The latest crop of NASCAR Sprint Cup rookies is collectively in need of a big day heading into Sunday’s race at Bristol.
None of the four drivers in the competition for Raybestos Rookie of the Year is currently in the top 35 in owners points, with just one more race to get there or face another hurdle.
Under current NASCAR rules, cars in the top 35 are guaranteed a starting spot each week, while everyone else has to attempt to qualify on time for the few remaining starting positions.
The first five races each season use the previous year’s final top 35, but the race this weekend is race No. 5 for 2008, and that puts rookie leader Sam Hornish Jr. (36th), Dario Franchitti (38th), Regan Smith (39th) and Patrick Carpentier (46th) all in danger of being “go or go-home” guys when the Cup series reaches Martinsville after next week’s Easter break.
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Franchitti began the season with the top 35 points accumulated last year by David Stremme at Chip Ganassi Racing, while fellow open-wheel star Hornish was the beneficiary of Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch giving up his top 35 points, with NASCAR’s permission. Busch was still guaranteed to start each of the first five races, thanks to his status as the most recent former series champion not in the top 35.
Smith, now driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., was inside the top 35 at the end of last season, thanks to sharing a ride with Mark Martin at Ginn Racing, which was merged into DEI late last year.
Carpentier, farthest from becoming a guaranteed qualifier, has already had a good taste of having to make it on speed.
He made all three races in a brief trial with his current Gillett Evernham Motorsports team late last year, but has not been as fortunate so far this year.
His cause was set back when he failed to make the field for the season-opening Daytona 500 and again when qualifying at California was rained out and he was not in the lineup.
“It seems like we’re not too bad, so far qualifying,” said Carpentier, who has qualified easily for the last two races. “So, hopefully, we’ll get to make the next races and keep learning. It’s those laps that you keep running that really helps you out. That’s what we’ve got to do, and not doing the first few races has kind of cost us a little bit.”
Franchitti, who leads Hornish by two points and Smith by three in the rookie standings, isn’t thrilled with the idea of having to qualify, but is ready to deal with it, if necessary, as part of the learning curve.
“Ah, it is what it is,” the Scot said. “If we end up out of it, we’ll work our way back in. Nothing else we can do.”