Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Freshmen Cannot Dodge Wrecks at Daytona

This week’s Rookie Report is based on the results of a rain-shortened Daytona 500. What is important to note is the race would’ve finished all 500 miles – if the green flag didn’t fall at the ridiculous start time of 3:40 p.m. ET. When are the networks going to realize that fans want racing, not marathon pre-race shows?

Joey Logano:
Start: Seventh; Finish: 43rd

Summary: The No. 20 Home Depot Camry started the Daytona 500 in its usual spot – up front. Logano’s solid fourth-place finish in his Gatorade Duel event not only proved that he could run with the leaders on a restrictor-plate track, but also gave the rookie a top-10 start in the Great American Race. Logano would not stay there for long, however, as he was quickly shuffled back – eventually losing the main draft shortly after lap 40.

As the race wore on, falling behind would soon become the least of this Connecticut native’s worries. On lap 80, fellow rookie Scott Speed began to lose the back end of his Camry coming off turn 4. Speed was able to regain control – but not after slowing considerably. The 18-year-old Logano tried to dive to the inside and miss the No. 82; however, Greg Biffle was there and the No. 20 was clipped just enough to send it sliding head-on into the inside retaining wall. “Sliced Bread” was OK following the frightening wreck; however, his Daytona 500 debut was ruined with a last-place finish.

Quote: “It wasn’t his (Scott Speed’s) fault. He was loose, and it was partially my fault for not getting around him after seeing he was loose a few laps before. My car was so tight that every time I got underneath him, I wasn’t able to clear him up off the corner and I had to get out of the gas. I was content just riding there to get through a few laps to our next pit stop, and as he kept going up the racetrack I was going to check up and get underneath him. I just drove in underneath him (instead) – and it didn’t work.”

Scott Speed:
Start: 42nd; Finish: 35th

Summary: In his driver diary entry on Friday, Speed told Frontstretch he was relieved in a way that he was caught up in a wreck during the Bud Shootout – because that meant he had already reached his wreck quota for Speedweeks. Unfortunately for Speed, that could not have been further from the truth. During the Gatorade Duel, the No. 08 of Boris Said lost a tire and slammed the outside wall, taking Speed with him and relegating the rookie to a starting spot near the end of the Daytona 500 grid.

The California kid would work his way up through the field, however, and ride around in the top 30 for the beginning of the race, staying out of trouble and surviving a near-wreck that contributed to Logano’s spin. However, on lap 115, crew chief Jimmy Elledge made the fateful call to bring his driver down pit road for service a little earlier than the rest of the field.

Just four laps later, the caution came out for David Stremme’s blown tire – trapping Speed a lap down. It was that status that put the former Formula 1 driver on the inside row for the ensuing restart and, consequently, right in the path of the next wreck. After contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Vickers spun directly into the middle of the field where his teammate could not avoid him. The No. 82 was able to continue, but the damaged Camry could only come home in 35th position, one lap down, which, due to Logano’s bad luck, was good enough to capture the Rookie of the Race honors.

Quote: “I think we had a great car, and we were able to go really far forward from starting dead last. I’m really happy with all of us. I think everyone did a really good job on the team, and I don’t think any of us really made any mistakes – we just didn’t have the luck today.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Scott Speed 11
Joey Logano 10

Almost Rookie Recap: (These drivers are not official rookies because they made too many starts in 2008. For all intents and purposes, however, they are still basically Sprint Cup freshmen as they embark on their first full season in 2009)

Aric Almirola must have felt like a pinball during this first ever Daytona 500. The rookie had a promising start, rolling off the grid in ninth position. However, on lap 9, Almirola became an innocent victim as he slowed when cars ahead of him bottled up; braking too fast, he was punted by David Ragan. The No. 8 Guitar Hero Chevy spun around, but did not hit anything and continued on – albeit towards the back of the pack.

Almirola eventually did find the front in the race’s second half – only to hit the spin cycle once again. It must have been deja vu as the incident started when cars got wadded up in front of him, and the U.S. Army Impala went spinning off the front end of Kasey Kahne’s Dodge – bringing out the eighth caution of the afternoon. Once again, Almirola did not hit anything, and was able to continue on and finish 30th. But he will surely need better luck for the team to find a sponsor in order to avoid the fate of a part-time schedule.

One of the best runs you may not have noticed belongs to Marcos Ambrose. The Australian was not heard from for virtually the entire day, staying in the back of the pack and, even more importantly, out of trouble. Also participating in his first Daytona 500, the driver of the newly formed JTG Daugherty Racing team quickly learned the ropes of restrictor-plate racing, missing the wrecks. After starting 21st, Ambrose was credited with a 17th-place finish, still on the lead lap when the rains fell. It was his third top 25 in his last four races in the No. 47 car dating back to last season.

Tony’s Take: The 2009 Rookie of the Year candidates did not really do anything wrong during Sunday’s race; however, they did get a firsthand dose of restrictor-plate racing at its best. Both drivers ended up as victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For this reason, it is hard to pass judgment on their respective performances. But judging by his Gatorade Duel, I think Logano could have very well continued the streak of four straight years with a rookie finishing in the top 15 in the season opener – but he was unable to stay out of trouble.

Speed never had a chance to show his stuff during Speedweeks because he always seemed to be caught up in the mess of other people. Meanwhile, Ambrose, one of our “almost rookies,” continues to quietly impress; and if these type of runs for him become the norm, the driver from down under could become a mainstay in the top 20 in points.

Who Wasn’t Here?: Brad Keselowski, Kelly Bires, Norm Benning

In theory, Keselowski’s chances of making the Daytona 500 were good, as he was behind the wheel of a James Finch Chevy powered by Rick Hendrick – two names associated with restrictor-plate racing success. However, Keselowski came up just short in his ultra-competitive Gatorade Duel race, finishing two spots out of the final transfer spot.

In comparison, Bires and Benning were never real factors to actually make the starting field. Bires was looking to make his Sprint Cup debut, while Benning was looking to make is his first start at the top level since 1993.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

17th – Marcos Ambrose
30th – Aric Almirola
35th – Scott Speed
43rd – Joey Logano

Next Up: After the high speed side-by-side battles on the banks of Daytona, the series will do a complete 180 as they head to the wide surface of Fontana. Last year, simply finishing the race was the biggest challenge, as NASCAR officials battled “weepers” from excessive rain throughout the night. Assuming that rain cannot possibly alter plans in southern California for two years in a row, this race will give the rookies a chance to catch their breath.

The race at the Auto Club Speedway usually ends up being a snoozefest; but that’s exactly the type of race the freshmen need, providing them with a chance to log laps, learn more about these cars, and stay out of other driver’s messes.

Rookie Prediction Poll – You agreed with me when you voted that Keselowski, backed by Phoenix Racing, would best the rest in the Daytona 500. However, Keselowski’s biggest roadblock, being outside of the Top 35 in owner points, turned out to be his downfall. The team fell just short in their qualification Duel, keeping them out of the sport’s biggest event.

Meanwhile, an astounding 87% of you believed that the former open-wheel ace would top Sliced Bread for the 2009 Rookie of the Year award.

Do you think the rookies and almost rookies will bounce back from their less than stellar performance at California? You have a chance to let us know by answering this week’s poll question, which asks if any of these drivers will score a top 10 next week at the Auto Club 500.

Tony Rookie Prediction: It looks like we are both coming of the gate slowly with our non-traditional picks for the top finishing rookie of the race. I feel pretty good about next week, however, and I feel strongly about a freshman coming home with a top 10. In fact, I’ll go one step further and predict that Logano is the driver to do it.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 0 Tony: 0

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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