The Frontstretch: On the Edge: The Fight for the Top 35 in Nextel Cup Owner's Points by Mike Neff -- Sunday March 26, 2006

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The firestorm that is Bristol has come and gone. We had on-track altercations, pit road dustups, bad racing luck, even snow. But through it all, the battle for the Top 35 remained in the forefront of people’s discussions on Sunday, because this was the final race for teams to sneak into the Top 35 before the 2006 Owner’s Points are used to determine the “locked in” qualifiers.

As always, there were winners and losers in this pack of drivers struggling to elevate themselves from the back of the pack. Luckily for some, the qualifying drama was eliminated this week thanks to the gorgeous Spring weather in the Smokey Mountains. Qualifying was snowed out (yes, snowed out!) so starting positions were assigned by the NASCAR Rule Book. Let’s look at how things shook out.

The Winners
Kurt Busch: Coming out of Atlanta, Busch was 27th in owner points. There were rumblings about the Intrepid experiment, team chemistry, and whether Kurt had made a bad decision to switch to the Penske camp. All of that was erased by Kurt’s win at Bristol. His victory moved him up 12 spots in the points and well out of the battle for 35th place.

Carl Edwards: No one really thought Edwards would linger in the lower echelon of points for very long. However, heading into Bristol he was 31st in points and in danger of dropping out of the Top 35. Thanks to his 4th place finish in the Food City 500, however, he moves up nine spots and out of the bubble crowd.

Bobby Labonte: The #43 team of Petty Enterprises might actually be turning the corner after all. They showed a flash of brilliance at Atlanta last week, leading 13 laps before an engine failure took them out of the race. This week, they put forth a true Yeoman’s effort in finishing in the top five at Bristol. Starting 30th, Labonte kept his car clean and simply soldiered to the front all day long. This kind of result is what everyone expected with the new team reorganization at Petty Enterprises. Their result moved them up six spots in the standings, and they are now 33rd in points. The team might finally be beginning to live up to the expectations.

Jeff Green: In a somewhat surprising result, Green was able to bring home a Top 15 finish in the Food City 500. It seemed like Green was in the vicinity of quite a few of the activities that resulted in the 18 caution flags that flew during the event, but fortunately for the #66 bunch, he was able to stay out of the trouble he caused and stay on the lead lap all day. His good result moved them up four spots to 28th in points.

The Losers
Scott Riggs: The biggest “loser” of the week in terms of spots in the points standings was Scott Riggs, causing a near-certain spot in the Top 35 to become rather shaky. Riggs was caught up in an early altercation trying to avoid an accident and was spun by Jeff Burton; the 10 car hit the inside wall and took quite some time to be repaired. Riggs ended up a disappointing 41st on the day, 166 laps down, and the 40 points that the #10 team earned caused them to slip eight spots in the standings. However, the team did receive a bit of good luck, as enough drivers had trouble to keep Riggs barely hanging on, securing the 35th and final locked in spot in owner’s points.

Brent Sherman: Having what could only be described as a rookie’s worst nightmare at Bristol, Sherman was involved in what seemed like all 18 caution flags Sunday. It wasn’t quite that bad, as the #49 was listed as officially being involved in four of the day’s activities that resulted in a caution. A moving roadblock all day, Sherman ultimately totalled his car by the 4th incident and had it parked on the 302nd lap; the team was relegated to a 42nd place finish. The result dropped the BAM Motorsports entry four spots in the points, and they are now in 40th place, looking up at the Top 35 and no longer “locked in” with Sherman having to qualify next week at Martinsville, a track where he has never raced.

Sterling Marlin: At a glance, the 18th place finish wouldn’t necessarily lend itself to being a “loser” type event for Marlin. The best finish of the season, the team clearly seems to be getting its act together…but it wasn’t good enough to bolt him into the Top 35. 36th in owners points, 30 behind Scott Riggs, the 14 car must now qualify on speed next week for the first time this season, a dangerous proposition for a team still finalizing full season sponsorship.

David Stremme: Speaking of Sterling Marlin, his replacement in the Coors Light Dodge now finds himself in the same position as Marlin—- having to qualify on speed. An early four-car wreck with Brian Vickers, Clint Bowyer, and Michael Waltrip put the 40 car behind the 8 ball, and the team’s 36th place finish after going behind the wall for repairs dropped them from 35th in the standings to 38th. Now, Stremme, like Sherman, heads to Martinsville long on experience, knowing a DNQ kills virtually any chance the team would have of reentering the Top 35 during the season.

Michael Waltrip: In what was a classic Mikey day at Bristol, Waltrip had an oil leak on lap 161. The crew got his car fixed and back on the track, only to have it involved in a crash on lap 188. By the time the team repaired the car again and got Waltrip back out, he was well behind the leaders. He came home 32nd, and the result caused the #55 team to drop three spots in the points to a precarious 33rd.

Kevin LePage: For awhile Sunday, LePage looked like he might be a big winner. The team ran solidly in the Top 25 for most of the race’s first half, and LePage’s underdog team had dreams of an unlikely “locked in” qualifying spot dancing in their heads. Unfortunately, what looked to be a borken sway bar with less than 150 laps remaining put an end to those thoughts…LePage finished a disappointing 31st and remains 37th, 45 points out of a “locked in” spot.

Honorable Mention
Hermie Sadler: You can’t really call Hermie a loser, because he did gain a spot in the points. Unfortunately, that spot is still 42nd in the point standings. Sadler failed to capitalize on the fact that he got into the race when qualifying was snowed out. He was slow from the drop of the green flag, never got his car up to speed and finished 43rd in the race. 34 points is not a lot for you to move very far up in the point standings.

Travis Kvapil: Kvapil was able to make the race based on the #32 team’s point position. However, he was caught up in an accident on lap 351 that ended his chances of a solid finish to boost his slim hopes of jumping within reach of the Top 35 following Bristol. The car could not be repaired, and the team was sent home in 40th place. The result leaves the Cal Wells squad a distant 41st in car owner points.

On the Bubble:

Pos Owner Car # Points Points from 35th Points behind next
25 Kyle Petty 45 466 80 -14
26 Nelson Bowers 01 461 75 -5
27 Chip Ganassi 41 450 64 -11
28 Gene Haas 66 440 54 -10
29 Glen Wood 21 439 53 -1
30 Bill Saunders 96 428 42 -11
31 Bill Davis 22 401 15 -27
32 Richard Petty 43 400 14 -1
33 Doug Bawel 55 397 11 -3
34 Ray Evernham 19 395 9 -2
35 James Rocco 10 386   -9

On the Outside Looking In:

Pos Owner Car # Points Points from 35th Points behind next
36 Nelson Bowers 14 356 -30 -30
37 Jeff Stec 61 341 -45 -15
38 Felix Sabates 40 326 -60 -15
39 Larry McClure 4 317 -69 -9
40 Beth Ann Morgenthau 49 305 -81 -12
41 Cal Wells 32 223 -163 -82
42 Michael Anderson 00 170 -216 -53
43 Stanton Barrett 195 149 -237 -21
44 Teresa Earnhardt 15 147 -239 -2
45 Brad Jenkins 34 119 -267 -28

With five races complete, there will be no more living on last year’s efforts. Teams outside of the Top 35 in points in the 2006 standings will now have to qualify for races on speed. Sterling Marlin, Kevin LePage, David Stremme, Scott Wimmer, Brent Sherman, and Travis Kvapil will have some very sleepless nights in the coming weeks. They know now that they will have to get into races the old fashioned way…they’ll have to earn it.

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Mike
03/27/2006 06:49 AM
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Hey Mike. Hahaha..looks like what I posted weeks back has final come to fruition!
The people at Coors will be drinking themselves silly all week having to now qualify ON SPEED for a race (I imagine this is the kind of thing a rookie can lose his ride over…) And a Sunday possibly without Sterling!?!?!? lol. Mr. Mayfield and Mr. Waltrip are goinbg to fall under this axe sooner or later, too.

You have the best column, because this is going to be the most entertaining saga all year!

Bill
03/27/2006 09:27 AM
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I’m not sure if your comments on Jeff Green were completely accurate. He did get into the back of the 38 car. Maybe Elliott should have given a hand signal when making a green flag pit stop. I picked that info just by listening to the guys on their scanners. The 19 car came down on Green going into the corner. I believe you could give credit to Mayfield for that one. Just an opinion. Bill

 

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