The Frontstretch: Bubble Breakdown: Hendrick Equipment, Former Proteges Best In Bluegrass State by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday July 11, 2011

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For the first time since 2001, the Sprint Cup Series tackled a new race track. And while over 100,000 fans packed the new grandstands of Bruton Smith’s Kentucky Speedway to see this inaugural event, the race ended up playing out much like the other 1.5-mile ovals on the circuit, with the big boys running up front, the usual suspects showing up when the pay window opened, and the underdogs in the back of the field racing the track as much as the pack. As a result, a race largely devoid of on-track incidents ended up having little impact on the bubble race heading into Loudon.

LOCKED INTO THE FIELD FOR LOUDON

While Trevor Bayne was not entered this week, fellow “young gun” Landon Cassill held up the banner for the 20-somethings quite well; a 23rd-place, lead-lap run kept the Phoenix Racing team solidly within NASCAR’s top 35.

No. 51 – Landon Cassill (Phoenix Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+76 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+91 points ahead of 35th, gained 15 points)

Landon Cassill led laps 82 and 83 on a Saturday night that was business as usual for the No. 51 team. With Hendrick horsepower under the hood, Cassill was the frontrunner of the bubble drivers for the entire 400 miles. As the laps wound down, Cassill’s crew had their Chevrolet running time comparable to the lead lap cars, on lap 246 going as far as to report debris to NASCAR officials in hopes of drawing a yellow.

The sixth caution flag that flew on lap 262 gave Cassill exactly what he was aiming for: a Lucky Dog pass back onto the lead lap. There wasn’t enough time left in the evening to pick up positions after the free pass, and chances are Cassill wasn’t going to race that hard for it even if there were more laps; after all, 22nd was Hendrick Motorsports “teammate” Mark Martin.

No. 32 – Mike Bliss (FAS Lane Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+37 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+40 points ahead of 35th, gained 3 points)

Making his return to the seat of the No. 32 after giving way to Texas Terry Labonte for a few weeks, Mike Bliss was likely looking for something more Saturday night. 42nd was the worst starting position the team has posted since the Daytona 500 back in February. By lap 66, the No. 32 car was a lap down. 300 miles and a pit road speeding penalty on lap 129 later, Bliss crossed the stripe in 34th, the worst result FAS Lane Racing has posted since the team suffered an engine failure at Talladega back in the spring. Still, with RGM start-and-parking, Bliss added to the team’s cushion on staying locked into the Cup field.

Of note, Bliss took part in a unique sponsorship this weekend with the No. 32 team; Big Red, Inc. sponsored entries across three different makes in Saturday’s race, with FAS Lane Racing representing the blue oval.

No. 36 – Dave Blaney (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+35 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+39 points ahead of 35th, gained 4 points)

Dave Blaney was the Chevrolet representing Big Red in their all-out assault on Sprint Cup racing at Kentucky. Unfortunately, Blaney had results similar to that of Mike Bliss, only his night was a lot more eventful. Already forced to start at the tail end of the field after changing transmissions, the No. 36 car was two laps down by lap 80 after the team had a lug nut fall off during green flag pit stops.

Handling problems plagued the rest of Saturday evening for a team that has openly acknowledged that their intermediate program is their biggest place for improvement. Runs that saw their Chevrolet hitting the track with the splitter, chattering through turn 1 and fluctuating from loose to tight ended in a 33rd place finish for Blaney, a run that allowed the team to make minimal gains on their locked-in spot in the field. Better results may be in the cards next weekend at Loudon; the team’s flat track program is further ahead, and Blaney is a former pole winner at the facility.

Things are looking up a bit for Casey Mears after Kentucky; the driver posted his best finish in two months Saturday night, gaining his Germain Racing program significant cushion on their spot inside NASCAR’s top 35.

No. 13 – Casey Mears (Germain Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+28 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 25th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+40 points ahead of 35th, gained 12 points)

The 1.5-mile ovals have been the bread and butter of Casey Mears’ extended tenure in Cup racing, and the addition of the Kentucky Speedway to the slate proved to be a boon for his Germain Racing team. Running as high as 17th throughout the evening, Mears and crew chief Bootie Barker kept a tight condition in relative check throughout the night. Though Mears battled with Bobby Labonte for the Lucky Dog over a good portion of the race’s midsection, the No. 13 squad was never able to get back on the lead lap.

Still, the 25th-place finish gained the team a spot in the owner standings, marking the first such result for the team since Dover back in May.

No. 7 – Scott Wimmer (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On the Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On the Bubble, now locked in at Loudon…lost 7 points on 36th)

Time is running out for the No. 7 team and their days of guaranteed starts, at least if Kentucky was any indication. RGM already took a hit before the race even started, as the rainout of qualifying sent the team’s second No. 77 car home without any purse money to show for the entry. That left Wimmer to pull the start-and-park deed for the team’s primary Dodge, a result that allowed all of the teams on the right side of the bubble to move further ahead… and the No. 71 team to close the gap.

It’s hard to know what’s in store for this operation moving forward. Team owner Gordon has just embarked on competing in “The Bullrun” rally, starting in Las Vegas, and with the continual start-and-parking of the team’s Cup entry, sponsorship hunting hardly seems a viable proposition. The real question is of RGM’s finances and their factory backers… just how important is the Cup stuff versus keeping Gordon rally racing?

ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN AT KENTUCKY

No. 21 – Trevor Bayne (Wood Brothers Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-3 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: DID NOT ENTER
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-17 behind 35th, lost 14 points)

No. 71 – Andy Lally (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-12 behind 35th in Owner Points)
Sunday’s Finish: 32nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-7 behind 35th, gained 5 points)

Persistence is coming close to paying dividends for Andy Lally and the No. 71 team. Patching sponsorships together as the season progresses, Lally is running near the back of the cars on track actually going the race distance every week, but he’s racing… and he’s making up ground on a locked-in spot in the field. The trick is going to be continuing to make races the next few weeks. As long as the rookie does that, gaining even only 4-5 points a weekend, TRG Motorsports may well be locked back into the Cup field by the end of the month – assuming RGM can’t find a sponsor themselves.

Getting locked in, along with Doug Richert’s expertise on the pit box and the team’s new engine program with Ford, is a big-time must for this operation. That means guaranteed money coming in, plus more practice time that Lally needs to get up to speed in these race cars. Keeping that string of race qualifications together has never been more important for the No. 71 team than it will be for the rest of this month.

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-25 behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-16 behind 35th, gained 9 points)

That said, for as great a storyline as that may be for Lally and TRG, it overlooks the fact that Front Row Motorsports also has a second car they desperately need back in the top 35. And for all the myriad of bad luck Travis Kvapil has endured on both the Cup and Truck side this season, Saturday night was a big-time gain for the No. 38 team, even if their performance was lacking.

Both sides of the spectrum bit the No. 38 team this past evening. They fought tight all night long, struggling to find grip on a race surface that every driver and their mother described as bumpy. But thanks to some late-race caution flags, helping them gain some much-needed spots Kvapil and crew were still able to post a gain on their competition for a top 35 slot.

Lally vs. Kvapil. Game on.

No. 37 – Tony Raines (Max Q Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-74 behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-75 behind 35th, lost 1 point)

It finally happened. While Tony Raines did manage to make the field after missing Daytona a week ago, the No. 37 team start-and-parked for the first time in 2011, retiring with a “vibration” after completing only 38 laps on Saturday night. It was bound to happen, given both the number of races the team has missed and their lack of sponsor dollars. That being said, unless the team unexpectedly returns to racing unsponsored, the No. 37 is now unlikely to be a significant player in the bubble race for the remainder of 2011.

2011 Bubble Chart After Daytona:

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Phoenix Racing 51 Landon Cassill 312 +91
32 FAS Lane Racing 32 Mike Bliss 261 +40
33 Germain Racing 13 Casey Mears 261 +40
34 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Dave Blaney 260 +39
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Scott Wimmer 221 0
36 TRG Motorsports 71 Andy Lally 214 -7
37 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 205 -16
37 Wood Brothers 21 Trevor Bayne 204 -17
39 Max Q Motorsports 37 Tony Raines 146 -75

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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