(Editor’s Note: Mike Neff is off this week. He’ll be back writing the Top 35 next Monday! This time around, Managing Editor Tom Bowles fills in).
Martinsville’s short-track action did more than its fair share of shaking up the points standings Sunday afternoon. With 18 cautions, one short of the track record, there was no shortage of cars with body damage by the time the checkered flag fell. The drivers battling for position within the Top 35 weren’t immune to the wreckage; in fact, they played a major role in crashes throughout the day.
With several of those wrecks both starting by and claiming “bubble” teams, there are more than a few organizations that left the half-mile oval a little frustrated. Still, with four races remaining, there’s not much for many of these teams to hang their head over; the Top-35 picture is beginning to clear up. Several teams worked themselves into clinching a “locked-in” spot for 2007 with strong runs on Sunday, and there now appears to be just one team on the outside looking in left capable of knocking out a current Top-35 team before the end of the season.
Which of those teams appears the most vulnerable? Read this week’s Winners and Losers among the bubble teams to find out….
While he didn’t move up any positions, Kyle Petty and his No. 45 team emerged in great shape after Sunday’s race. It wasn’t easy; in desperate need of a good run to have any shot of climbing back into a “locked-in” spot by the end of the season, Petty and Co. fought hard. After qualifying 14th, Kyle was sitting backwards on the track before five laps were even complete, victim of an early spinout that put him at the rear of the field. Still, the car was good, the driver was motivated, and the team hit on all cylinders; fighting back throughout the race, Petty emerged as a top-15 car, using a two-tire stop in the last 100 laps to propel him into the top 10. Coming home with a 10th-place finish, the 134 points his No. 45 team scored brought them within 72 points of 35th place with just four races remaining.
Accompanying Kyle in the top 10 Sunday was Jeff Green, scoring his second such finish in three races with Haas CNC’s No. 66. After a crew-chief swap earlier in the week, Green was reunited with former Busch Series champion crew chief Harold Holly, and the strong chemistry the two accumulated through the years has paid immediate dividends. Once putting themselves in danger for falling out of the Top 35, the month of October has now catapulted the No. 66 up to 28th in owner points, 367 ahead of 36th. That virtually assures the team of a spot in the 2007 Daytona 500, barring a major catastrophe.
Finally, David Stremme quietly put in one of his best performances of the season for the No. 40 team. The rookie spun himself out within the first 100 laps of the race, but kept his composure, eventually working his way back onto the lead lap through the Lucky Dog rule. Staying out of trouble the rest of the day, Stremme used late cautions to boost his position and come home 15th, keeping a cushion for his No. 40 bunch in front of 36th-place heading to two tracks where he struggled in the spring – Atlanta and Texas.
Martinsville has provided the spotlight for one of sponsor Tide’s best moments – Ricky Rudd won here in 1998 for his final victory behind the wheel of his No. 10 Ford despite nearly collapsing from exhaustion in victory lane. Unfortunately, Travis Kvapil hasn’t had the same kind of luck. Involved in two accidents Sunday, the car eventually broke a gear and ended the day in the garage area, finishing 40th on a day when his closest competition for the Top 35 all did well. Now 244 points behind 35th place, the No. 32 team owned by Cal Wells must earn its way into the Daytona 500 – and find a 2007 sponsor to boot, meaning their future is very much in question.
After a strong start to his tenure with the No. 19 team, Elliott Sadler hasn’t been doing himself any favors. With three straight finishes of 29th or worse entering Sunday, the Virginian looked to turn things around at his home track – instead, he had his car’s drivetrain turn useless while running in the top five. Forced into the garage, the 38th-place finish cost the No. 19 team dearly – they’re now only 140 points ahead of 36th place in the standings. One or two more bad runs, and car owner Ray Evernham may be forced to deal with a second straight year of Daytona nightmares come 2007.
Finally, while Sterling Marlin didn’t have a bad day, his finish could have been much better. After being involved in the first wreck of the day with fellow Top-35 competitor Petty, Marlin was lapped early, but got it back and charged his way up into the top 15. Running comfortably in 12th as the laps wound down, Marlin appeared ready to strengthen his team’s position in owner points… until some debris hanging off the rear bumper forced him to pit road under one of the race’s final cautions. Dropping to 21st in the final running order, he saw his comfort zone in the Top 35 shrink 34 points, from 106 to 72… clearly, this group is not out of the danger zone just yet.
ON THE BUBBLE
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Points||Points Ahead Of 36th||Points Behind Next Position|
ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Points||Points Behind 35th||Points Behind Next Position|
|40||Beth Ann Morgenthau||49||1600||-991||-505|
Heading to the 1.5-mile oval of Atlanta next week, it’s pure horsepower, not short-track prowess, that once again becomes important to these teams. Expect those outside the Top 35 to struggle to be competitive, their smaller degree of resources taking a toll at a track where handlng alone won’t get the job done.
Still, for those lucky enough to qualify for the race, they’ll feel the same sense of satisfaction they always feel at any other event… that they earned their spot.