Right-front tires and unstable grip were the talk of the town Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, variables which led to increasing instability as the Top-35 standings continue to fluctuate early in 2008.
The mix of a new track configuration, a new car and wind gusts up to 40 mph all led to an unpredictable race Sunday. But the mystery reached a whole new level when Goodyears started popping like popcorn – right-front tires blowing out and questionable tire grip accounted for the elimination of several drivers. Among the ’07-’08 bubble drivers involved in these tire-related woes were Patrick Carpentier, Robby Gordon, Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr. For Carpentier, the blow was especially devastating; the rookie made his first Cup race of the year and desperately needed points to dig his No. 10 team out of a deep hole to begin 2008.
Gordon’s bout with the backstretch wall also put his ’08 season on the line. Heading to Atlanta with an unsponsored car, the March 5th appeal date looms large for the No. 7 team as they work to stay afloat in an era of multi-car teams and their seemingly unlimited cash disposal. Gordon’s fate may very well reside with the National Stock Car Racing Commission; while safe for now based on 2007 owner points, the No. 7 car is currently 37th in the ’08 standings three races in, putting it in position to have to qualify on speed later this month at Martinsville. But if you add back the 100-point penalty Gordon received for an illegal nose-piece at Daytona, his standing rises all the way up to 21st.
As for Busch’s late crash, don’t expect it to damage his Top-35 hopes too much. Still forced to qualify on speed due to the owner points switch with teammate Hornish, Busch has used only one champion’s provisional so far; and with just two races remaining before ’08 points are used, his team sits 12th in the standings despite their latest setback. Look for the No. 2 car to stay well above the cut line; in contrast, the rookie Hornish’s second wreck in a row leaves him more vulnerable than ever. Now 38th in ’08 owner points with the No. 77 Dodge, it’s becoming apparently that the five-race safety net owner Roger Penske established for his IRL convert may just be a temporary fix.
For other teams that were outside the 35th position in owner points last year, the No. 83 car with Brian Vickers continues to lead the pack despite a loop around turn 4 at Vegas; finishing 24th, he’s tied for 12th in the standings with Busch. Other drivers listed below whose teams are in position to “lock-in” a qualifying spot later this month include David Reutimann, Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip.
Right on the bubble behind them is what to me is the biggest surprise; Rick Hendrick’s No. 5 car driven by Casey Mears. Mears was 42nd in 2008 owner points heading into Sunday, and even a 12th-place finish isn’t enough to keep him completely out of danger; now 34th, he needs solid runs at Atlanta and Bristol to avoid the awkward position of being forced to qualify an HMS car on speed.
Here’s a look at which teams are in trouble and which teams are bailing out of it in the table below. As the teams without an exemption from 2007 sweat out another two weeks before ’08 points come into play, you’ll see a lot of teams in position to keep sweating it out no matter what; the No. 49 of BAM Racing, the No. 27 of Bill Davis Racing and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford are among those not previously mentioned who look to be outside the Top 35 for a long time to come.
2008 Owner Points After Las Vegas — 20th to 45th
|Pos||Driver||Car No.||Points||From 35th||PPos||G/L|
|24||Juan Pablo Montoya||42||276||64||27||3|
|38||Sam Hornish Jr.||77||192||-20||33||-5|
Editor’s Note: Remember, these standings do not take effect for qualifying until the sixth race of the year at Martinsville (scheduled for March 30th)