The Frontstretch: Bubble Breakdown: Sadler Bounces Back After Brutal Pocono Wreck, Top 35 Notes by Brock Beard -- Monday August 16, 2010

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Tremendous point swings marked last week’s chapter of the 2010 Top 35 Battle as the twists and turns of Watkins Glen stirred up the standings. While Marcos Ambrose earned a season-best third-place finish and 90 points of cushion, Scott Speed plummeted 46 points down into Bubble danger with the first last-place finish in his young Cup career. In between, mechanical troubles crushed Robby Gordon’s No. 7 and Regan Smith’s No. 78, benefiting Sam Hornish, Jr.’s No. 77 and Andy Lally’s No. 71, who both turned heads with well-deserved top-20 finishes.

Three positions behind Lally in 21st, Patrick Carpentier gave Latitude 43 Motorsports something to cheer about, ending a streak of two consecutive DNQs with one of the team’s best performances of the season. The No. 26 not only left The Glen 20 points closer to the Bubble, but again in front of the No. 38, which David Gilliland could only drive up to 27th. But all was not well at Bill Jenkins’ camp as driver David Stremme quit the team on Tuesday, forcing Carpentier to fill in for at least one additional week. As it turned out, this was just the first Bubble story that headlined a big news week heading to Michigan.

Scott Speed’s career can be officially categorized as “cold,” unless he can drive the No. 82 far away from the Bubble in the coming weeks.

LOCKED-IN AT BRISTOL

No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+396 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 25th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+429 points ahead of 35th)

A last-place finish at Watkins Glen and the potential of new teammate Kasey Kahne filling his seat next season made it a very difficult week for Scott Speed. Although Red Bull Racing implied they could expand to a three-car operation in 2010, Speed knew he would once again have to audition for his own job and at Michigan, he didn’t get off to a good start. Speed qualified 31st, jumped to fifth when he stayed out for the final restart with 30 to go, then slipped back to 25th in the closing laps. Though not very impressive on paper, the effort gained him 33 points of cushion, third-most among this week’s drivers. However, next week’s race at Bristol may be a bigger obstacle, as his 31st-place finish in the spring event derailed his early-season momentum that started the downhill slide he’s on today.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish, Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+375)
Sunday’s Finish: 32nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+387)

Hornish’s No. 77 crossed the stripe right in front of race winner Kevin Harvick as the fifth and final car to finish one lap down, but ironically gained points on the Bubble for the seventh straight race, 210 points in all over that span. However, this week, his gain was just the seventh-highest among this week’s drivers, far eclipsed by that of the next driver on this list…

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+287)
Sunday’s Finish: 9th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+375)

This week’s big gain was authored by Elliott Sadler, who finally picked up his first top-10 finish of 2010, ending a drought that extended back to a ninth-place result last fall at Talladega. The No. 19 scored 88 points of cushion, just two fewer than Marcos Ambrose gained at Watkins Glen, and is now the furthest away from the Bubble he has been all year.

Sadler’s Petty Blue Ford qualified 23rd, but slid into the turn 4 wall in Happy Hour. Fortunately, there was no need to roll out the backup car as Sadler flirted with the Top 15 during the middle stages of Sunday’s race. This allowed his team to gamble by staying out under the fourth caution with 47 to go. Sadler suddenly found himself in the lead, which he held for four laps before he eased back to fifth with slight damage on the bodywork behind the right-rear tire. When many others stayed out under the final yellow flag with 33 circuits remaining, Sadler capitalized by ultimately gaining nine spots, charging from 18th to ninth.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+175)
Sunday’s Finish: 21st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+220)

While Sadler enjoyed a good run on Sunday, Regan Smith was consistently impressive on the stopwatch. His No. 78 was eighth in Michigan’s opening practice, seventh in Happy Hour, and timed in 20th on the grid. Like Sadler, Smith’s twenty-something run soon became a battle for the lead when he stayed out under the fifth and final yellow with 31 laps remaining. The move put Smith up to fourth behind Tony Stewart and race winner Kevin Harvick, but Smith spun the tires on the restart and plummeted through the pack back to 20th in the next 20 laps. Even so, Smith gained 45 points of cushion, second only to Sadler’s 88, giving him his biggest gap on 35th since he was 259 points ahead after the June race at Michigan. Continued success in the weeks ahead may lead to Smith signing the contract extension FRR presented him on Friday.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+29)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+38)

Bobby Labonte returned once more to the TaxSlayer Chevrolet, qualified 40th, and never really moved up much further than that. He scored the first Lucky Dog of the race, but quickly fell back, ending up the only car to finish the race two laps down. The team has now moved from the Bubble to 38 points ahead in the span of two races; however, the team’s frequent driver changes and sponsor woes have continued to take a toll on the No. 71’s finishes.

No. 34 – Tony Raines (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+15)

One of the most bizarre Bubble stories of the week was Friday morning’s sudden departures of Kevin Conway and sponsor ExtenZe from Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 team. ExtenZe reaffirmed its commitment to developing Conway’s NASCAR career, but spoke nothing of FRM and when, if at all, the three will be reunited. Thus, just hours before opening practice, Tony Raines was handed a blue uniform and sent onto the track. The sponsor decals were removed Friday, and the car was flat blue on race day although well-equipped to go the distance. Raines qualified 39th, received the Lucky Dog when rain brought out a yellow on lap 60, but still finished 31st as the fourth car one lap down. Though the team is off the Bubble, the Conway/ExtenZe fiasco has again made the team’s Top 35 prospects questionable.

No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+7)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+7)

One of only two teams that didn’t gain any points of cushion this week was the No. 37, again driven by David Gilliland. Curiously, the No. 37 has now finished multiple laps down in each of the last ten races where Gilliland drove, but it finished on the lead lap the three other times where Travis Kvapil’s name was across the roof (at Sonoma, Indianapolis, and Watkins Glen).

No. 7 – P.J. Jones (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+3)
Sunday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

In addition to the No. 34 team’s troubles, more wackiness ensued at Robby Gordon’s team this week. The team officially split with BAM Racing on Monday, as RGM continues to prepare its breach-of-contract lawsuit against BAM and former sponsor Warner Bros. Three days later, Robby then decided to field both his cars for a second consecutive race, but this time with him in the No. 07 and P.J. Jones in the locked-in No. 7.

Regardless of the reason for the switch, the results were far from stellar. Gordon and Jones parked early, but both came back onto the track fourteen laps down to pass Kurt Busch after Busch’s engine failure. Jones ended his day as the last car out after 64 laps, brake problems the listed reason. That means the No. 7 sits on the Bubble for the first time since Travis Kvapil’s Pocono penalty was enforced in June, but lost only three points of cushion to those on the outside looking in. It appears the team’s concern has shifted to holding off two other struggling teams…

NOT LOCKED-IN AT BRISTOL

No. 26 – Patrick Carpentier (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-182 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-161 points behind 35th)

Robby Gordon’s questionable strategy once again breathed new life into Latitude 43 Motorsports, which has been plagued with internal struggles over the last few months. Just days after Boris Said cited nonpayment as the reason for his leaving the team, a frustrated David Stremme followed suit by quitting on Tuesday. This kept Patrick Carpentier on board at Michigan, charging towards his first oval track start in Cup since last August at Pocono. Given all the behind-the-scenes chaos, the No. 26 still performed admirably, following Mark Martin as the second car one lap down. The finish afforded the team a 21-point gain, fifth-most of this week’s group, though there is no word as of yet if Carpentier will attempt to qualify at Bristol – he failed to make both races there in 2008.

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-197)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-174)

Also on the move thanks to Robby was the No. 38 team, who crossed the line one position behind Carpentier’s No. 26 but gained 23 points of cushion. Kvapil gained five of those points by staying out under the second caution to lead lap 62. Most importantly, the team showed marked improvement in qualifying, his 32nd-fastest time more than two mph faster than teammates Gilliland and Raines in 39th and 41st. This should be a huge help for the team at Bristol, where the margin for error in qualifying is notoriously small.

Monday on the Frontstretch:
Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: August Michigan Race Recap
Fact Or Fiction: How NASCAR’s Chase Picture Shakes Out With 3 Races Left
Logano Takes Wrong Approach With Newman In Latest Clash
Running Their Mouth: CARFAX 400
Nationwide Series Breakdown: CARFAX 250
Tracking The Trucks: Too Tough To Tame 200

2010 Bubble Chart After Michigan:

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
27 Red Bull Racing 83 Reed Sorenson 2,159 +455
28 Red Bull Racing 82 Scott Speed 2,133 +429
29 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish, Jr. 2,091 +387
30 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 2,079 +375
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,924 +220
32 TRG Motorsports 71 Andy Lally 1,742 +38
33 Front Row Motorsports 34 Tony Raines 1,719 +15
34 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 1,711 +7
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,704 0
36 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 Patrick Carpentier 1,543 -161
37 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 1,530 -174
38 Phoenix Racing 09 Bobby Labonte / Landon Cassill 1,176 -528
39 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Casey Mears 1,161 -543
40 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 1,047 -657
41 Whitney Motorsports 46 J.J. Yeley 1,002 -702
42 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 965 -739
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Scott Riggs 857 -847
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 845 -859

Contact Brock Beard

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