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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Previewing the 2008 Battle for the Top 35, Part I

The 50th Daytona 500. It’s an upcoming milestone for everyone – teams and fans alike – but I’m going to go out on a limb and say some are so busy preparing for the first five races of the year that this 50th anniversary thing is a little detail that may be lost to them.

Instead, many are focused on making the magical 35th position in points: owner points, that is. For the new fans out there, owner points are what individual teams get from their respective driver’s performance. When NASCAR talks about granting qualifying exemptions for the Top-35 teams, that means the car and not the driver makes the differentiation. For example, 2007 Chase Cinderella Clint Bowyer would be forced to qualify on speed for the last race at Homestead if he attempted to move from the No. 07 Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet – a car he helped maneuver to third in the owner standings – to the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota that never earned an exemption all season long.

This race within a race for teams to stay within that Top 35 proves crucial at the end of each year, as teams holding those positions in owner points at the end of 2007 are now guaranteed a starting spot for the first five races of 2008. Any team left on the outside looking in is either compelled to employ a driver who is a past champion – making the team eligible for an exemption under certain circumstances – or forced to qualify on time for each event they enter. That means Speedweeks can make the best of men a nervous wreck, as these particular teams in question will be battling for just eight spots to fill out the 43-car field for the Great American Race. With that in mind, you can see why the Top-35 exemption is so coveted that those fighting for it consider it a “win” just to get there.

For the seasoned fan, the Top 35 is either a crux for grumbling for some, or a lifesaver for those who favor other drivers. This week, I want to take a look at the folks with the short straw, starting the season on the outside of the Top 35 and forced to qualify on time for the Daytona 500 and the first five races of this season.

Here’s an easy table where you can follow which full-time teams are under the gun as 2008 begins. All of these teams listed below will be a bundle of nerves for the next two weeks down at Daytona… and beyond.

2008 Full-Time Teams Without A Top-35 Exemption

Car #2008 Owner2008 DriverManufacturer
00Michael Waltrip RacingDavid ReutimannToyota
2&Penske RacingKurt BuschDodge
10Gillett Evernham MotorsportsPatrick CarpentierDodge
21Wood BrothersBill Elliott/Jon Wood/Marcos AmbroseFord
27 (was 36)Bill Davis RacingJacques VilleneuveToyota
44Michael Waltrip RacingDale JarrettToyota
49BAM RacingKen SchraderDodge
55Michael Waltrip RacingMichael WaltripToyota
78Furniture Row RacingJoe NemechekChevrolet
83Team Red BullBrian VickersToyota
84Team Red BullAJ AllmendingerToyota
Car #2008 Owner2008 DriverCoT Average Finish
00Michael Waltrip RacingDavid Reutimann22nd
2#Penske RacingKurt Busch18th
10Gillett Evernham MotorsportsPatrick Carpentier27th&
21Wood BrothersBill Elliott/Jon Wood/Marcos Ambrose30th
27 (was 36)Bill Davis RacingJacques Villeneuve35th&&
44Michael Waltrip RacingDale Jarrett34th
49BAM RacingKen Schrader36th&&&
55Michael Waltrip RacingMichael Waltrip22nd
78Furniture Row RacingJoe Nemechek32nd&&&&
83Team Red BullBrian Vickers29th
84Team Red BullAJ Allmendinger34th

# – Kurt Busch switched owners’ points with Sam Hornish Jr. and the new Penske Racing No. 77 team in the offseason – the No. 77’s points were not enough to qualify for an exemption.
& – Average Finish Was Achieved With Scott Riggs Sitting In The Seat For The Majority Of Races
&& – Average Finish Was Achieved With Jeremy Mayfield/Johnny Benson Sitting In The Driver’s Seat
&&& – Average Finish Was Achieved With Multiple Drivers In The No. 49 In 2007
&&&& – Average Finish Was Achieved With Kenny Wallace Driving Multiple Races

Of these 12 teams, six are Toyotas, three are Chevrolets, two are Dodges and one’s a Ford. As you can see, the Camry clearly struggled in its first year of competition – the No. 22 car driven by Dave Blaney joins recent addition Joe Gibbs Racing as the only Toyota organizations with an exemption for the first five races. So, how will these other teams perform to start the year? With Toyota making a strong comeback in speed tests, I think they should be OK – perhaps in the best shape of anyone on this list.

On the contrary, single-car teams like BAM and Furniture Row continue to struggle to gather the necessary resources to succeed; and without additional support from others, the beginning of 2008 may become a constant uphill battle.

If we were to make an assessment from the above, some of these teams may actually not have as much of a challenge as you think. Not surprisingly, Busch leads everyone on the list with an 18th-place finish, and it would be nothing short of a shock if he doesn’t move the No. 2 car into the Top 35 after the first five races. With the most recent past champion’s provisional at his disposal, he’ll qualify for each event regardless of speed. But second place on this list might be a surprise to most: it’s a tie between Michael Waltrip’s No. 55 and No. 00 cars, both of which struggled throughout the 2007 campaign. However, with solid Januarys and new crew chiefs leading the charge, that momentum could mesh well with these stats – as long as they make it through qualifying each week.

That’s a brief look at who you’ll find walking on eggshells. Next week, we’ll focus on the teams that could be in a similar position after race six this season, as we break down the teams currently with an exemption who are most at risk of losing their spot.