When it comes to the Top 35 nowadays, it’s really become more about separating the “3” out of that number than anything else. For the past month, the battle has stood amongst three teams within Petty Enterprises (No. 45), Wood Brothers/JTG Racing (No. 21), and Bill Davis Racing (No. 22). Whatever the driver behind the wheel, they’re fighting hard for the final two spots within that coveted 35-team window – as well as the automatic qualifying exemption that goes with it. As the season winds down, regular readers of this column know how much the intensity level has simply been ratcheted up – the stakes are just as high as if they were competing for the coveted Nextel Cup trophy.
“If you are out of the 35th, you’re in the basement, and it’s tough to get out of the basement to get back to the floor,” explained Kyle Petty this weekend about the predicament these teams are facing, especially looking ahead to 2008. “If you’re not in the Top 35 going into the winter, then you know those first [five] races, you have to make those first [five] races and you have to score points in those first [five] races.”
“And, if you don’t make them and don’t score points, guess what, you’re back in the basement again and another year has started and it’s tough to dig out. It’s a tough place.”
Kansas also proved a tough place for Petty and one other team battling for these coveted spots; to find out who that was, whether any other team is in jeopardy of falling back to the fracas, and what Toyota teams can’t even make it to the starting grid, read on for this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.
Top-35 Storylines From Kansas
How did the No. 22 rebound from its DNQ last week?
Brilliantly. The team’s miscues at Dover had proved an eyesore not just for Dave Blaney but the entire Bill Davis Racing organization – it was the first time all season both the No. 22 and the No. 36 of Jeremy Mayfield had failed to qualify at the same time, leaving the team without a Cup car on the starting grid for the first time since Atlanta in the fall of 2004. The miss shot the team back from 19 to 105 behind the coveted 35th spot; however, it also proved a great motivator to right the ship before it was too late.
“This Caterpillar Racing team is pretty tough,” Blaney said heading into the Kansas race weekend. “Everyone has been through a lot these past couple of years, and we all still show up fighting every week. We believe we have what it takes to be competitive week in and week out; we just have to make it all come together.”
And come together at Kansas it did. Starting shotgun on the field, Blaney overcame a poor qualifying run that left him 43rd to move up to 15th by race’s end. Patient and methodical through traffic, the Camry was clearly the class of the Bubble Breakdown group on this day, leading three laps under caution and running in the top 10 for 60 of the 210-lap shortened distance.
“Our car was really good,” Blaney exclaimed once his run was complete. “We didn’t have to change much all day… it stayed consistent.”
That consistency paid off in spades – causing a huge chunk of the No. 21 team’s lead to disappear heading to Talladega, where anything can and will happen.
Gap between No. 21 (35th) and No. 22 (36th) – sliced from 105 to just 49 points
How did Petty and Ken Schrader respond?
It was a tale of two races for the teams Blaney’s No. 22 is in hot pursuit of. Petty’s No. 45 car started 33rd and struggled early; before the big rain delay at the race’s midpoint, it was questionable whether the car would even finish inside the top 30. But rain changes everything, and Petty’s crew chief Billy Wilburn used pit strategy to fight their way inside the top 15, keeping the car on the track and away from pitting before the rains came. After the big delay, the car restarted 14th; it slowly fell back through the pack after that, but still wound up with a final result of 21st place. That kept the team comfortably ahead of both the No. 21 and No. 22 in the standings.
Schrader and the No. 21 weren’t so lucky. As the race got back underway from the giant red flag, Schrader found himself racing Michael Waltrip in front of the leaders as the green flag flew. Heading through turns 1 and 2, Schrader misjudged, Waltrip left him no room, and a multi-car wreck simply ensued. Damaged in that incident, Schrader was never the same and finished 32nd, two laps down. A rough end to a difficult race for him, it brings the average finish with Schrader and the No. 21 team to a ho-hum 29th place since he returned in September; it’s a gaudy number you don’t want to see from a program fighting hard to fend off all challengers.
Petty (No. 45) – Remains 34th in points, gap drops to 98
Schrader (No. 21) – Remains 35th in points, gap drops to 49
Can anyone else be dragged into the Top-35 race?
It’s unlikely on either side… although if Kenny Wallace continues to struggle with the No. 88 of Robert Yates, there’s a slight chance that could develop into a problem for that organization. Wallace ran into brake problems that caused him to spin out on the track and get sent to the garage for repairs, causing the No. 88 to drop further back in owner points with a 40th-place finish. Now 169 points ahead of 36th-place Blaney, one or two slip-ups are all that’s needed to drag the Yates Ford into the thick of things; of course, that’s not exactly the news you look for from a team looking to gain primary sponsorship for both its cars for next season.
Aside from Blaney’s impressive run, Toyotas didn’t have the best of Sundays out in Kansas. Several impressive qualifying performances went for naught, especially those of Waltrip and Dale Jarrett: the two veterans rolled to the starting grid 11th and 13th, only to fall to 30th and 26th by race’s end.
On the bright side, hope looms large for those Camry programs who do seem to be trying to build something to improve upon. One week removed from the Dover debacle, Mayfield was 22nd as he keeps the seat at the No. 36 warm for Jacques Villeneuve next year. Meanwhile, David Reutimann fell to 31st after a wreck late… but up until that point, he had been a solid top-15 contender. Whether he’ll remain with Toyota, as well, remains to be seen; a contract offer is on the table for 2008 from Michael Waltrip Racing, but the savvy rookie hasn’t signed it as of yet.
Top-Three Finishing Toyotas
Blaney (No. 22) – Finished 15th
Mayfield (No. 36) – Finished 22nd
Jarrett (No. 44) – Finished 26th
Breaking Down the Bubble
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|31||Robert Yates Racing||38||David Gilliland||2,404||+230|
|32||Robert Yates Racing||88||Ricky Rudd/Kenny Wallace||2,294||+120|
|33||Haas CNC Racing||70||Johnny Sauter||2,285||+111|
|34||Petty Enterprises||45||Kyle Petty||2,213||+39|
|35||Wood Brothers||21||Ken Schrader/Bill Elliott||2,174||0|
|36||Bill Davis Racing||22||Dave Blaney||2,125||-49|
|37||Evernham Motorsports||10||Scott Riggs||1,995||-179|
|38||Red Bull Racing||83||Brian Vickers||1,885||-289|
|39||Michael Waltrip Racing||00||David Reutimann||1,828||-346|
|40||Michael Waltrip Racing||44||Dale Jarrett||1,448||-726|
|41||Furniture Row Racing||78||Joe Nemechek||1,344||-830|
|42||Morgan-McClure Motorsports||4||Ward Burton||1,338||-836|
|43||Michael Waltrip Racing||55||Michael Waltrip||1,293||-881|
|44||Bill Davis Racing||36||Jeremy Mayfield||1,282||-892|
|45||BAM Racing||49||John Andretti||1,180||-994|
|46||Team Red Bull||84||AJ Allmendinger||1,169||-1,005|
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