As Atlanta Motor Speedway successfully separated the Chase contenders from the pretenders, it served just as important a role in pinpointing which teams still have to worry about falling out of the Top 35 for next season. As multiple Chase participants fell by the wayside, they made sure to take teams on the opposite end of the spectrum with them, causing the future of some teams to become a little more clouded for next year.
Of course, that wasn’t the case for everyone; several other teams found themselves in a position to celebrate once the Atlanta race was complete. With only three races left, many of the “bubble” teams in the 26th through 35th-place range in owner points have now pulled away enough from 36th on back to secure their spots for next year, leaving just a select few to battle on to keep from being forced to qualify on speed for the first five races of 2007.
Which teams can breathe a sigh of relief, and which ones need to take a deep breath and hope for the best? Take a look in this week’s Winners and Losers:
“Debrisgate” aside, Robby Gordon showed what his team is capable of at Atlanta. After being sidelined with several hard-luck finishes during the second half of this season, Gordon’s team had slid back into the “bubble” category, but they pulled through with a strong all-around race on Sunday. Taking advantage of a Lucky Dog pass to get back on the lead lap and strengthen the handling of his racecar, the No. 7 bunch saw their driver respond and work his way up to 10th, his best oval finish of the year off the superspeedways. That run boosted them up two spots to 27th in owner points; now 376 ahead of the 36th spot and Kyle Petty‘s No. 45, this group should no longer have to worry about qualifying for the Daytona 500 next year; they’re already in.
Joe Nemechek has had a horrific year, but he’s stuck it out in the No. 01 Army Chevrolet, and now things are finally beginning to turn around. Driving through the field with ease Sunday, Nemechek took a car that started outside the top 30 and brought it home ninth, his fourth consecutive top-20 finish with his MB2 Motorsports team. While the year continues to be a disappointment, the finish put his No. 01 team 285 points ahead of 36th place in owner points, putting them in solid shape to hold down a “locked in” spot for new driver Mark Martin at the Daytona 500 next year.
Elliott Sadler‘s mechanical failure at Martinsville put him in a precarious position entering Atlanta, with his team now back within striking distance of falling out of the Top 35. Under pressure, both he and the team responded fairly well; staying out of trouble and running a solid pace, the team ran 21st, three laps down. While that may not seem like much, that meant the world to Sadler; it’s his first finish better than 29th since Dover in September, a run that clearly stops the bleeding. The result allowed Sadler’s No. 19 team owned by Ray Evernham to jump one spot to 33rd in owner points. The team lost a few points to the No. 45 after their 17th-place run, but they still remain 128 ahead of 36th with three races left to knock them out.
When Kasey Kahne decided it was a good idea to forget he had a car running beside of him, David Stremme was the innocent victim involved. The resulting wreck between both cars didn’t just serve to end Kahne’s Chase chances; it put Stremme squarely back in the midst of a Top 35 battle he thought was over for good. Finishing 39th, the mere 46 points earned by Stremme dropped his No. 40 team back to 34th in owner points, just 122 ahead of 36th with three races to go. Momentum fading, this team might be the odd man out when the smoke clears at Homestead if they’re not careful. Of course, Stremme didn’t help his cause with his personality dysfunction after the wreck, continuing to argue with good friend Kahne even after Kahne took full responsibility for the accident.
Tony Raines has been running well of late, but Atlanta was not so kind to both himself and the No. 96 team. Pitting early for a tire he thought was flat, it turned out nothing was wrong with the tires on Raines’s Chevrolet… it was the handling. Fighting a vibration and an extremely loose condition throughout the night, the No. 96 came home 34th, six laps behind. That poor performance dropped the team back down two spots to 29th in owner points, although they remain 319 points ahead of 36th and appear to be comfortably “locked in” for 2007.
Mike Bliss has lit a spark under the floundering No. 49 team since replacing Kevin Lepage last month. Failing to qualify for several races this season, the team has run markedly better in the events that Bliss has made, and clearly had their best run of the year going Sunday. Running solidly in the top 20 all night, Bliss received the Lucky Dog pass late in the race and was challenging for the team’s first top-10 finish all season. Then, with just four laps remaining, the engine let go in the WhatsOnline.com Dodge… with too much smoke pouring from his car to remain on track, Bliss was forced to pull it into the garage, dropping the No. 49 to 26th in the final running order. One of the “bubble” teams with no chance to work their way back into the Top 35, the run left the No. 49 40th in owner points… and, more importantly, wondering about important momentum lost in a plume of smoke.
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||1685||-1009||-457|
Fresh off the 1.5-mile challenge provided at Atlanta, the teams move ahead to a similar track configuration at Texas next week. Here, those teams outside the Top 35 will begin to see the difficulties they’ll face in the future if they don’t make it back in by Homestead. The Cup race is packed with an entry list at 51 teams, several of which are preparing for future full-time efforts in 2007; with that number expected to stray above 50 for the foreseeable future, the task for making the field becomes all the more daunting. Not only that, but the presence of Cup champions Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott mean one less spot available for those struggling teams.
Due to the high speeds at Texas, horsepower is at a premium, so expect those “bubble” teams with a multi-car operation capable of purchasing a top quality engine to have the edge on making the field. As for those underdogs that do sneak in… more than ever before, they’ll earn their starting spot.