The Frontstretch: Bubble Breakdown: The Great Equalizer Does Little to Impact Owner Points Race by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday July 4, 2011

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Even before the days of the two-car tandem, the restrictor plate races have long been the great equalizer on the Cup Series schedule. Four times a year, NASCAR’s underdog teams are realistically able to compete for the win, and the same was seen again this Saturday. Bubble drivers from Landon Cassill to Travis Kvapil all ran in the top 10, with three of them leading laps (Kvapil, Mears, Nemechek). The battle for the bubble ended early though, as Trevor Bayne wrecked on lap 4, leaving the order from 32nd on back unchanged heading into Kentucky.

LOCKED INTO THE FIELD FOR KENTUCKY

No. 51 – Landon Cassill (Phoenix Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+68 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+76 points ahead of 35th, gained 8 points)

Though 26th place is not what the No. 51 team had in mind for the return to Daytona, their longtime expertise at plate racing shown through again this Saturday night. Working with former Hendrick Motorsports driver Casey Mears for much of the night, Cassill ran in the top 15 for a significant portion of the race. Dating back to Michigan, Cassill has now proven a legitimate frontrunner in his past two Cup races, suggesting both that the 2008 NNS Rookie of the Year has a rising stock as a driver again…and that Hendrick Motorsports’ R&D has some good stuff in hand for their heavy hitters come Chase time.

No. 36 – Dave Blaney (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+40 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 39th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+35 points ahead of 35th, lost 5 points)

This was a big race that had been circled on Tommy Baldwin Racing’s calendar for months after Blaney demonstrated strength both racing at Daytona and Talladega earlier this year. Unfortunately, it came to a screeching halt early. Blaney, who was reporting engine trouble in the laps preceding, slammed the wall entering turn 1 on lap 48; video replays were inconclusive as to whether or not contact sent the No. 36 car into the fence. The 39th place result was Blaney’s worst finish since start-and-parking the TBR machine at Phoenix back in February.

No. 32 – Terry Labonte (FAS Lane Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+31 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+37 points ahead of 35th, gained 6 points)

Labonte made his 75th restrictor plate race start this weekend driving for Frankie Stoddard’s team, and actually garnered a bit of TV time for his troubles this time. Picking up Andy Lally as a drafting partner around the midsection of the event after Lally struggled from the drop of the green to find help, Kyle Petty wasted no time espousing the smooth skills of the Iceman. 28th place wasn’t flashy, but on a night that both the Wood Brothers and Robby Gordon struggled, Labonte aided the No. 32 team in moving up the owner points ladder for the second consecutive race.

No. 13 – Casey Mears (Germain Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+25 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 32nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+28 points ahead of 35th, gained 3 points)

Hooked up with Landon Cassill, Casey Mears looked as if he had a Hendrick motor under his hood for much of the evening. Mears made multiple charges not only into the top 15, but the top 5, as the evening progressed, and was running in the top 20 with less than 10 laps to go. Disaster struck for Mears though when the “big one” did, as crash damage sent the No. 13 team back down pit road for extensive repairs. By the time the Germain Racing bunch was able to get their Camry back on track, Mears had dropped all the way to 32nd, three laps off the pace.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On the Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On the Bubble, now locked in at Kentucky… gained 7 points on 36th)

After locking himself back into the Cup field with a strong top 20 showing at Sonoma a week ago, Gordon’s No. 7 team found itself relegated back to also-ran status this weekend. The team caught a break though, as the No. 21 team lasted a mere four laps before their night ended, leaving the 34th place finish the No. 7 posted as enough not only to maintain their spot on the owner points bubble, but to gain ground over their closest competitor. The future remains uncertain for RGM; after nearly a month of start-and-parks, Gordon has now run the last two races to completion driving himself. Whether this continues at Kentucky remains to be seen as the team is still lacking a primary sponsor.

ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN AT KENTUCKY

No. 21 – Trevor Bayne (Wood Brothers Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (on the bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 41st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-3 behind 35th, lost 26 points)

After finally falling out of the top 35 last weekend, the stage was set for the Wood Brothers Racing team to do what they did at Charlotte back in May; enjoy a strong showing on a track they’d prepared specifically for, rack up a bunch of points, and then ride a few weeks until their next scheduled even while the bubble drivers they’re racing against for owner points position struggled along. And after starting second, the odds were good for Bayne to repeat his Daytona 500 win. Problem is, this storybook had a twist. Unlike back in February, Bayne struggled early to find a drafting partner, and the one he did find in Brad Keselowski dumped him into the fence on lap 4. The damage was irreparable, leaving the No. 21 team further outside the top 35. They will have to time their way into the field in their next scheduled race at Indianapolis.

No. 71 – Andy Lally (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-19 behind 35th in Owner Points)
Sunday’s Finish: 27th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-12 behind 35th, gained 7 points)

Though Lally’s finishing position came nowhere close to matching his top 10 qualifying effort, Saturday night was a needed showing for the TRG Motorsports operation. Not only did they net some TV time for backer Interstate Moving, Lally was able to survive an evening that saw him fighting the entire night simply to find a drafting partner; the No. 71 car was unceremoniously shuffled to the back of the field the second this race went green. Lally’s finish nearly cut the gap between TRG and RGM in half, leaving these two teams pitted against each other for a locked in spot in the field over the next few weeks, as the Wood Brothers take another hiatus. Lally finds his way into the top 30 a few more times, and start-and-parking might no longer cut it for RGM.

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-31 behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-25 behind 35th, gained 6 points)

Daytona proved to be yet another microcosm of what’s been a difficult 2011 for Travis Kvapil. Even though teammate David Gilliland scored his third top 15 of the season in restrictor plate races Saturday night, Kvapil had a case to make as the stoutest car out of the Front Row Motorsports stable this Saturday night, leading a lap and proving a capable pusher even in the top 10 draft. Kvapil’s night ended though, as so many others have this season, after he got hooked avoiding the late-race “big one” and sent slamming into the carnage. On the plus side at least, the No. 38 team ran as strong as they have at any point in 2011.

No. 37 – Tony Raines (Max Q Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-64 behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-74 behind 35th, lost 10 points)

Raines and the Max Q Motorsports team continued their recent slide, failing to qualify for Daytona’s 400-miler to fall nearly two races’ worth of points outside the top 35. Apart from a 27th-place effort at Sonoma – a race run in conjunction with Rick Ware Racing – Max Q has made the field for just previous four events (Pocono with Raines).

2011 Bubble Chart After Daytona:

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Phoenix Racing 51 Landon Cassill 290 +76
32 FAS Lane Racing 32 Terry Labonte 251 +37
33 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Dave Blaney 249 +35
34 Germain Racing 13 Casey Mears 242 +28
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 214 0
36 Wood Brothers 21 Trevor Bayne 204 -10
37 TRG Motorsports 71 Andy Lally 202 -12
38 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 189 -25
39 Max Q Motorsports 37 Tony Raines 140 -74

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