After a long season of battling both up front and in the back of the pack, just one race, Homestead, remains to determine who is guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races of next season. While we have concentrated all year on the teams from 26th to 45th, the battle is now much more confined; 32 teams have now “locked-in” to the Daytona 500 and beyond in 2007, from the championship-leading No. 48 Chevy of Jimmie Johnson to the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford of Ken Schrader. Behind them, there are just four teams that have the potential to either lock in or fall out of the Top 35 in owner points in the final race.
With each of these operations laying it all on the line, a rollercoaster weekend at Phoenix ensued, with the fortunes of all four seeming to twist at every turn. Here’s a look at how each one fared on Sunday:
Sterling Marlin had the potential for a great finish right in front of him at Phoenix. The No. 14 Ginn Motorsports team, 36th in owner points entering the race, ran strong throughout the event and looked poised to bring home a top-15 finish. With the No. 14’s major competition, the No. 45 of Kyle Petty, a lap down for much of the race, it appeared Marlin would gain plenty of points for his team. Instead, on lap 292 Marlin slid up into Dale Jarrett coming out of turn 4 and did significant damage to his car. He went behind the wall for repairs and ultimately completed just 303 laps, ending up a disappointing 36th in the final results. Losing an additional 28 points to Petty on the weekend, the No. 14 remains 36th in owner points.
Speaking of Petty, he had another poor showing at Phoenix. Petty’s car ran in the 30s or high-20s virtually all day. It was only thanks to a flurry of caution flags over the last 70 laps of the race that got the No. 45 car back on the lead lap; once there, he was able to gain a handful of spots, eventually winding up in 25th place. Still, Marlin’s misfortune became Petty’s good luck, and the No. 45 pulled 47 points ahead of Marlin and the No. 14 heading to Homestead next Sunday.
Elliott Sadler had another mid-pack run at Phoenix that kept getting better as the race went on. Finishing on the lead lap for the first time since New Hampshire in September, the No. 19 Evernham Motorsports team ran in the mid-20s for most of the race. However, taking two tires during a caution flag on lap 256 boosted the car up into the top 15, and Sadler was able to fight to keep the ill-handling vehicle in the same position, eventually coming home with a 17th-place finish. 121 points ahead of 36th place, the No. 19 bunch now has a solid handle on 34th in owner points heading to Homestead.
Finally, David Stremme came very close to locking up a Top-35 owner points finish for his team this weekend. Keeping the No. 40 car out of trouble, the rookie finished on the lead lap in 18th place at Phoenix, gaining valuable points in a year where he has admittedly struggled. Not only did the run keep the No. 40 car 33rd, it put them 156 points ahead of 36th in owner points, all but assuring them of a spot at Daytona in 2007. Simply put, it will take an amazing development for this team to fall out of the Top 35… although it is possible.
Now that we’ve reviewed each team’s weekend, let’s look at the scenario for each one heading into Homestead to clinch their “spot” for next year:
- Stremme needs to finish 42nd or better in the No. 40 car to clinch a spot for his team.
- Sadler needs to finish 30th or better in the No. 19 car to clinch a spot for his team.
- Petty needs to finish seventh or better in the No. 45 car to clinch a Top 35 spot for his team, no matter what Marlin does.
Marlin, unfortunately, is involved with the team that’s the odd man out; he simply needs to finish as high as he possibly can at Homestead to give his team the best opportunity to overtake one of the three teams in front of them they can mathematically catch.
As far as the Top-35 watch group, it breaks down like this:
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||1819||-1030||-490|
Homestead will be a nerve-wracking experience for the teams battling for the Top 35 as much or more than for the teams contending for the championship. With the influx of new teams coming into the sport next year, the entry lists are going to be very large, and a glimpse of that will be evident this week at Homestead, where it is anticipated that the entry list could very well be the largest of this year. Making races on speed is going to be harder than it has been in almost a decade, making the luxury of having a guaranteed starting spot for the first five races, including the Daytona 500, a financial windfall of epic proportions for some of these struggling teams. Of course, there’s only one team remaining who could ruin someone else’s prospects for 2007; but Marlin not only will have to handle the pressure and make the field on time this weekend, he’ll have to perform at a high level in the race as well. Should Marlin fail, the consequences will be severe; his Ginn Motorsports team will have to make the first five races on speed next year. That is a daunting task, to say the least.
Well, one thing is for sure. The three teams of these four that do finish in the Top 35 will have qualified for their 2007 immunity the old-fashioned way all season… they’ll have earned it.
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