Being in the Top 35 for the first five races this season is a great luxury for those lucky enough to secure a spot at the conclusion of 2007. But after that, each team has to perform well enough to stay there in order to keep enjoying those benefits.
Last week in this column, I talked about the teams on the outside of the Top 35 looking in. This week, I’m going to touch on some of the teams that wound up just inside the Top 35 last year. If past performance is any indication, they’re the ones most in jeopardy of being on the bubble this season; and with the competition closer than ever, I’ll rate the chances I think they’ll have at still being locked in by race six — or if they’re headed towards some frantic Friday afternoons instead.
With the standings containing a mix of car types, the following table shows us the owner points for 25th through 35th following Homestead in November. As I did last week, I looked at how they performed specifically in the CoT events last year — remember, the old car isn’t being used for any races this season, so the performances in those events are somewhat meaningless:
2007 Owner Standings (25th-35th)
While there were some subtle differences, none of these teams really stood out statistically, a major difference from last week. As such, let’s analyze each one a little more in-depth to separate the improving cars from the ones who look to be in trouble. I think that the new mix of JJ Yeley and the No. 96 team are going to be slow out of the gate, and may be fighting to stay in the Top 35 as a result. With Hall of Fame Racing switching from Chevrolet to Toyota and Yeley switching from the comfort of a multi-car team to a single-car outfit, there’s not a whole lot of continuity within the organization right now. In short, each entity has had its own struggles; and by coming together, they each bring some baggage and need to learn how to gel.
Chip Ganassi’s No. 40 car is being driven by Dario Franchitti this year, and I’d like to think that his race experience and the insight that Juan Pablo Montoya may share with him will give him a jumpstart on his new career. Dare I predict “Rookie Of The Year?” If that does happen, well, Montoya was 21st in owner points as ROTY in 2007; with that in mind, I feel like Franchitti will have no problem keeping his head above water.
From there, we head to Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Even though the No. 19 car with Elliott Sadler averaged 27th in the CoT races last year, they also had some in-shop issues with their simulation software that really hurt them. After some offseason restructuring that has part-owner Ray Evernham working more at the shop, they’re likely to recover nicely and put the No. 19 car back in the top 20. Both driver and team are capable of getting the job done.
The No. 7 car, driven by Robby Gordon, now has an association with Gillett Evernham Motorsports as well after being a single-car island for several years. Because of that, expect them to do a lot better than the average 25th-place finish that he had in last year’s CoT races; if Gordon can keep his head about him and quit doing victory celebrations when he doesn’t win, I don’t see his shop having the issues they did last year — and this is one car you don’t have to worry about each Friday.
The No. 15 car with Paul Menard, on the other hand, averaged 26th in CoT events. I never had a feel for this DEI team, as they’ve always been in the background behind some more famous teammates — and that doesn’t change this season with Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr. still in the fold. In short, I think this team will continue to flounder a bit unless something miraculous happens for them… leaving them in jeopardy of being replaced in the Top 35 by April. Remember, this team was qualifying on speed for every race last season, until DEI’s merger with Ginn Racing essentially “bought” the team a locked in qualifying spot.
From there, we head to Haas CNC Racing. The No. 66 car switches to Scott Riggs for 2008, who averaged a 27th-place finish in CoT races back at Evernham. This matchup may help both parties, however, as I think Riggs has what it takes to get to the front if the team can put the equipment under him — and with an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, the team is likely to do just that.
On the other hand, Haas’ No. 70 team has a new driver in Jeremy Mayfield, who has not had a lot of race experience in the CoT after struggling to qualify for races last year. As such, it may be a learning experience for everyone involved — even with Mayfield’s two years of Chase experience. Watch this team fall precariously close to the bubble early on.
Another team that could find themselves in trouble is the two-car outfit of Yates Racing. David Gilliland in the No. 38 car had an average CoT finish of 31st and a season averaging finish spot of 27th, both numbers on the lower end of the scale for this group. Those stats do not instill confidence in me in what he can do for this year; and the finances aren’t helping, either. M&M’s found themselves a new hood to ride on, and it has got to be a distraction to the team, as Gilliland has only secured sponsorship for a handful of races to date. New teammate Travis Kvapil is in even worse shape; his car doesn’t have sponsorship beyond the Daytona 500, leaving things a tall order for a Cup driver that has never stepped foot in a CoT before late last year. In short, this operation need to improve on their game plan; if not, they will be finding themselves on the outside of the Top 35 looking in.
Dave Blaney in the No. 22 car averaged 29th in CoT events last season, enough to make this the only Toyota car in the Top 35 last season. BDR is better at the intermediate tracks, and while their short-track program still needs work, I think they can get the job done. Look for them to stay in the Top 35 without much of an issue.
Finally, Petty Enterprises’ No. 45 car with Kyle Petty averaged 30th in the CoT races last year, and that is not inspiring. I would hope that something as simple as a garage relocation can help change their momentum, or lack thereof — but it’s not likely if you look at the stats. Four of the last five years, this team has hung onto to 35th or worse in owner points, and I think they’ll be out of the Top 35 by race six this year.
The bottom line is that each of these teams needs to step it up, as some of the teams outside the Top 35 are well on their way. Kurt Busch has a team experienced in winning, and Michael Waltrip and David Reutimann of Michael Waltrip Racing are just a few of the contenders that are going to upset the back half of this apple cart.
|Pos||Car #||2008 Owner||2008 Driver||Manufacturer||Avg CoT Finish In 2007 (Driver)|
|25||96||Hall Of Fame Racing||JJ Yeley||Toyota||22nd (Tony Raines)|
|26||40||Chip Ganassi||Dario Franchitti||Dodge||29th (David Stremme)|
|27||19||George Gillett||Elliott Sadler||Dodge||27th|
|28||7||Robby Gordon||Robby Gordon||Dodge||25th|
|29||15||Teresa Earnhardt||Paul Menard||Chevrolet||26th|
|30||28 (was 88)||Doug Yates||Travis Kvapil||Ford||29th (Various)|
|31||66||Haas CNC Racing||Scott Riggs||Chevrolet||23rd (Jeff Green)|
|32||38||Doug Yates||David Gilliland||Ford||31st|
|33||70||Haas CNC Racing||Jeremy Mayfield||Chevrolet||25th|
|34||22||Bill Davis||Dave Blaney||Toyota||29th|
|35||45||Kyle Petty||Kyle Petty||Dodge||30th|