Race Weekend Central

Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Humbled Rookie Class Quiet at Fontana

The Auto Club 500 at Fontana gave us a full 500 miles of racing, but it was a race that felt a whole lot longer. After a true marathon out west, here is how the rookie class of 2009 fared.

Joey Logano
Start: 34th; Finish: 26th

Summary: After an absolutely overwhelming Speedweeks and finishing dead last in the Daytona 500, Logano’s goal for the weekend was a simple one… log laps and finish the race. It was quiet and it wasn’t flashy, but Logano’s 26th-place run on Sunday night accomplished just that. Logano found himself way in the back of the pack early in the going, as he was among a number of backmarkers that pitted under early rain cautions to top off their gas tanks.

Falling back as far as 40th, Logano showed steady progress for the duration of the race. Collected and methodical, Logano scored a career-best Cup finish and brought his car home in one piece. This run can be considered nothing short of a victory for the No. 20 team, and capped a fantastic weekend for Logano who also enjoyed an impressive third-place finish in the Nationwide race Saturday night.

Quote: “I wish I learned half this stuff before we started racing. I think everyone did a great job. I’m happy with this. I think we definitely needed this for sure, just kind of get the season rolling, get everything going. We’re going to take it and improve from it and I feel a lot better. I know we can do this and coming back here next time I feel a little bit better, too.”

Scott Speed
Start: Ninth; Finish: 41st

Summary: Much like his Red Bull teammate Brian Vickers, Speed and his No. 82 team hit the nail on the head with their qualifying package, starting the race ninth on the grid. Speed dropped back quickly after the green flag dropped, and was among the drivers who pitted under the event’s first rain caution to top off the fuel tank. Speed, who struggled from the drop of the green with brake problems, ran outside the top 30 for the duration of the race until engine problems sent Speed and his Toyota to the garage after completing 172 laps. He finished 41st.

See also
Bubble Breakdown: Team Penske Rebounds From Poor Daytona 500 Performances

Despite the mechanical troubles, Speed did manage to keep his car and nose clean for much of the lengthy 500-mile race, and just like rookie counterpart Logano, did exactly what he needed to on Sunday by logging clean laps.

Quote: “The brakes put us out on lap 10 but we were still struggling around in the back at least the whole time then obviously at the end there the engine went. We guessed very aggressively on the brakes and missed so. It was a long day.”

UNOFFICIAL Raybestos Rookie Standings

Logano 11
Speed 11

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

Already strapped for sponsor dollars and coming off a rough and tumble Daytona 500, the last thing Aric Almirola needed was a DNF at Fontana, but that unfortunately was what was in the cards for the No. 8. After starting 31st, Almirola enjoyed an uneventful 480 miles, floating in and out of the top 25 as the race wound down. However, disaster struck less than 10 laps from the finish, as Almirola joined fellow Chevrolet drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin in the garage with terminal engine problems. A 35th-place finish left Almirola as the worst finishing driver out of the EGR camp.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Marcos Ambrose enjoyed another quiet, solid run on Sunday, scoring a 21st-place finish after running in the top 20 for much of the last third of the race. Ambrose’s success, along with solid runs by David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip gave a lot of credence to Darrell Waltrip’s assertions that Michael Waltrip Racing was due for a breakout year in 2009. Plus, with back to back top-25 results, Ambrose and JTG Daugherty’s No. 47 team are on a very solid track to maintaining a Top-35 position in the owner standings.

Bryan’s Take

In what was a largely uneventful race, the 2009 rookie class was very quiet. All four of the rookies (unofficial and official) flew under the radar, running in the middle of the pack without incident. And while this made for a boring segment of a boring race, it’s exactly the kind of run each rookie was looking for after the chaos of Daytona. It’s hard to gauge Speed’s performance due to his brake issues and engine woes, but Ambrose and Almirola both did well to demonstrate their abilities to transition from the Nationwide and Truck ranks to running 500-mile races.

My hat also goes off to Logano for an admirable performance. The turning point of his weekend came late in Saturday’s Nationwide race, when Logano was passed by a hard-charging Brendan Gaughan on the high side for a top-10 position. Logano showed great adaptability, moving to the high line himself, storming back past Gaughan and charging up to finish third by race’s end. The confidence Logano got from that race clearly showed Sunday, as Logano earned several hard-earned positions in the final 50 laps of Sunday’s marathon to score his first career top 30 finish in Cup.

Who Wasn’t Here?: David Starr. The long-time truck veteran attempted to make his first ever Sprint Cup race in Fontana in the No. 51 Dodge. His debut will have to wait however, as the team could only muster a 45th-place qualifying effort, missing the field by two positions.

UNOFFICIAL Driver Points Standings

20th – Marcos Ambrose
36th – Aric Almirola
37th – Joey Logano
41st – Scott Speed

Next Up: The NASCAR circuit continues its westerly theme with a trip to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. Out of the two official ROTY candidates, only Speed has experience at this track, and that comes in the form of one truck races last season where he finished 21st. Almirola made his Sprint Cup debut at the Nevada track in 2007 with Joe Gibbs Racing, but could only manage a 41st-place finish. Perhaps it’s Ambrose that will be in the best position to bring home a good finish, with two Nationwide starts and one Camping World Truck Series under his belt, including two top-10 finishes.

Rookie Prediction Poll – You voted the opposite of me with 73% saying neither of the rookie or almost rookie drivers will finish in the top 10 in Fontana.

Sam Hornish Jr., last year’s Rookie of the Year runner up certainly will be looking to have a better season in 2009. Last year, the Ohio native came home with a miserable 41st-place finish in the gambling capital of the U.S. This’s week’s question is, can either Logano or Speed beat Hornish this coming week?

Tony’s Rookie Prediction: I think one of the 2009 ROTY candidates will beat the driver of the No. 77 Dodge and that is Speed. With one race under his belt, I expect the rookie to finish and finish well.

Rookie Poll Points: Readers: 1, Tony: 0

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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