do today. We adjusted on it and made it better, and looking at the scoreboard, to be the top finishing of the teammates [at Penske]… that’s the first time that’s ever happened. I’ve got to look at that and be a little bit happy. I know that Kurt [Busch] and Ryan [Newman] both had problems today, and it didn’t work out that good; but even that can make me feel a little bit better right now. I was just real happy.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Hornish Jr. 78
Smith 75
Franchitti 71
Carpentier 48
McDowell 26
Villeneuve 1

UNOFFICIAL Driver Standings

Hornish Jr.: 33rd (+1)
Smith: 34th (+1)
Franchitti: 38th
Carpentier: 41st (+2)
McDowell: 45th (+2)

* Note that McDowell’s No. 00 car is 29th in the owner standings and thus locked into the field at Talladega. Franchitti and Carpentier will have to qualify on speed for that race.

Next Up: The Sprint Cup Series returns to action in two weeks on Sunday, April 27 at the Talladega Superspeedway, in what will be a nerve-wracking weekend for all rookie drivers. For those that have to race their way in, they better hope that their cars are fast off the truck, because teams are not going to find a lot of extra speed in practice. For those that make the field, Talladega is a crapshoot for even the most experienced drivers. Despite a larger entry list, expect Carpentier to have enough speed to make the show, and for Franchitti to be on the bubble in making this race.

Tony’s Rookie Pick: Tony selected McDowell as his top-finishing rookie of the race. Coming into Phoenix, McDowell’s first two Sprint Cup races had demonstrated an ability to log laps and run smooth. Further, McDowell’s career-best finish in the Nationwide Series was a 14th at Phoenix last November. But while McDowell did run among his fellow rookies for the duration of the event, he found himself lost in the shuffle at the end of the race, finishing 34th amidst a pack of rookies (four of them finished between 32nd and 35th).

You Make the Pick: You readers out there agreed with Tony this week and selected McDowell as the top-finishing rookie. However, McDowell finished fourth among the rookie pool.

Writer’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: Aric Almirola is hands down my choice for next week’s top-finishing rookie, for several reasons. Almirola has more experience at Talladega than any other rookie driver, with starts in ARCA, the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup level to his credit. In comparison, no other rookie driver has raced at Talladega at the NASCAR level (Franchitti and McDowell have ARCA starts at the track).

But most of all, the No. 8 team is on a roll as of late; they have three top-10 finishes in the last four races with both Almirola and Martin behind the wheel. The rookie is raring to get behind the wheel after Martin took the helm at Texas and Phoenix; expect him to be competitive in two weeks.

2008 Rookie Prediction Table

| Event | Track | Tony’s Pick | Finish | Reader’s Pick | Finish | Top-Finishing Rookie | Finish |
| Daytona 500 | Daytona | Smith | 37th | Franchitti | 33rd | Hornish | 15th |
| Auto Club 500 | California | Hornish | 43rd | Hornish | 43rd | Smith | 31st |
| UAW-Dodge 400 | Las Vegas | Carpentier | 40th | Hornish | 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 |
| Subway Fresh Fit 500K | Phoenix | McDowell | 34th | McDowell | 34th | Hornish | 20th |

2008 Score: Readers 1, Tony 0

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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