The Frontstretch: On the Edge: The Fight for the Top 35 in Nextel Cup Owner's Points by Mike Neff -- Tuesday March 21, 2006

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The battle for the Top 35 in points for 2006 is about to reach a critical turning point. Teams have just one more race to work their way in or out of this year’s Top 35 before 2006 owners’ points are used to determine starting fields beginning at Martinsville in two weeks. After four races, the picture has really started to come into focus as to who will be battling for a position in the Top 35 once 2006 points begin to be used. There are some names that are familiar with the Top 35 battle, but many others that are new to this lowly area of the points.

As we see every week in the Cup Series, there were winners and losers this week. With one more week before we start using 2006 points, there is no more room for error for those teams that find themselves on the outside looking in.

The Winners
Kyle Petty was arguably the biggest winner of the day. An eighth place finish gave the #45 team a huge boost, and they now have a comfortable gap back to the 35th place points position, sitting 24th in points.

Reed Sorenson was also a driver smiling after the race on Monfay. Capturing the highest finishing rookie position in the race, and their first top 10 of the season, was a great finish for the #41 team. It has vaulted them up into 25th in points, and given the team a little breathing room heading into the firestorm that is Bristol.

Scott Riggs is another Dodge driver happy after Atlanta. In another example of how Evernham is getting a good handle on the Dodge Charger, Riggs came home 11th in the Golden Corral 500. His solid finish pushed him up into the 27th position in points.

The Losers
Again, we’ll start our look at the losers with those folks who failed to qualify this week. Most notable would be Travis Kvapil, as for the second week in a row, the #32 Tide Ride packed up early, all but killing off their chances of reaching the Top 35 after next week. Other non-qualifiers included: #51 Mike Garvey, #95 Stanton Barrett, #34 Chad Chaffin, #74 Derrike Cope, #78 Kenny Wallace, #37 Mike Skinner, #13 Greg Sacks, #92 Chad Blount and #89 Morgan Shepherd.

As for those who ran the race, the biggest loser has to be Bobby Labonte. After starting in the fourth position, and leading 13 laps, Labonte’s day went up in smoke, with an engine failure relegating the #43 to a 43rd place finish. After another run of bad racing luck, the Petty Enterprises entry is now on the outside looking in at the Top 35. Granted, Labonte has the past champions provisional to fall back on, so the pressure isn’t quite as great on the team, but they would certainly like to not have to count on that provisional to make the show.

The only other car joining Labonte in the garage are Monday was Hermie Sadler. Shortly after the joy of making the race wore off, the #00 team was confronted with suspension issues they never quite fixed. Only completing 166 laps, the Aaron’s Dream Machine came home in 42nd place. Already well outside the Top 40, 37 points is not going to help move the team any closer to the coveted 35th place points position.

While Kasey Kahne celebrated in Victory Lane, no one was celebrating in the pits of teammate Jeremy Mayfield. Apparently, Mayfield does not like to drive the same setups as Kasey Kahne. While Kahne was winning the Golden Corral 500, Mayfield was struggling his way to a 41st place finish. After qualifying for the Chase the last two years, Mayfield is now perilously close to that Top 35 cut line.

Last on the list of this week’s losers is MB2 Motorsports driver Sterling Marlin. A blown tire caused Marlin to lose two laps to the leaders, and not having a chance for the Lucky Dog as a result pushed him down to a 34th place finish. Without the racing gods smiling on the Waste Management team, they are on the outside looking in at the Top 35.

On the Bubble

Pos. Owner/team Car # Points Points from 35th
25 Chip Ganassi 41 353 82
26 Glen Wood 21 348 77
27 James Rocco 10 346 75
27 Roger Penske 2 346 75
27 Bill Saunders 96 346 75
30 Doug Bawel 55 330 59
31 Jack Roush 99 327 56
32 Gene Haas 66 322 51
33 Bill Davis 22 307 36
34 Ray Evernham 19 280 9
35 Felix Sabates 40 271  

On the Outside Looking In

Pos. Owner/team Car # Points Points from 35th
36 Eliz. Morgantheau 49 268 -3
37 Jeff Stec 61 266 -5
38 Richard Petty 43 245 -26
39 Nelson Bowers 14 244 -27
40 Larry McClure 4 211 -60
41 Cal Wells 32 180 -91
42 Teresa Earnhardt 15 147 -124
43 Michael Anderson ‘00 136 -135
44 Nelson Bowers 36 111 -160
45 Kirk Shelmerdine 27 103 -168

The time for action is upon us. The final race before the cutoff to start using 2006 points is after the Bristol race next weekend. Bad racing luck or not, teams have to make a move to get themselves above the cut line. Brent Sherman, Kevin Lepage, Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Scott Wimmer and Travis Kvapil are all going to be sweating bullets through what is already a stressful Bristol weekend. But one thing is for sure, if they can make it into the top 35 after Bristol, they will certainly have earned it.

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