Six newcomers make the Brickyard field

The 2008 freshman class at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard is comprised of seven drivers, including 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. With three IndyCar Series championships (2001, 2002 2006) under his belt, Hornish made the move to...

The 2008 freshman class at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard is comprised of seven drivers, including 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. With three IndyCar Series championships (2001, 2002 2006) under his belt, Hornish made the move to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for 2008. Often citing four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears as his mentor, Hornish's move to stock car racing surprised many of his fans.

Walking to pit lane from the transporter lot, Hornish eased through Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday. His typical IndyCar Series game face, the stern look of a calculating champion, was gone. Instead, the happy-go-lucky kid from Defiance, Ohio made his way unimpeded, stopping to sign a few autographs. A year ago he would have been in the middle of a scrum of autograph seekers, pushing forward to make headway towards the pits.

Make no mistake about it, Hornish still has the yearning desire to strive for perfection, to win races and championships or Roger Penske wouldn't have kept him aboard, moving him from IndyCars to NASCAR. Now Hornish faces a new challenge at the Speedway he has known for so long. "I can't remember a time that I didn't go to Indy," said Hornish. "I've been to the track as both a fan and a driver."

Hornish will drive the Penske Racing No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge Charger on Sunday from the 38th starting position. Nearly a second and a half slower than polesitter Jimmie Johnson, Hornish will have his hands full on Sunday. "Flat tracks have not been our strong suit this season and Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a flat track. However, I can't think of a better place to turn that around than at Indy."

Despite struggling in his rookie season Hornish is only five points behind Regan Smith in the battle for the rookie of the year honors. Smith will start his first NASCAR race at the Speedway from the outside of the 21st row. Guaranteed a starting position based on owner points, Smith crashed during his qualifying run and did not complete a lap. "I got off of Turn 4 really good and drove it down into (Turn) one and just made a mistake," said Smith. "I never got the car to grip and it just went straight up into the wall coming off of one."

Although the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is unique, it is most often compared to Pocono. Hornish will compete using the car he drove at Pocono and Smith is wondering why he struggled in qualifying. "This place is similar to Pocono and we were really good at Pocono and I'm struggling for whatever reason," Smith said. The crash didn't cause "anything more than cosmetic damage so we'll get this one fixed up and we'll get out there for Happy Hour and see what we've got."

Patrick Carpentier spent 2005 with Eddie Cheever's IndyCar team before moving into stock cars. Powered by Toyota, Cheever's cars struggled to keep up with those powered by the venerable Honda. Carpentier managed three top-five finishes that season but at Indianapolis, he started 25th and finished 21st, caught up in a late race restart incident. Carpentier adapted well to stock cars, competing in the CASCAR Super Series in his native Canada in 2006 and selected Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races in 2007.

His experience has served him well, earning a 15th place starting position for his first NASCAR race at Indianapolis. Committed to running in stock cars, Carpentier said "I really like driving them so I hope I can do it for many years. It's like driving a rental car on steroids." Compared to the Indy 500 where "we're used to being wide open, here you've got to brake and the car slides and you're going 200 miles per hour so it makes a heck of a difference."

Forced to qualify on speed, Carpentier has now qualified 15th or better in three of his last four Sprint cup races.

The new freshman class has a diverse background. Carpentier drove open wheel cars and sports cars as did Michael McDowell Winning at Mexico City in his first year in the Rolex Sports Car Series, McDowell was quick to make his mark on the sport.

Racing go-karts since age 11, McDowell used a weekend off from kart racing to visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Eleven years later, he finds himself starting 24th at the historic speedway. "I took a tour there when as a kid and I remember how big the facility was," McDowell said. "We had a weekend off from racing go-karts and went there. I also remember walking through the museum and seeing the cars they kept from past winners and old Sprint cars. It was really cool to walk around Gasoline Alley. There's something special about going to Indy and a lot of people would agree with that. This will be my first time back and I can't wait to make my first lap there."

"Growing up, I was an open wheel guy and it's going to be one of the coolest places for me to race at on the circuit," said McDowell, who once competed in a RocketSports Champ Car. "The Indy 500 at The Brickyard was the biggest thing going when I was growing up, but I never got to do anything there in an open wheel car. It's funny because The Brickyard is what got me excited about NASCAR. There have been so many great winners of both the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400. Just to be at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an incredible experience and it's something I will never forget."

It's hard to top McDowell's enthusiasm for racing at the Speedway but Marcos Ambrose got a huge lift when he qualified for his first Brickyard race. "This is fairly spectacular considering the trouble we had yesterday," said Ambrose. "We did a whole two laps yesterday and didn't know what to do with the car. I feel like we climbed Mount Everest after yesterday's effort."

Ambrose will run a limited Sprint Cup schedule this year to retain his rookie status for 2009. A.J. Allmendinger finished fifth in the rookie standings last year competing with a Toyota team. He failed to make the field in his first attempt to compete in the Brickyard race last year after crashing during qualifying. This year he will start 26th. "We'll be in the race and I'm pleased with that," Allmendinger said, "that was the first goal."

"This is obviously a tough place to get around," Allmendinger continued. "I was a little tentative just trying to get the car into the show. It would have been a little different," if I was in the top-35 in points. Allmendinger is faced with the prospect of working his way through the field but at least he's in the show.

Stanton Barrett did not make the show. "It's really disappointing," he said after turning a lap nearly nine mph slower than Jimmy Johnson's pole speed. "We had a tire going down. We should have been much faster than that. Overall it felt like we had a lot of grip and then we started getting loose and we didn't carry the straightaway speed with that tire going down."

When the green flag flies for the 15th running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, the freshman class of seven will have been reduced to six, the same number of newcomers in each of the last four years.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Patrick Carpentier , Jimmie Johnson , Rick Mears , Michael McDowell , Marcos Ambrose , A.J. Allmendinger , Stanton Barrett , Regan Smith , Roger Penske
Teams Team Penske