Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday March 26, 2007
Last Sunday’s race at Bristol, the fifth race of the season, was not only the first race for the Car of Tomorrow, but the last race to use the 2006 owner points to determine those teams locked into the starting field. Going forward, the teams will use the 2007 owner's points and the premium on qualifying on speed will be even higher. The field that will battle for the top 35 starting cut-off is much more in focus now than it was early in the year. Everyone thought that the Toyotas would be in the battle, but now all of the players are obvious.
The biggest loser in the whole Top 35 battle was probably Dale Jarrett. Jarrett had the luxury of a past champions provisional to get him into the first five races of the season, and he used them in all but the last race. However, he didn't produce the results necessary to move himself up into the top 35 in 2007 points so that he would not have to rely on a past champ’s provisional, which he has only two of currently, or qualify on speed to avoid going home for the weekend.
The No. 44 team had a prime opportunity to set themselves up if they could have had a decent set of runs during the first five races. Instead, they were sub-par at best and, while they were the top finishing Toyota several times, those finishes were still in the 30s. Now, Jarrett is in the unenviable position of having to qualify on speed with a team that obviously doesn't have a handle on making their car go fast. The rest of the season is going to be a very long and arduous journey for the UPS team.
A close second in the biggest disappointment category is Kasey Kahne. Kahne led the series in wins last year, and was by far the top producing car in the Evernham stable. However, this year has been an unmitigated disaster for the No. 9 team. Often unable to get out of their own way, and several times involved in the misfortunes of others. The fact that Kahne's team is sitting 34th in points for the highest profile Dodge owner in the sport, is embarrassing to say the least, and speaks quite a bit to how Ray Evernham's vision of the new Cup team might not be as clairvoyant as so many predicted when he first set it up. Elliott Sadler is carrying the banner right now, but the other two teams are mired in the battle for the top 35 and that cannot be sitting well with the folks from Detroit and Berlin who are pumping so much money into this operation.
Speaking of the other two teams for Evernham, Scott Riggs has been rather disappointing in his start of the 2007 season this year as well. Everyone knows that last year they missed the Daytona 500 and had to battle all year to recover from that, ending up 20th in points and with more top 10 finishes than Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr who finished in front of him in the point standings. Most of the pundits thought Riggs would start off strong this year with the way that team battled all of last year and the strong runs that they had to close out the season. Unfortunately, that has not been the case, with a crash, an engine failure and two finishes in the 30s while still running at the end, Riggs finds his No. 10 team in 43rd place in the owner's point standings and 100 points behind 35th. Fortunately for Riggs, he is a decent qualifier, but having the onus of making the next few races on speed, the team could very well be going home again for a race this season.
The Toyota teams knew they had a battle on their hands to start the season. Other than Dale Jarrett's past champion's provisional, the teams all had to qualify on speed to make any of the first five races this year. With the large number of cars that have been showing up for races this year, that task has been magnified and resulted in teams going home every weekend from the upstart manufacturer in the sport. Dave Blaney has done a very good job of making the races on speed this year, but the gods have not been on his side when it comes to racing luck and the result is that he is on the outside of the top 35 looking in. The Red Bull Racing teams of AJ Allmendinger and Brian Vickers have also struggled mightily making races. With the amount of money that Red Bull is pouring into this effort they cannot be too pleased with the lack of results. Vickers is an experienced driver who should be putting up better qualifying results for a team that has the backing of Red Bull and Toyota, Allmendinger is simply a fish out of water at this point in time. He is a young driver coming over from open wheel racing and is just not ready to be competing at the highest level of NASCAR. It would have served Red Bull very well to have put Allmendinger in as many Busch races as they could to get him more seat time. It is a good bet that you'll see AJ running more Busch races as the season progresses.
The final team worth mentioning is the Wood Brothers and the No. 21 with Ken Schrader and Jon Wood at the wheel. The Wood Brothers team is a very established organization and, knowing the success that Schrader had with BAM and that underfunded operation, it would have been expected that he would have done better during the four races he ran in the first five of the season. The team now finds themselves in the undesirable position of qualifying on time, which is not a strong suit of Schrader. Fortunately for the Woods, Martinsville is next up and Schrader can definitely drive a car on a short track.
So the table is now set, some established teams are battling for the top 35 in points that certainly expected to be farther up the list. Other teams knew they were in for a battle and the end result bears that out, the stress and anxiety of making it on speed is going to be present for weeks to come. It won't be surprising to see a change in the locked in rules for next year once you see some high profile teams go home on a race weekend because of failing to qualify on speed. But one thing is for sure, qualifying has a lot more excitement than it used to.
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