On the Edge: The Battle For The Top 35 In Nextel Cup Owner Points · Mike Neff · Sunday September 10, 2006
While the race to the Chase may have been set at Richmond, with the Top 10 now “locked in” to compete for the Cup title, the battle for the Top 35 is still less than Â¾ of the way complete. With 10 races left on the schedule, there are still plenty of opportunities for teams close to the dreaded 35th place “bubble” to move up or down in the point standings. Not only is the pressure on for existing teams to stay above the cut for next year, but tensions run especially high for those switching to Toyota in the offseason. With nearly all those teams at or just below the 35th place cutoff, they are desperately battling to secure their positions so that the manufacturer is guaranteed starting positions in the Daytona 500 next February.
While no new teams entered the Top 35 after Richmond, the track provided a few position changes in and around the bubble, and a possible glimpse into one team’s future struggles. Read on to find out who in this week’s winners and losers:
Dave Blaney had an outstanding race at Richmond. After starting 15th, he moved up quickly in the CAT Dodge and positioned himself in the Top 10 for good by lap 140. Blaney wouldn’t stop there, though; he continued to march forward, charging to fourth place by lap 300, a position he held the rest of the evening to score his first career Top 5 finish on a short track. Fourth place also marked a season high for the No. 22 Bill Davis Racing team, easily bettering their previous mark of 13th, and the 160 points they earned moved them up two spots to 28th in the owner standings, the highest ranking of any team switching to Toyota for 2007.
Ken Schrader, meanwhile, proved once again that he can get the job done on short tracks. After starting 17th and slipping into the 20s early in the race, the team made some adjustments and Schrader began moving through the field. The No. 21 Air Force team was running 10th by lap 220, and their solid performance caused crew chief Michael McSwain to consider gambling on pit strategy. During the caution on lap 253, he chose to leave Schrader on the track, a move which vaulted the No. 21 car into the lead when those ahead of him came to pit road. While the team only held the top spot for nine laps, they were able to hold their own in the Top 5, and when the next caution flew on lap 321, Schrader was able to pit with everyone else and stay near the front of the pack. The No. 21 team ultimately came home in 7th place, and the 151 points earned, including five for leading a lap, moved the team up to 29th in the owner standings.
Lastly, J.J. Yeley was finally able to finish what he started on Saturday night. For once, the racing gods smiled on the No. 18 team and allowed them to finish a race in which they had a competitive car. Starting 32nd, Yeley was able to move into the Top 15 for good by lap 280 and bring the car home in 13th place, snagging top honors for the three car Joe Gibbs Racing team. The 124 points garnered for that finish moved the team up one spot in the owner standings to 27th, pushing him further away from the bubble.
Jeff Green was the biggest loser at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night. Green was having a solid night in the No. 66 Haas Racing Chevrolet, running on the lead lap when he was hit from behind by Jimmie Johnson on lap 261 and turned into the backstretch wall. The car suffered significant front end damage and was forced to the garage for repairs. While the team eventually did get back on the track, they were only able to complete 273 laps before Green retaliated against Johnson on the race track, slamming into the No. 48 car when Johnson spun on lap 321. That transgression caused the No. 66 car to be parked the rest of the night, leaving them mired in 40th place in the final results. The 43 points awarded for that dropped the No. 66 team three spots in the owner rankings to 30th; they now are just 250 points ahead of 36th place Kyle Petty.
Tony Raines didn’t fare much better than Green Saturday night; he started in 25th position, but headed backwards from the drop of the green. The No. 96 Hall of Fame Racing team battled an ill handling car, then lost a cylinder, which ultimately caused a disappointing 39th place finish, 10 laps behind. Only scoring 46 points on the night, the run dropped Hall of Fame Racing two positions to 31st in owner points.
As for teams on the outside looking in, Michael Waltrip continues to struggle in the NAPA Dodge. Failing to qualify on speed, the car was sent home for the third time this season, with his team falling 259 points behind 35th place Sterling Marlin with 10 races left. That’s still a reasonable mountain to overcome, but the way this team is running, Toyota shouldn’t expect any miracles.
Finally, while not quite in our watch group yet, it looks like it is only a matter of time before David Gilliland slips into the Top 35 battle. Gilliland has run four races for Robert Yates Racing in the No. 38 car, and has finishes of 38th, 40th, 32nd and 36th. Gilliland’s team is now only 406 points ahead of 36th place Kyle Petty, and the team has fallen to 25th in points. If the team doesn't develop some chemistry and improve their finishes over the next 10 races, there is a possibility that Robert Yates’ experiment of putting the rookie in the car for the last 14 races of this season could result in one of his teams needing to qualify for the first five races of next season on speed.
On The Bubble:
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Points||Points from 36th||Points behind next position|
On The Outside Looking In:
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Points||Points from 35th||Points behind next position|
|40||Beth Ann Morgenthau||49||1294||-743||-439|
The circuit now heads to Loudon, New Hampshire for their second visit to the track this season. The flat one mile oval can hold many pitfalls for teams who are already not having a great year. While the Chase officially begins here, the teams battling for the Top 35 in owner points will simply double their efforts in their own “Chase”...the Chase to be assured a guaranteed starting spot in the first five races of next season.
One thing is for sure, the teams on the outside looking in that leave Loudon with an increase in their points position will do it the old fashioned wayâ€¦they'll earn it.
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