Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Rough Ride for NASCAR Freshmen at Chicagoland

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Regan Smith (33rd), Michael McDowell (34th), Sam Hornish Jr. (35th), Patrick Carpentier (42nd). Note: Qualifying was rained out, so the field was set by owner points.

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Carpentier (30th), Smith (34th), Hornish Jr. (37th), McDowell (43rd).

Rookie of the Race: Carpentier. As the title of the article says, the rookies just simply did not show up in Chicagoland Saturday night. Last week, every rookie finished on the lead lap; but this week, they struggled to simply stay in touch with the rest of the field. Carpentier wound up being the highest-finishing freshman of a mediocre bunch, coming home the first driver one lap down in 30th place.

That marked his second straight high-rookie finish of the season; but unlike at Daytona, where the No. 10 car came home 14th, Carpentier was never a factor at any point throughout the night. By the time crew chief Mike Shiplett made changes that got the Gillett Evernham Dodge somewhat dialed in, the car was well out of contention with less than 50 laps to go in the race.

“It’s just hard to know [what to change] when it’s the first time you’re at the track,” the Canadian native said afterwards. “You don’t know which way it’s going to go, what the track is doing, what kind of car you need to be fast.”

The end result proved a disappointing follow-up to his top career finish, as Carpentier and the No. 10 Lifelock.com Dodge team continue to struggle at intermediate tracks. In fact, they have yet to crack the top 25 at any of the 1.5-milers this season.

Turnbull’s Take: With the No. 40 team of Dario Franchitti shutting down, there is only one freshman, Carpentier, that is outside the Top 35 in owner points. This could change, however, as the other three rookies’ cars (Smith, Hornish, McDowell) are 33rd, 34th and 35th in the standings, respectively. In the meantime, Carpentier is slowly working his way up the ladder, putting his No. 10 Dodge 39th and within 226 markers of 35th-place McDowell.

The team’s still got a long way to go, but as long as Carpentier continues his qualifying prowess (he’s made 16 of the last 17 races) his car could be a threat for a locked in spot before the season is over.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Hornish. With some of the other teams in the Top-35 hunt having difficult days, Hornish found himself with a prime opportunity to make up ground on those cars in front of him. But instead of having a breakthrough performance in the Midwest, Hornish was left scratching his head inside the cockpit all night long. The handling on the No. 77 Dodge got worse as the race went on, and his night fell apart en route to a 37th-place finish in the final rundown.

“We’re not where we want to be,” said Hornish, who has now gone six straight races without a top-20 finish. “The whole team is not quite where we want to be. But we’ll keep at it, and hopefully, we’ll get it figured out sooner than later.”

Rookie Wreck of the Weekend: McDowell. McDowell appeared to be minding his own business on lap 4 when Jason Leffler‘s No. 70 car suddenly twitched loose and slid up into the side of the Champion Mortgage Toyota. With no place to go, McDowell was wedged into the wall, all but ending his day as he was forced down pit road for some lengthy repairs to his Michael Waltrip Racing machine. Frustrated after a season of struggle, the rookie didn’t mince words when he was asked after the race if he thought the wreck could be intentional.

“Leffler just crashed us,” he said. “It was just that simple. You never know until you see it, but I know he hit me. I don’t know if he got loose or what he did, but it’s awfully convenient we’re racing the [No.] 66 for the Top 35 and the [No.] 70 takes us out. It’s all right. We’ll just bounce back. If they want to play that way for the Top 35, then we can do the same. We’ve got three cars to their two… we can take care of it if we need to.”

McDowell did have reason to be upset; with little to no attrition occurring throughout the event, the freshman wound up dead last even though he finished the race just nine laps behind the leader.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Franchitti. The rookie I feel is most likely to succeed in the future may be the one that is out of a top-level ride for good right now. One week after his Sprint Cup Series team shut down, Franchitti and Chip Ganassi have not decided what the Scotsman’s future will be with the organization; however, on Friday Franchitti did admit he’s fielded offers from other teams.

Last season, before he signed with Ganassi, Franchitti was hotly rumored to be teaming up with Richard Childress as a driver for his fourth car. The reigning IRL champ may not get a chance with such top-shelf equipment this time around, but his rockstar status and impressive resume have to garner him more than just an unemployment moniker.

Rookie Quote of the Week: With Silly Season ramping up, rumors were all the rage this week, culminating with the official announcement Tony Stewart is packing his bags and leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the year in order to buy into 50% of Haas CNC Racing. High amongst the gossip was that Smith’s poorly funded team may be in jeopardy of closing up shop for 2009, perhaps even packing up and shipping out before the 2008 season is even complete. While Smith didn’t address those rumors directly, he did have some thoughts on how Stewart’s announcement might impact Silly Season:

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“I don’t know what it will or won’t unleash,” he said in terms of upcoming driver movement. “I would tend to think that it’s going to unleash quite a bit of stuff, but this time of year this always happens. It seems right at about Chicago every year is when all this stuff starts getting announced, and pieces to the puzzle start falling. But it still doesn’t take away from the fact or change the fact that we go out and do our jobs every Sunday, and the days leading up to that on the racetrack.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Hornish Jr. 173
Smith 171
Carpentier 151
McDowell 127
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Rookie Driver Standings

Hornish Jr.: 33rd (0)
Smith: 34th (0)
Carpentier: 37th (0)
McDowell: 39th (0)
Franchitti: 41st (0 – DNS)
Aric Almirola: 47th (0 – DNS)

Qualifying Next Week: The Cup guys get a week off before heading to the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Remember, Carpentier is the only rookie that will have to qualify on time for the 400-mile event; but with him being both a former open-wheeler and a driver for a team that does well at Indy, expect the freshman to make the race with ease.

McDowell and the No. 00 car are now the ones feeling the heat; 35th in owner points, they’re just 13 ahead of Scott Riggs and the No. 66 car, and are in need of a decent finish next week to keep their locked-in spot. Luckily, they have a bit of a breather to get used to new crew chief Peter Sospenzo, whose first race with the team was at Chicagoland.

Next Up: It’s off to hallowed ground as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Indianapolis for the 15th running of the Brickyard 400. The open-wheel converts know this speedway well; in fact, Hornish Jr. won the coveted Indy 500 here back in 2006. Can that success translate over to stock car racing? He certainly hopes so on this 2.5-mile oval known for its tight turns, high speeds and long straightaways.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Pick: Tony thought the Penske Racing team would get their act together, but unfortunately, Hornish could not duplicate his solid run at Michigan – he came home a disappointing 37th as explained above.

You Make the Pick: For a second straight week, our fans were right on the money. 50% of you that voted picked Carpentier to repeat his performance as top rookie, and while it wasn’t pretty, he backed up your support to best the rest of his fellow freshmen at Chicagoland. As a result, you’re now pitching a 3-0 shutout against Tony Lumbis on the season.

Turnbull’s Top-Rookie Pick: Hornish has won the Indy 500 before, so he knows how to get around this racetrack. Combine his know-how with Penske equipment, and you get a recipe that is worthy of making Hornish my pick to be the Rookie of the Race at the Brickyard 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 |
| Aaron’s 499 | Talladega | Almirola | 33rd | Hornish | 35th | Smith | 22nd |
| Crown Royal 400 | Richmond | Carpentier | 43rd | Carpentier | 43rd | Smith | 21st |
| Dodge Challenger 500 | Darlington | Smith | 29th | Smith | 29th | McDowell | 28th |
| Coca-Cola 600 | Lowe’s | McDowell | 32nd | McDowell | 32nd | Hornish | 13th |
| Best Buy 400 | Dover | Smith | 21st | McDowell | 30th | Hornish | 18th |
| Pocono 500 | Pocono | Hornish | 42nd | Hornish | 42nd | McDowell | 27th |
| LifeLock 400 | Michigan | Smith | 32nd | McDowell | 37th | Hornish | 22nd |
| Save Mart 350K | Infineon | Carpentier | 23rd | Hornish | 31st | McDowell | 21st |
| Lenox Industrial Tools 301 | New Hampshire | Smith | 27th | Ambrose | DNQ | Almirola | 23rd |
| Coke Zero 400 | Daytona | McDowell | 25th | Carpentier | 14th | Carpentier | 14th |
| Lifelock.com 400 | Chicagoland | Hornish | 37th | Carpentier | 30th | Carpentier | 30th |

2008 Score: Readers 3, Tony 0

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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