Carpentier showing improvement

DEAN MCNULTY

, Last Updated: 7:39 AM ET

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- On a day when 49-year-old Mark Martin placed his retirement plans on hold yet again -after a farewell tour three seasons ago - to drive full time next year in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, rookie Patrick Carpentier qualified/didn't qualify for the Coke Zero 400 at the Daytona International Speedway.

Getting some measure of revenge when a blown tire with less than 10 laps to go cost him a spot in last February's Daytona 500, Carpentier will start 10th tonight, nine spots behind surprise pole sitter Paul Menard, in the No. 15, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet, but he will be in the race and that's all that matters to the Joliette, Que., native.

Martin will start second in the No. 8 DEI Chevy and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be third in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Just before taking his No. 10 Gillett Evernham Dodge out of Daytona's 2.5 mile super speedway, Carpentier talked about his first season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series and how tough it has been for the former open wheel star to adjust not only to the bigger, heavier cars, but to a 43-car grid filled with extremely talented drivers.

Carpentier, however, doesn't come close to calling his venture so far a failure as some have suggested.

LEADS ROOKIE CLASS

In fact, Carpentier leads the 2008 rookie class and last week at New Hampshire earned his first Cup pole, something a rookie has never done at the one-mile oval.

"There are ups and downs. It's very tough to switch from open-wheel (racing)," he said. "It's been really good at times and really bad at other times."

One thing for certain is that Carpentier's infectious positive attitude has paid dividends in the world's most competitive racing series.

He always has a smile on his face and never fails to tell anyone who asks just how lucky he believes he is to be racing at the Sprint Cup level.

It is just that kind of personality that has won over top NASCAR stars like Tony Stewart.

Stewart, who absolutely has little time for rookies, told Carpentier recently that he's seen a big improvement in the Canadian's driving this year.

And Elliott Sadler, his teammate at Gillett Evernham Motorsports, has also been a big supporter.

"Elliott has been a great help to me as well," Carpentier said. "He's always coming over to give me advice or just sitting me down and explaining things to me.

DIFFICULT TRANSITION

"He's been a huge help in making this difficult transition this year, especially regarding the draft."

The thing that Carpentier is looking forward to most - starting today - is the second visit to many of the NASCAR tracks. For the first half of this season he not only had to get used to the car but to race tracks he had never been on.

"The tracks are so diverse in this sport," he said. "It's hard for me sometimes, because just when I start understanding a track a little better it's time to pack up and head off to the next race. That's why I'm so excited to start heading back to tracks for the second time."

It is a testament to his talent that Carpentier - because he had no owner points to fall back on from 2007 - has had to race his way into almost every Cup event this season.

His performances this year so impressed former Sprint Cup champion-turned Fox Sports broadcaster Darrell Waltrip, that Carpentier was the only rookie to earn an "A" in a mid-season report card.

But Carpentier isn't out of the woods by a long shot and realizes he still has a lot of hard work ahead of him. One thing for certain is that any preconceptions he had about stock car racing went out the window in a hurry once he stepped into the No. 10 GEM Dodge for the first time.

"When you look at it on TV, they're going 20-30 miles per hour slower than we did (in Indy cars) and it doesn't look that hard," he said.

"You just forget that they have half the size of the tire, more power, more weight and no downforce. It's hard."


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