Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Scott Speed Provides 2009 Preview as 2008 Freshman Candidates Fizzle

Rookies in the Starting Lineup: Scott Speed (second), Regan Smith (26th), Chad McCumbee (28th), Brad Keselowski (31st), Aric Almirola (40th), Marcos Ambrose (41st)

Unofficial Finishing Positions: Speed (16th), Keselowski (23rd), Smith (34th), Almirola (35th), McCumbee (39th), Ambrose (42nd)

Rookie of the Race: Speed. In an attempt to secure a starting position for Speed in the first five events of 2009, Team Red Bull elected to put veteran Brian Vickers in Speed’s No. 84 team, while the rookie drove the No. 83 normally driven by his teammate. The move paid off, as not only did Vickers put his teammate’s car back into the Top 35 in points, but Speed enjoyed the best weekend of his short career in sunny South Florida.

It all started on Friday, when Speed put his Red Bull Camry on the outside pole for the start of the Ford 400. However, the young rookie fell back a little at the start of the race and in typical Speed fashion this year, stayed off of everyone’s radar for virtually the entire event. But this time, the California native quietly hung around in the front half of the pack; and as day turned into night, Speed’s Toyota tightened up and finally drove to his liking. When the evening was over, Speed had crossed the finish line 16th, a career high that obliterated his previous best of 30th at Martinsville during his Sprint Cup debut.

Note: Smith was the only Rookie of the Year candidate in the field on Sunday, thus bringing home the top rookie honor by default. It was his 11th such honor of 2008, tying him with Sam Hornish Jr. for the most this season.

Writer’s Take: It looks like all Speed needed was a little change in scenery, as the start in his team car this past weekend resulted in what was by far his most successful race to date in the Sprint Cup Series. This is what we all expected from the brash rookie who has patiently waited out his run in the ARCA series to get his chance – a division which he once claimed was a “piece of cake.”

See also
Scott Speed Driver Diary: ARCA Revenge, Sprint Cup Debut, Bull Riding and Mohawks

In his first four events in NASCAR’s top series, it appeared that the heavy stock cars in Cup might be a little more than Speed expected, as each of his finishes were 30th or worse. He ended the season in style, however, with a solid run straight off the truck, giving his competitors and fans a glimpse of what I think they can expect in 2009. Even more importantly, his No. 84 team is now in the Top 35 in owner points and will be guaranteed a spot in the first five events next season, giving the ROTY candidate a great opportunity to start out 2009 on the right foot.

Oh, yeah; it’s almost easy to forget that this year’s ROTY battle has come to a close. Unofficially, Hornish leads his rookie counterpart by two points in the standings. However, the final call is made by the panel of experts who will judge the candidates based on performance as well as behavior in the garage and off the track. I think this panel will face a difficult decision, but for all the wrong reasons. Several months ago, the Frontstretch newsletter pointed out that no ROTY candidate had finished in the top 10, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished so late in the season in decades.

Unfortunately, the 2008 rookie class will now carry the distinction of never finishing in the top 10 for the entire year. While the winner of this prestigious award can still be proud, they will accept it knowing that there is a lot of work to be done in 2009; that is, if there is even a 2009 to work towards in the case of Smith. Stay tuned to Frontstretch for the official word on who will win the award this season.

Editor’s Note: The award was given to Smith following the conclusion of the Ford 400 race at Homestead.

Rocky Rookie Performance: McCumbee. McCumbee was auditioning for the No. 45 ride in 2009 one last time on Sunday, and it did not go well. The young rookie could not get a handle on a consistently loose racecar on Sunday, and came home in 39th position, four laps off the pace. No word on who will be in the famed Petty ride next season – but McCumbee is still considered a candidate.

Rookie Wreck of the Race: Ambrose. The Australian has enjoyed a run of solid finishes since taking over the No. 47 Camry (formerly the No. 00) for Michael Waltrip Racing. Unfortunately, he could not end the season on a high note. That’s because on lap 168, Ambrose made contact with the No. 41 car driven by Reed Sorenson coming off turn 2. Sorenson had a run on the outside, but Ambrose did not appear to see him as he moved up the track and into the Target Dodge.

The contact turned the Little Debbie Toyota into the wall, destroying the right-front corner of the car and ending Ambrose’s hopes for a strong finish. The damage forced the team to take the car behind the wall for extensive repairs; they would return to the event, but due to the lack of attrition could only manage a dismal 42nd place. The most damage was done in the owner points, however, as the accident and resulting finishing position left Ambrose and Co. just one spot outside of the Top 35.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Hornish, Michael McDowell, Patrick CarpentierHornish’s No. 77 Dodge was a lot tighter in qualifying than he expected, leading to a slow speed which resulted in the rookie’s second DNQ of the season (the first was at the second Talladega event). Hornish, who had virtually clinched the ROTY points battle coming into Homestead, made the ROTY panel think twice about crowning the former open-wheel star with the award after missing two events in 2009 (compared to Smith, who did not miss any).

What had to be more disappointing for Hornish is the fact that the intermediate tracks had been his strong suit all year long. Instead, the entire team will have to think about a disappointing end to this frustrating season until February.

Meanwhile, McDowell and Carpenter ended the season as they started – on the outside looking in. McDowell wasn’t scheduled to start until the season’s sixth event following the retirement of Dale Jarrett. Unfortunately for McDowell, the executives at MWR soon changed their mind on making the former ARCA star the future of the organization.

Meanwhile, it was a blown tire in the Gatorade Duel 150 that ended Carpentier’s chances of making the Great American Race. Ironically, it was this DNQ for the final restrictor plate race of the season that sealed his fate with Gillett-Evernhamn Motorsports.

No word on the future of either of these rookies.

Rookie Quote of the Week: Speed on his career-best finish:

“We had a really good car all night. The first half of the race we were a little loose getting into the corners, but as the sun went down and it got cooler out, the car tightened up a bit. This was a good race for us. We finished every lap, stayed out of trouble and came home with a good finish. I felt like I had a really good feel for the car and learned a lot, so it was a nice to end the season on a high note.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Hornish 200
Smith 198
Carpentier 184
McDowell 169
Franchitti 97

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

Smith: 34th (0)
Hornish: 35th (0, DNQ)
Carpentier: 38th (0, DNS)
McDowell: 40th (-1, DNS)
Almirola: 42nd (+1, DNS)
Ambrose: 45th (+1)
Dario Franchitti: 49th (0, DNS)
McCumbee: 52nd (+2)
Speed: 55th (0)

Next Up: Yet another season has gone by, as 2008 came to a close on Sunday night in Homestead. The next event will be the Daytona 500, which will be here before we know it. As of right now, there are only two candidates that will be running for ROTY next year – but they are good ones. Former Formula 1 star Speed will go head-to-head with young sensation Joey Logano, who takes over the legendary No. 20 Home Depot Camry as Tony Stewart moves on to run his own team. So far, the field competing for this award may be small in quantity – but should be high in quality.

Qualifying Next Year: Vickers may have only had a subpar 32nd-place finish, but it was enough to get the No. 84 team back into the Top 35 after Ambrose had problems. Therefore, Speed will have a guaranteed starting spot for the first five races of 2009 – including the prestigious Daytona 500. Of course, owner points were never an issue for the No. 20 team, where Logano will inherit a car that is in an enviable ninth position in owner points.

Tony’s Top-Finishing Rookie Pick: It’s a good thing I clinched the win over you last week, because my pick of Hornish for Homestead didn’t exactly pan out. I never thought Hornish would DNQ on the type of track that has been his strong suit; but I shouldn’t be entirely surprised, either. This season has been one of disappointment for all drivers who entered 2008 as a rookie candidate. It seems only appropriate that Hornish ended his season on such a low note, perhaps giving the entire team a reminder of the work they have to do in the offseason.

You Make the Pick: You didn’t want to risk your pick with either of the ROTY candidates, as the majority of you went with Keselowski, who had a surprise top-rookie finish a few weeks ago at Texas. Keselowski almost pulled off the feat again – but his 23rd-place finish ended up second to Speed.

So, after you dominated for most of the season, my “Jimmie Johnson-esque” late season charge gave me the win by two points. After two seasons, it’s all tied up between you and I at one “championship” apiece. Thank you again to all the readers for your support this year. The poll numbers hit record numbers this season, and I truly appreciate your involvement. It’s not over yet, however, as the year-end rookie reviews (as depressing as they will be) will be out next week. Then, we’ll do it all over again starting in February!

| 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 |
| Ford 400 | Homestead | Hornish | DNQ | Keselowski | 23rd | Speed | 16th |

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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