The Frontstretch: Bubble Breakdown: Stenhouse Shines, 600 Miles Chews Up Backmarkers by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday May 30, 2011

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Another year, another unpredictable Coca-Cola 600. When the track was hot and slick, the race went green. When the sun went down and the grip went up, the middle stretch of the race was marred by a flurry of yellow flags. And late race fuel mileage stretches turned the finish into one that somehow proved able to give the Indianapolis 500 a run for its money. Unfortunately for the majority of those in the back of the Sprint Cup field, a race notorious for how long and arduous it is lived up to its reputation, making for a long (or short) evening for many of the teams battling around the top 35.

LOCKED INTO THE FIELD FOR CHARLOTTE

No. 09 – Landon Cassill (Phoenix Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+34 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 35th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+20 points ahead of 35th, lost 14 points)

“This is the Coca-Cola 600. We deserve to be here.” With this statement, the tone of the evening was set for the Phoenix Racing squad and driver Landon Cassill, an operation that for all the reality of being Hendrick Motorsports’ R&D machine, took their shot at NASCAR’s longest race very seriously. Though the No. 09 car fell a lap down early in the running to a charging Carl Edwards, by lap 74 Cassill remarked over the radio “the car is perfect right now,” asking his crew chief to be thinking ahead in terms of adjustments.

The team went to work on fixing a loose condition on exit for Cassill, which they concluded was coming from being tight in the center, forced to use tons of wheel in the center of the corners. The adjustments had the No. 09 car among the fastest of the cars they were racing, but by lap 257 progress started to stall, with the driver radioing that cooler temperatures had the car very tight in dirty air.

The overwhelming length of the 600 finally caught up to the young Cassill and his spotter on lap 295; coming down the frontstretch after a lap 293 restart, Cassill cut across the nose of Regan Smith’s No. 78, sending his Chevrolet into a spin across the infield grass that resulted much as Edwards’ ill-fated All-Star Celebration, with the No. 09 car jumping on the asphalt/grass transition and slamming violently down, destroying the front nose of the car. The damage was so bad that when the crew got it back to the garage, they remarked “we try to get this thing back out there, there’s going to be another wreck.” Cassill finished 35th, his first DNF of 2011 that wasn’t a start-and-park.

Also of note for the No. 09 team, Security Benefits, which has been featured as the sponsor on their car with a “Thank a Teacher Today” paint scheme, also had their logos painted on the team’s war wagon this weekend, a sign that this sponsorship may be sticking around for a while.

No. 36 – Dave Blaney (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+24 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 27th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+18 points ahead of 35th, lost 6 points)

Unlike with Cassill and the No. 09 team, the length of Sunday’s race somehow, someway proved to be a benefit for Dave Blaney and his No. 36 team. It wasn’t 50 circuits into the event before the Tommy Baldwin Racing operation knew they had issues under the hood; reportedly stemming from a dropped cylinder, Blaney was off the pace with an audibly sick race car well before the sun even started setting on Charlotte.

Despite this, that motor just kept going and going and going. Blaney dodged the myriad of incidents that dotted the second half of the event, and when all was said and done salvaged a 27th place finish despite being 19 laps off the pace when the checkered flag flew. The result was his best finish at Charlotte since 2008.

No. 32 – Mike Bliss (FAS Lane Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+19 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+10 points ahead of 35th, lost 9 points)

Returning behind the wheel for FAS Lane Racing after a top-25 result at Dover, not even veteran Mike Bliss’ extensive experience at Charlotte could get the No. 32 car freed up over the first 70+ laps of racing. By lap 139, the driver reported to Frankie Stoddard and team that the car was real tight, to the point that he was unable to drive into the corners with any type of speed without sacrificing the middle and exit. The tight handling was creating a snappy loose condition for Bliss as well.

As pit stops continued to cycle and the No. 32 team kept taking swings at their machine, the exact opposite started taking shape. Lap 223 saw Bliss radio to the crew “it’s not tight.” Adjustments for handling proved to be a moot point, for barely 10 laps later Bliss’ No. 32 car brought out the yellow flag when it came to a halt after exiting turn 4 near the entrance to pit road. Initial radio communications from the team reported that something had broken in the driveshaft; whatever the mechanical ailment, the team did manage to get their car back on track after over 25 laps in the pits to be running at the finish.

No. 13 – Casey Mears (Germain Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+18 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+17 points ahead of 35th, lost 1 point)

Germain Racing’s Cup program did not seem destined for a fortunate weekend at Charlotte; Mears’ start-and-park teammate Mike Skinner not only wrecked the No. 60 team’s primary car during final practice on Saturday, he found contact with the wall again only five laps after the green flag flew over Sunday’s race.

Casey Mears stayed off the wall for all that time, but was running far from flashy, mired in 31st for the first 160 laps of the event. Trouble finally found the No. 13 car on a lap 188 restart; the accordion effect kicked in and saw Landon Cassill run into the left rear of Mears’ Toyota, crunching the quarterpanel and creating a tire rub for Mears that spewed debris all over the backstretch.

The damage occurred early enough in the race however for Mears to catch up. A driver with no shortage of experience at Charlotte, the 2007 Coca-Cola 600 winner methodically worked his way back into contention for a lead lap result. And while that didn’t end up being in the cards, the 23rd place result was the best Germain Racing has ever scored in Cup competition at CMS; prior to Sunday, their average team finish at the track was a woeful 41.5.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-17 behind 35th, lost 24 points)

Despite having start-and-parked the prior points race at Dover, owner Robby Gordon returned to his own No. 7 seat with full intentions to race; the SPEED Energy team had a full crew, guests decked in sponsor gear and most importantly, sticker tires, in the pits.

It’s unclear as to what happened to the No. 7 car this Sunday (the scanner frequencies listed by Racing Electronics as those for RGM this weekend were silent all evening). Gordon ran in the back and was lapped early, but by lap 84 the team was in the garage. Apparent mechanical gremlins were to blame; Gordon would return to the track and garage multiple times over the course of the race, but would complete only 99 laps before parking for the evening with brake issues. Now outside the top 35 in owner points, the future of the No. 7 team continues to grow bleaker as the Cup circuit heads to Kansas, another horsepower-driven race track.

ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN AT CHARLOTTE

No. 71 – Andy Lally (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-7 behind 35th in Owner Points)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-30 behind 35th, lost 23 points)

Though the No. 71 team has managed to stave off the hardship caused when longtime backers TaxSlayer.com and Anderson’s Pure Maple Syrup bolted for other race teams by signing new backers for the races run thus far in 2011, the inexperience of Andy Lally and the difficulties of a mid-season manufacturer swap are catching up to one of the more resilient teams the Cup Series played host to in 2010. For the second time in three weeks, Lally failed to qualify for a Sprint Cup race, uncharted territory for TRG Motorsports; their last missed race had been the 2009 Daytona 500. The missed start dropped the team further behind both Robby Gordon, the next full-time car they’re battling for standing, and the the top 35 cutoff.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looked anything but a deer in the headlights this Sunday night, posting the best Coca-Cola 600 finish for the Wood Brothers in 15 years.

No. 21 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Wood Brothers Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-10 behind 35th) *Sunday’s Finish: 11th*

Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (on the bubble, gained 27 points)

Momentum, thy name is Stenhouse. Fresh off his first career Nationwide Series win at Iowa, the hottest gun in the Roush garage proved that a ninth place qualifying effort for his Cup debut was anything but a fluke, shaking off early and mid-race contact with the wall to deliver the Wood Brothers their best finish since Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 victory, and their best finish in the Coca-Cola 600 since Michael Waltrip finished eighth for the team back in 1996.

The Wood Brothers Racing team is not scheduled to take to the track again until Michigan, making it unlikely that the No. 21 will be able to take advantage of or preserve its current spot in the top 35. Posting a top 15 in another crown jewel event on the Sprint Cup schedule is a big deal in itself, but with another intermediate oval in Kansas coming, one can’t help but question if it doesn’t make sense to keep this train rolling. With Ford both selling and racing the way they are, why not keep flashing Motorcraft colors?

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-28 behind 35th) *Saturday’s Finish: 25th*

Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-32 behind 35th, lost 4 points)

Considering the improvement Front Row Motorsports had demonstrated by the end of last season, it’s almost shocking that it took 12 races for Kvapil to finally score his first top-25 finish of the year. But on a weekend where a number of the No. 38 team’s competitors in the ongoing battle for owner points either faltered or missed the race entirely, Kvapil came through with a clutch qualification and finally had some luck dodging adversity. 25th is by no means spectacular, but it was a result that both carried the flag for Front Row Motorsports after David Gilliland tangled with Mark Martin, and minimized the ground the No. 38 team lost on 35th place on a night that the Wood Brothers struck hard.

No. 37 – Tony Raines (Max Q Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-35 behind 35th) *Saturday’s Finish: DNQ*

Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-58 behind 35th)

Team owner Larry Gunselman was seen at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night, but his car was nowhere to be found. Tony Raines failed to qualify the No. 37 entry for the second time in the past four weekends, leaving the former third entry for Front Row Motorsports to fall further down the owner points ladder, to a level that re-entry in 2011 seems all but impossible.

2011 Bubble Chart After Charlotte:

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Phoenix Racing 09 Landon Cassill 193 +20
32 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Dave Blaney 191 +18
33 Germain Racing 13 Casey Mears 190 +17
34 FAS Lane Racing 32 Mike Bliss 183 +10
35 Wood Brothers 21 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 173 0
36 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 156 -17
37 TRG Motorsports 71 Andy Lally 143 -30
38 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 141 -32
39 Max Q Motorsports 37 Tony Raines 115 -58

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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Nick Doneilo
05/30/2011 05:12 PM
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First of all, I love reading this column every Monday. But some of your facts are a bit off. Blaney finshed only 6 laps down, not 19. Travis Kvapil did battle adversity, considering he ran the whole race pretty much without a clutch. And Robby Gordon’s car was just so ill handling they turned the evening into a test session I guess. I listened to them a bit before he brought it in, and he asked what position am I in, which at that point he was 38th 2 laps down only 60 or so laps in. He took it to the garage shortly after that, saying I’m going to wreck it if I don’t come in.

SHOEMAN
05/31/2011 10:26 AM
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ROBBIE GORDON brought the car in because it was painted pink.