Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Scott Speed’s Debut Overshadowed by Aric Almirola’s Short-Track Success

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: (Due to rain, qualifying was canceled the field was set by owner points): Aric Almirola (15th), Regan Smith (30th), Scott Speed (35th), Sam Hornish Jr. (36th), Chad McCumbee (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Almirola (20th), McCumbee (25th), Speed (30th), Hornish (34th), Smith (42nd)

Rookie of the Race: Almirola. The rain on Friday worked in Almirola’s favor when he inherited a 15th-place starting position by virtue of his team’s position in owner points. But while the U.S. Army Chevy faded a bit early, it would be pit strategy employed by crew chief Tony Gibson that would put Almirola back up front. After pitting during the first caution of the day, Gibson made the call to keep Almirola on the track after the day’s second yellow when Kasey Kahne’s Dodge came to a halt. The move gave Almirola the lead for his second consecutive start, and this time the No. 8 car would lead a total of 53 circuits – a career-high for the rookie.

Almirola would eventually fall back in the pack once the pit stops cycled around again, but still looked to be a contender for a top-10 finish. However, on lap 196, he would make contact with the No. 19 Dodge of Elliott Sadler, sending the veteran into the wall. Almirola’s Impala sustained some damage and the DEI entry was never quite the same afterwards, losing ground and eventually a lap. However, by the end of the day, Almirola would earn rookie honors with his third top-20 finish in his third consecutive start.

Note: Since Almirola is not competing for Rookie of the Year, the official honor went to Hornish with his 34th-place finish. The finish also unofficially gives Hornish the lead in the ROTY standings.

Tony’s Take: The changing of the guard is starting to happen among NASCAR’s young guns, and it was evident this past Sunday. I think we can expect to hear more about names such as Almirola, Speed and perhaps McCumbee in 2009 while other names begin to fade into the background. Almirola continued his impressive runs on the short tracks this year, with three top 20s in four starts on tracks less than a mile in length.

We’re also starting to hear his name mentioned up front a little more often. He led three laps in his last start at Talladega and then bettered that by 50 laps during the TUMS QuikPak 500. Maybe its not all doom and gloom for DEI with this driver waiting in the wings; now, if they can only find some money….

Rocky Rookie Performance Smith. Smith was also looking to take advantage of the early cautions in the same way Almirola and his team did. Crew chief Dan Stillman made the call to stay out during the afternoon’s third yellow flag, which put the No. 01 car in 12th position on the restart. The gain of over 20 spots in track position wouldn’t be enough to help the ailing breaks on the No. 01 car, though, as Smith drove hard into turn 2 on lap 88 and discovered they simply were not there. The impact and brake fire was more than enough to send Smith and Company behind the wall for repairs, relegating them to a disappointing 42nd-place finish.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: Hornish. Well, the wreck wasn’t spectacular, but the circumstances certainly were. On lap 161, Hornish lost a right-front tire at the same time and in almost the same place as Kyle Busch and Tony Raines. No piece of debris was ever located, making this incident one of the most unusual coincidences ever seen in the sport. The blown tire put on end to a somewhat promising day, as the No. 77 team could do no better than 34th after repairing the damage to their machine.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Patrick Carpentier and Michael McDowell. McDowell is supposedly included in a plan that will see him split time in the No. 00, which will change to numbers to “47,” with Marcos Ambrose. McDowell officially became a free agent this past week for 2009.

Carpentier remains on the sidelines, and no plans have been announced for the Canadian’s next move for the rest of 2008.

Rookie Quote of the Week: Speed made his Sprint Cup debut at Martinsville this past week and it turned out to be a quiet one… not necessarily a bad thing at this treacherous track. The positive thing about his run on Sunday is that he managed to avoid the wrecks and finish the race, something Speed reflects on in this week’s quote of the week.

“After practice we thought we would be able to come through the field. We really struggled today – we had brake issues all day long. This is a really long day when you have 500 laps to complete. The good thing is that we picked up some spots in the points and we completed all 500 laps.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Hornish Jr. 193
Smith 192
Carpentier 184
McDowell 169
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 34th (0)
Hornish Jr.: 35th (0)
Carpentier: 38th (0, DNS)
McDowell: 39th (0, DNS)
Almirola: 42nd (0)
Dario Franchitti: 48th (0, DNS)
Speed: 65th

Next Up: The track sometimes referred to as “Hotlanta” is next, as the series heads to Hampton, Ga. for the Pep Boys Auto 500. Earlier this season, Hornish led the pack of subpar rookie finishes with a 25th-place run. This is one of those venues where a team needs speed, handling and endurance to be successful at the one and a half mile quad-oval. Drivers will reach 200 mph while the tachometer needle will remain on the upper end for virtually the entire race. Everything will need to be working right next Sunday, which will be a challenge for this year’s rookies in a season were virtually everything has gone wrong.

Qualifying Next Week: Despite his poor finish this week, Smith continues to take advantage of the cushion he has on the 35th position as he is locked into the field once again. Speed will also be able to rest a little easier this Friday as well, with the No. 84 car 34th in the Top 35.

It’s going to be quite crowded on the other side of the fence, however. In preparation for 2009, Ambrose will be running in a Michael Waltrip Racing entry, which will qualify with the No. 00’s points. McCumbee will also need to time into the field for Petty Enterprises, while Joey Logano will be making a start in the fourth Joe Gibbs Racing entry.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Once again, Almirola proved that he is the rookie to beat on the short tracks. This time, Almirola led the most laps of his career in a single event and overcame an incident with Sadler to record a top-20 finish, giving me a two-point lead with just a handful of races remaining.

You Make the Pick: For the second week in a row, just over 50% of you thought that Smith would come home first among the rookie competitors. It was looking good early for Smith, as his team used pit strategy to work up to the 12th position. However, on lap 88, the rookie’s brakes failed and from that point on, he was only along for the ride as the No. 01 Chevy spun into the wall. The team would return to the track, but many laps down and out of contention.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: I mentioned earlier that having speed is a key requirement for finishing well at Atlanta, and I believe the man that bears that element in his name will finish best among the rookies. Speed’s debut was a bit of a bust at Martinsville, however, as his successes in the ARCA and Craftsman Truck series have come at the faster tracks. Teammate Brian Vickers has also been a force at the 1.5-mile quad oval, and will be a valuable asset for Speed. Look for the California kid to run a solid race that will best the rest of the rookies in Atlanta.

| 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 |
| Allstate 400 | Indianapolis | Hornish | 37th | Carpentier | 18th | Carpentier | 18th |
| Sunoco Red Cross 500 | Pocono | Smith | 25th | Hornish | 26th | McCumbee | 17th |
| Centurion Boats At The Glen | Watkins Glen | Carpentier | 20th | Carpentier | 20th | Ambrose | 3rd |
| 3M Performance 400 | Michigan | Hornish | 22nd | Ambrose | 43rd | Hornish | 22nd |
| Sharpie 500 | Bristol | Almirola | 13th | Hornish | 37th | Almirola | 13th |
| Pepsi 500 | California | Carpentier | 18th | Hornish | 31st | Carpentier | 18th |
| Chevy Rock and Roll 400 | Richmond | Carpentier | 25th | Carpentier | 25th | McDowell | 20th |
| Sylvania 300 | Loudon | Smith | 23rd | McDowell | 27th | McDowell | 18th |
| Camping World 400 | Dover | McDowell | 29th | McDowell | 29th | McDowell | 29th |
| Camping World RV 400 | Kansas | Carpentier | 29th | McDowell | DNQ | | Carpentier | 29th |
| AMP Energy 500 | Talladega | Smith | 18th | Carpentier | DNQ | | Almirola | 13th |
| Bank of America 500 | Charlotte | Hornish | 22nd | Smith | 23rd | Hornish | 22nd |
| TUMS Quik Pak 500 | Martinsville | Almirola | 20th | Smith | 42nd | Almirola | 20th |

2008 Score: Tony 7, Readers 5

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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