The Frontstretch: As Top 35 Kicks In, Toyota Gets Kicked To The Curb...But Not Kahne by Mike Lovecchio -- Sunday March 25, 2007

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Bristol has finally come and gone, and with it, several questions have been answered. Whether the Car of Tomorrow passed its initial test or not depends on who you ask, but when the checkered flag flew on Sunday afternoon, one thing became clear for those drivers on the edge of the Top 35 in points this season - which teams would be guaranteed a spot heading into Martinsville. The most well-known driver sitting on that bubble, Kasey Kahne, overcame a mid-race spin to finish 19th. That bumped his No. 9 team to 34th in points and saved him the white-knuckle experience of qualifying on speed; instead, it appears all that nervous energy will be left in the offices of Toyota Racing Development.

Here’s this week’s summary of how the Top 35 shapes up:

Biggest Mover

Jeff Green came into Bristol with his No. 66 team 35th in points, the last team on the plus side of a very shaky bubble. Knowing that a poor finish would force him to qualify on speed next week, Green was under pressure to perform…and he delivered. Qualifying 9th on the weekend, the No. 66 team put forth its best run of the year on Sunday, coming home sixth for Green’s best ever finish with Haas CNC Racing. Running strong all race long, a late race pit call for tires was the key to Green’s solid climb forward in the final laps. The No. 66 team now finds himself 27th in the standings and holding momentum in its hands heading into both another short track and Car of Tomorrow race next week.

Biggest Losers

Both Joe Nemechek and Johnny Sauter failed to make the show on Sunday, but neither will have to worry about qualifying their way in next week; they both wound up within this year’s Top 35 despite the poor performances.

Sauter‘s DNQ was still costly; his team becomes the new bubble-boy, sitting just 34 points ahead of Ward Burton for the final “locked in” qualifying spot. Nemechek is in far better shape, even though he still fell from 19th to 28th in the standings. Ginn Racing has put some strong cars on the track this season, and now that Nemechek is safe, don't expect to hear his name come up anymore this season - at least in this column.

Tracking Toyota

Every time I get to this portion of the column, I try my hardest to find something positive to say about Toyota, but I'll admit it's getting harder each week. After qualifying, things looked bright with both Jeremy Mayfield and A.J. Allmendinger making their first races of the season. But by the time the checkered flag flew on Sunday, Toyota had to face a chilling fact: none of their seven teams held a spot within this year’s Top 35.

Nobody argued that it would take Toyota a while to make a mark on NASCAR's elite series, but their performance this season has been downright pitiful. Dave Blaney is the best of the bunch, just 37th in driver points; Brian Vickers is one spot back in 38th after failing to qualify twice. Dale Jarrett is the lone driver guaranteed a spot at Martinsville, but even he is running out of freebies, with just two past champion’s provisionals remaining.

Who's Hot, Who's Not (Teams on the Bubble)

Who's Hot

It's hard to find any driver hovering around the Top 35 that is on a roll after just five races, but you have to believe that Kasey Kahne is due to break out. He had a Top 5 car again at Bristol before running into bad luck, and he should have a strong car again in Virginia; he’s got two Top 10 finishes in his last four Martinsville starts. With Kenny Francis back from his four-race suspension, this team should start to click.

Who's Not

This has not been the type of year Ricky Rudd looked forward to when he rejoined Robert Yates Racing in the offseason. After finishing 38th at Bristol, Rudd sits 33rd in owners points, fourth worst of those drivers who have started all five races to date.

The driver who has the least amount of points with five starts is Scott Riggs, but Riggs and his Evernham team have showed that barring bad luck, he can have a Top 5 car.

Breaking Down the Bubble

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
30 Hall of Fame Racing 96 Tony Raines 404 +73
31 Ginn Racing 14 Sterling Marlin 400 +69
32 Petty Enterprises 45 Kyle Petty 382 +51
33 Robert Yates Racing 88 Ricky Rudd 374 +43
34 Evernham Motorsports 9 Kasey Kahne 365 -*0*
35 Haas CNC Racing 70 Johnny Sauter 365 0
36 Morgan-McClure Motorsports 4 Ward Burton 331 -34
37 Bill Davis Racing 22 Dave Blaney 325 -40
38 Team Red Bull 83 Brian Vickers 322 -43
39 Michael Waltrip Racing 44 Dale Jarrett 320 -45
40 Wood Brothers 21 Ken Schrader 320 -45
41 BAM Racing 49 Mike Bliss 287 -78
42 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. 15 Paul Menard 281 -84
43 Evernham Motorsports 10 Scott Riggs 265 -100
44 Barney Visser 78 Kenny Wallace 245 -120
45 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 David Reutimann 197 -168

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