Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Marcos Ambrose Angling for Solid Finish to 2008

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Marcos Ambrose (18th), Regan Smith (21st), Sam Hornish Jr. (33rd), Scott Speed (38th)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Ambrose (18th), Smith (23rd), Hornish (33rd), Speed (40th)

Rookie of the Race: Ambrose: Choosing to forego official Rookie status for 2009 to get the Aussie more track time in a Cup car is a decision that is already making JTG Daugherty Racing look good. Ambrose, who again timed his way into the field this weekend as the second fastest of the go-or-go-homers, enjoyed a largely uneventful run for the majority of Sunday’s race.

Until lap 274, that is.

On lap 274, Juan Pablo Montoya made contact with Casey Mears that sent the No. 5 Chevrolet spinning into oncoming traffic. The resulting melee involved every single rookie candidate on track; Smith narrowly dodged the mess, while Hornish spun and Ambrose suffered front-end damage after making contact with Scott Riggs. Speed got the rawest end of the deal, as he ended up with David Gilliland’s Ford literally resting on the hood of his car.

Despite the damage, Ambrose’s crew managed to keep him on the lead lap, and by race’s end Ambrose scored an 18th-place finish, his career best result on an oval and only the third top-20 finish for the No. 00/No. 47 team this season. Taking official rookie honors was Smith, who finished two laps down in 23rd.

Writer’s Take: After seeing how the No. 00 (now No. 47) chewed up and spat out Michael McDowell earlier this season, I was very skeptical about Ambrose taking the wheel of this ride full-time. But, three races into his tenure as the team’s full-time driver, Ambrose has raced his way into and finished all of his events; and frankly, he’s provided some of the most stable driving the team has seen since it opened the year with David Reutimann. Ambrose’s involvement in the lap 274 incident was entirely out of his control, and his ability to power home to a lead-lap finish was impressive.

I’m still not convinced that Ambrose and the No. 47 team are ready to go Cup racing full-time in 2009, but their performance over the last three weeks has definitely not hurt the stock of NASCAR’s favorite Aussie.

Rocky Rookie Performance: Speed. Sure, Hornish took out Elliott Sadler and spun out during the Big One on lap 274. But Speed’s run on Sunday was both uglier and more disappointing than Hornish’s latest struggles. Speed, who took over the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota late this season – which, with AJ Allmendinger behind the wheel, was among NASCAR’s most improved teams – was slow for the entirety of the race, nearly four laps off the pace when disaster struck. Speed, whose Toyota was engulfed in smoke from cars wrecking in front of him, plowed into the back of Gilliland’s Ford so hard that he ended up with Gilliland’s car parked on top of his.

The devastating wreck left Speed with a 40th-place finish and continued his struggles at the Cup level. In four career starts, Speed has yet to crack even the top 25, while Allmendinger, the man he replaced, has become the “A” performer in the GEM camp. For a driver with the dedicated backing of a billion-dollar sponsor, top equipment and an ego too big for the humble ranks of ARCA, Sunday was just another example of Speed failing to live up to his – and his own – hype.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: Speed. Forget wreck of the race. Speed’s snowplow move on the No. 38 car may well rival Hornish’s demolition of sand barrels at Watkins Glen for most dramatic wreck of the year. Well, second behind McDowell’s Texas crash, that is.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Patrick Carpentier and McDowell. Every rookie who attempted the Checker Auto Parts 500 made the show in Phoenix this weekend. Former ROTY contenders Carpentier and McDowell still remain among the NASCAR missing, however.

Rookie Quote of the Week: After qualifying, Ambrose answered a popular question amongst double duty drivers about if the Nationwide series helps their performance in Sprint Cup. He also shares his thoughts on working with Michael Waltrip Racing.

Does running the other race help you out at all?

“No, it actually hurts because the two cars are so much different. I actually didn’t practice the second practice in the Nationwide car just so I didn’t get those bad habits. It’s a balance, sometimes it works for you and sometimes it doesn’t. I think here the two cars are so different I just prefer to keep them separate.”

*Are you getting more comfortable with the people you are working with?*

“Yeah, they’re out there and they are understanding what I need to go fast and everything so it’s a good combo – and we’re just growing into each other. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Hornish Jr. 201
Smith 196
Carpentier 184 (DNS)
McDowell 169 (DNS)
Franchitti 97 (DNS)

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 34th (0)
Hornish Jr.: 35th (0)
Carpentier: 38th (0, DNS)
McDowell: 39th (0, DNS)
Aric Almirola: 43rd (-1, DNS)
Ambrose: 46th (+2)
Dario Franchitti: 49th (0, DNS)
Chad McCumbee: 54th (-2, DNS)
Speed: 55th (0)

Next Up: The final event of the 2008 season is upon us as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Homestead, Florida for the Ford 400. For the rookies, it will put a close on a season that they probably would like to forget, although there is still unfinished business to take care of next week. Hornish is the only 2008 ROTY candidate left who has a guaranteed ride in 2009 and would like to go into the offseason on some kind of high note.

His rookie counterpart, Smith, will most likely use this race as one last audition for next year. If DEI cannot find a sponsor for the No. 01 car, Smith will probably not be resigned. Almirola, Ambrose and Speed will be looking to use the south Florida event as a springboard into their first full season in NASCAR’s highest level next year.

Qualifying Next Week: It certainly has been a rough year for Smith, but the one positive note is that he has kept his No. 01 in the Top 35 for virtually the entire year, including next week’s event. His teammate, Almirola, will also enjoy that same advantage next week, as his No. 8 team is guaranteed a spot as well. Brad Keselowski is making his second start in the No. 25 Hendrick Chevy and will have to put his car into the field on time. McCumbee, who may be in the No. 45 car full-time in 2009, will also be in that ride at Homestead and will need to qualify as well.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: Ambrose. Tony took note of Ambrose’s quiet, steady approach at Texas that yielded the Nationwide Series regular his best career-oval finish, and believed he could continue that momentum. Ambrose did, posting a career-best Cup oval finish for the second consecutive race.

You Make the Pick: Ambrose. Great minds think alike.

Tony’s Pick for Next Week’s Top-Finishing Rookie: Next week will conclude one of the most difficult seasons to predict a top rookie finisher, given the fact that there was no consistent frontrunner in that category and the guy that did take home the honor usually wasn’t even in the top 20. So for the final time in 2008, I will make my prediction and go with Hornish.

While Smith certainly has the most to gain from a good run this Sunday, I don’t have any confidence in the performance of the DEI cars on an intermediate track. The guy who has been good in that category, however (and I use the term “good” loosely) is Hornish. If this team can avoid bad luck, I think they can pull off the type of finish that will give them some type of hope to get them through the offseason.

| 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 |
| Pep Boys Auto 500 | Atlanta | Speed | 34th | Smith | 30th | Hornish | 24th |
| Dickies 500 | Texas | Hornish | 23rd | Hornish | 23rd | Keselowski | 19th |
| Checker Auto Parts 500 | Phoenix | Ambrose | 18th | Ambrose | 18th | Ambrose | 18th |

2008 Score: Tony 8, Readers 6

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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