NASCAR's 2008 Sprint Cup rookie class shrank more rapidly than the global economy this year.

What started as a medley of international open-wheel stars ended up as a two-step, with only Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s Regan Smith and Penske's Sam Hornish Jr. racing full time as the season wound down.

Here, Reid Spencer ranks the performances of the Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidates, which include all the drivers who started the season as rookies, except for Jacques Villeneuve, who exited the Cup Series after failing to qualify for the season-opening Daytona 500...

1. Regan Smith
Though he'll remember this season for the win that could have been - had NASCAR not penalised him for passing Tony Stewart below the yellow line at Talladega in October - Smith has finished every race he has run and has kept his car in the top 35 in owner points, the foremost goal for a rookie. Going into the final race of the season, Smith trails Hornish 199-196 in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings.

2. Sam Hornish Jr.
Not as consistent as Smith, Hornish has crashed out of four races and failed to qualify for the October event at Talladega. After Texas, his #77 Dodge is 37th in owner points and unlikely to crack the top 35.

3. Patrick Carpentier
Though he won a pole in the #10 Gillett Evernham Dodge at New Hampshire, Carpentier's race results - an average finish of 29.6 - and lack of sponsorship ultimately cost him his ride.

4. Michael McDowell
Yanked from the #00 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota for two stretches during the season, McDowell is now out of the ride that became the No. 47 car driven by Marcos Ambrose. McDowell will be remembered best for walking away unhurt from his horrific qualifying crash at Texas in April, a wreck that validated the enhanced safety features of NASCAR's new racecar.

5. Dario Franchitti
Franchitti had little chance to prove himself before Chip Ganassi Racing shuttered the #40 Dodge team on July 1 for lack of sponsorship. An ankle injury suffered at Talladega in April sidelined the former IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champ for five races, further limiting his Cup appearances.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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