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Bubble Breakdown: On Groundbreaking Weekend, Teams on Top-35 Bubble Attempt Breaking Away From the Pack

The Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta may have made history at the front of the field – with Toyota claiming the first victory for a foreign-born manufacturer since 1954 – but it also featured a number of drivers trying to prevent history of a different sort at the rear. With just one race remaining before 2008 owner points are used to lock in provisional spots, those on the dreaded bubble were trying hard to avoid any sort of Atlanta pitfall which would leave them on the wrong side of the cutline. With Bristol up ahead, the unpredictability of a half-mile short track makes it the highest-stress event on the circuit for a team that has to snag a good finish; so for most teams Sunday, the goal was to put the bubble out of reach of even the worst Bristol disaster.

Unfortunately, not everyone could get that accomplished. Check out who’s in the toughest shape – as well as some longtime sufferers that appear on the verge of digging out of the trenches – in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown below:

2007 Cars Needing To Qualify On Speed The First Five Races In 2008

Before the race even began Sunday, five teams already found themselves in dire straits, their weekends cut short after failing to make the field down in Georgia. Those included:

No. 08 – E&M Motorsports (Burney Lamar)
No. 21 – Wood Brothers (Bill Elliott)
No. 27 – Bill Davis Racing (Johnny Benson)
No. 34 – Front Row Motorsports (John Andretti)
No. 49 – BAM Racing (Ken Schrader)

Of those DNQs, Elliott and Schrader’s were clearly the most surprising. For Elliott, it was a shocking blow at his hometown track; the Dawsonville native and 1988 Sprint Cup champ was knocked out of the field with one car remaining, forced to the sidelines due to the PCP being utilized by more recent champion Dale Jarrett. As for Schrader, he came into the weekend with the momentum of BAM’s first lead-lap finish in nearly two years; but a last-ditch effort as the final qualifier left him one spot short of making the field.

For all five of the programs listed above, digging themselves out of their 2007 misery will be nothing short of impossible at Bristol. All of them must not only qualify for the race, but score a top-five finish and hope for others to falter in order to reach the Top-35 plateau for the following weekend. The same goes for the No. 84 team now wheeled by Mike Skinner; after replacing AJ Allmendinger behind the wheel, he not only qualified the car for its first race of the season but finished a respectable 27th. However, that still leaves the team 43rd in points, 123 behind 35th and with a near impossible mountain to climb in just one event. Ditto for Patrick Carpentier‘s No. 10 car and Joe Nemechek‘s No. 78 – a combination of DNQs and poor finishes in the races they’ve participated in make them long shots to crack the Top 35 all year long in 2008, let alone by the end of next weekend.

But for some others looking to leave the bubble behind by Bristol, Sunday provided a virtual sigh of relief of sorts. Brian Vickers finished on the lead lap in ninth with his No. 83 Toyota, and Kurt Busch pulled out a consistent 11th-place finish with his No. 2 Dodge; both cars are now so far ahead of the Top-35 cutoff, a “locked-in” spot for the end of the month at Martinsville is a virtual certainty – even if the No. 83 DNQs at Bristol.

The rest of the drivers in this group appear to be somewhere in the middle. The three-car program of Michael Waltrip Racing has all three of its drivers on the right side of the cut line at the moment; however, a Bristol wreck that goes the wrong way and any of that is subject to change. David Reutimann appears to be in the best shape; he finished two laps down in 20th to put his No. 00 car 60 points above the cutoff. Jarrett’s No. 44 team sits a little further back, in 32nd, while Michael Waltrip‘s No. 55 brings up the rear (33rd) after a disappointing 30th-place run at Atlanta.

Here’s a flow chart to show where these teams stand with just one race remaining before some can put the past behind them:

2007 Full-Time Teams Having To Qualify On Speed And Where They Stand In 2008

Car   Driver Make Sponsor Owner 2008 Pts 2008 Pos +/-  
#83 Brian Vickers Toyota Red Bull Dietrich Mateschitz  491 9 +4
#2 Kurt Busch Dodge Miller Lite Walter Czarnecki 478 10 +2
#00 David Reutimann Toyota Aaron’s Rob Kauffman  358 27 +4
#44 Dale Jarrett Toyota UPS Michael Waltrip  320 31 +2
#55 Michael Waltrip Toyota NAPA Michael Waltrip  303 33 +1
#78 Joe Nemechek Chevy Furniture Row Barney Visser  184 41 +3
#84 Mike Skinner Toyota Red Bull Dietrich Mateschitz  175 42 +4
#10 Patrick Carpentier Dodge Valvoline George Gillett Jr  145 44 +3
#21 Bill Elliott Ford Little Debbie/Air Force Glen Wood 135 45 -3
#34 John Andretti Chevy Unsponsored Bob Jenkins  131 46 -3

2008 “Locked-In” Teams In Danger

Some “locked-in” qualifiers to begin this season ended Atlanta perilously close to being knocked out. Kyle Petty continues to be in the worst shape; once again suffering handling problems that required several off-sequence pit stops, his No. 45 car suffered through a 41st-place finish which left the team 40th in owner points – 81 behind 35th-place JJ Yeley and the No. 96 Chevrolet for the bubble spot. After a difficult Sunday in his own right, Yeley’s 37th-place finish gives him four straight runs of 25th or worse in his new ride; that’s not exactly the first impression you want to make for a program that’s now in jeopardy of being forced to qualify on speed for the first time since its infancy in 2006.

Speaking of infants, the rookies haven’t been doing themselves any favors, either. Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti and Regan Smith find themselves 36th, 37th and 39th in owner points, respectively, after failing to notch a finish a top-10 finish between them. Driving for powerhouse organizations with top-notch equipment, they’ll need to figure a way to bring themselves up to speed quickly; otherwise, the only experience they’ll be getting is what it feels like to watch the Cup race from the comfort of their own homes. Veterans Jeremy Mayfield and Dave Blaney are more used to the intensity of this type of scenario – driving for the No. 70 and No. 22 cars, respectively, they’ve been with teams that went through a lot of nervous Fridays in their last few seasons on the Cup tour. With their organizations now 34th and 37th, respectively, they’re the most even-keeled heading to Bristol, knowing what it takes to keep their cars above the cutline – and how to qualify on speed if that plan falls through.

Last but not least, perhaps the most surprising development is the difficult road facing both Casey Mears and Jamie McMurray. Driving for two of the three most successful organizations in Cup the last two seasons – Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing – both are under the pressure of high expectations. But with no finishes higher than 12th for either, they’re buried in 30th and 31st in owner points with their teams. If Bristol dishes out a bit of bad luck to either, they’ll be looking at the prospect of qualifying on speed – and the potential of the dreaded pink slip any sort of DNQ would provide.

Here’s a look at the owner points with one week until the madness shakes out. All the teams in this section have one mulligan remaining; but with the high banks looming, they’ll need speed, cunning and a little luck to ensure they’ll have another following next weekend.

2008 Owner Points After Atlanta: 20th to 47th

2008 Pts Driver Car # Car Owner Points From
35th
20 Elliott Sadler  #19 George Gillett  402 104
21 David Ragan #6 Jack Roush  398 100
22 Juan Pablo Montoya #42 Chip Ganassi  391 93
23 Reed Sorenson #41 Chip Ganassi  391 93
24 Robby Gordon #7 Robby Gordon  384 86
25 Paul Menard #15 Teresa Earnhardt  382 84
26 Scott Riggs #66 Gene Haas  369 71
27 David Reutimann #00 Michael Waltrip  358 60
28 David Gilliland #38 Doug Yates  352 54
29 Travis Kvapil #28 Doug Yates  346 48
30 Casey Mears #5 Rick Hendrick  331 33
31 Jamie McMurray #26 Jack Roush  318 20
32 Dale Jarrett #44 Michael Waltrip  315 17
33 Michael Waltrip #55 Michael Waltrip  303 5
34 Jeremy Mayfield #70 Gene Haas  301 3
35 JJ Yeley #96 Jeff Moorad  298 0
36 Sam Hornish Jr. #77 Roger Penske  280 -18
37 Dave Blaney #22 Bill Davis  273 -25
38 Dario Franchitti #40 Chip Ganassi  264 -34
39 Regan Smith #01 Teresa Earnhardt  232 -66
40 Kyle Petty #45 Petty Enterprises  217 -81
41 Joe Nemechek #78 Barney Visser  184 -114
42 Ken Schrader #49 Beth Ann Morgenthau  184 -145
43 Mike Skinner #84 Team Red Bull  175 -123
44 Bill Elliott #21 Wood Brothers  163 -135
45 John Andretti #34 Bob Jenkins  150 -148
46 Patrick Carpentier #10 George Gillett  145 -153
47 Johnny Benson #27 Bill Davis  130 -168

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).

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