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Full class of rookies

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LONG POND, Pa. – There is more than one rookie in Nextel Cup this season.

You just might not know it.

Sure, Juan Pablo Montoya has been the best-performing rookie this season, and he came in to NASCAR with just a wee bit more name recognition and success than the rest of this year's freshman class.

But he's not the only new face in the Cup crowd this season.

With Montoya now believing he might actually make the Chase, his recent success – a win at Sonoma, a runner-up at Indianapolis – has all who claimed he would run away with the rookie title saying, "I told you so" – this despite David Ragan being just four spots and 158 points (in the real standings, not the convoluted rookie system) behind Montoya, a far from insurmountable gap.

But Montoya gets all the press, all the attention, all the accolades. And coming from the pinnacle of open wheel racing (F1) to run a type of car he had never really dreamed of (or had nightmares about) driving, those accolades are deserved. Montoya isn't infallible, but he is holding is own early in his stock car career, winning a race and putting forth impressive showings – enough to make easier Chip Ganassi's decision to end Montoya's Busch Series program.

Ragan, A.J. Allmendinger, David Reutimann and Paul Menard, meanwhile, don't get all that much attention as they fight their own battles – which, for three of the four, often have included simply trying to make the race. (Montoya, like Ragan, inherited enough owner points via his car's previous pilot to make qualifying a non-issue – which now also holds true for Menard after his DEI team bought owner points from Ginn Racing.)

In other words, this year's rookie story has been Montoya and the other guys.

So it was only appropriate that Friday morning's rookie press conference here at Pocono included Ragan, Allmendinger, Reutimann and Menard, but not Montoya.

And perhaps it also was appropriate that the sound board set to record the entire press conference produced nothing but static.

These guys get no respect.

Last year's rookie class was seen by many as one of the strongest in memory, led by Denny Hamlin's third-place points finish. This year's class also was expected to be strong, but with larger fields, tougher Fridays and some brand new teams trying to break into the sport – not to mention Montoya's presence – the road has been a bit bumpier for this year's newbies

"The four of us picked the toughest year to compete for the Rookie of the Year title," said Menard, who qualified for 14 of the first 20 races this season. Toyota driver Reutimann also made 14 heading into the weekend (Pocono makes 15), while fellow Toyota pilot Allmendinger has raced just eight times this season.

Montoya's absence from this particular press conference was due to a prior media commitment, but his presence is felt by the other rookies in the room. After all, he's the one who gets all the attention.

"That's fine – he deserves it," says Menard.

These rookies all acknowledge that Montoya comes with the resume, the reputation. They also know what it will take to steal some of his thunder.

"We've got to beat him on the track," Ragan said.

Actually, all four rookies expressed that same sentiment, if you count Allmendinger's "I agree with all of them" statement as an affirmation.

And sometimes they do beat him. Montoya has been the top-finishing rookie nine times this season in 20 races, while Ragan has earned that honor eight times, and Menard on three occasions.

Montoya was best among rookies (finished 20th) last time at Pocono, but that was the first time around. Sunday's race here marks the second at a track the Cup series already has visited this year (Daytona last month was the first), and part of the reason Ganassi is able to shut down Montoya's Busch program – aside from scheduling issues – is that Montoya now is seeing tracks for the second time and should benefit greatly from the experience.

But isn't the same true of Ragan and the other rookies? They certainly believe so.

That is the light at the end of the tunnel. And there is proof of that light, as these rookies' struggles aren't completely dissimilar (though certainly more pronounced) to what many of last year's rookies experienced – especially the ones who had high expectations.

Two-time Busch champ Martin Truex Jr. certainly expected to tally more than five top-10s last season (matching his DNF total from '06), and he can empathize with what this year's rookies are facing.

"Last year we had everything you can ever think of happen to us or we made every mistake you could ever think of throughout the year. It was so frustrating at times," Truex said. "This series here is like no other. You've got to do everything right to run in the top 10. It's just the way it is.

"It's a tough learning curve, not just for the drivers but for the whole race team. You can sit there and run 15th or 20th and you're like, 'Man, what the heck are we doing wrong?' "

Fast forward a year and Truex finds himself a race winner sitting 11th in points and a legit contender to make the Chase.

"All of a sudden you've just got experience, you are coming back to tracks again and you just step it up a notch," Truex said. "You don't even know why. It just all happens. It's about experience. It's taking your lumps, for sure."

The rookies are doing the latter, but to their credit, they all profess to understand that those lumps will subside once their experience levels come closer to matching their enthusiasm.

"Pocono is the first track this season that we go to for a second time where we made the first race, so that will hopefully help us get back on track," Allmendinger said. "I know I will have more confidence going into this weekend mainly because I have turned laps here in practice and in a race and will know what to expect."

What Allmendinger didn't expect was to wreck in practice here Friday before failing to qualify in his backup car, forcing him to again go home early.

But Reutimann did make the show (as did Ragan and Menard, who were guaranteed spots), and what all the rookies ultimately expect is better performance. Still, until one of these other rookies breaks through – it perhaps will take a win or at least a long run of top-10s – Montoya will be seen as the leader of a pack that, fairly or not, is believed by many to barely hold a spot in Montoya's rearview mirror.

Not that the rest of the class necessarily minds all that much.

Said Reutimann, "I've always been a bit under the radar anyway."

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