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Bubble Breakdown: Brian Vickers Digs Out of a Hole, While Jamie McMurray Digs Himself 1

When the checkered flag fell at Bristol Motor Speedway Sunday afternoon, it ended more than just the Food City 500. For some, it concluded a short-term “mulligan” they’ve utilized for over a month. For the first five races this season, the Top 35 was based on 2007 owner points; that loophole allowed rookies like Dario Franchitti and Regan Smith to receive an automatic qualifying spot each week – even to the prestigious Daytona 500 – despite limited experience on stock car’s highest level. But now, a handful of these poor-performing teams are faced with a whole different type of scenario. Starting in two weeks at Martinsville, the Top-35 drivers who are locked into the starting grid will be based on 2008 owner points; and for those who haven’t kept pace, they’re now in danger of packing up and heading home each Friday – putting them even further behind.

Five teams and drivers worked their way into the Top 35 after the first five races of 2008 to displace those struggling organizations. Who were they, and which cars are now on the outside looking in? Let’s take a look as we switch from the 2007 to 2008 owner points while looking back on Bristol:

Big Winners

By far, the biggest winner in the Top 35 Chase is Team Red Bull’s No. 83, driven by Brian Vickers. At this time in 2007, Vickers and his team were sitting 38th in owner points, light years away from the locked-in spot they needed. They had failed to qualify for two of the first five races, and had only one quality finish to show for their efforts.

Fast forward to 2008. Despite struggling at Bristol, Vickers sits comfortably in 17th in points. He has posted three finishes of 12th or better, and for the first time since joining Team Red Bull, now has a guaranteed starting spot. This will allow the team more time to practice in race trim as opposed to worrying completely about qualifying during their practice sessions – a major boost to a program that’s looking like a surprise Chase contender at this point during the season.

David Reutimann is another driver who has worked his team into the Top 35 in owner points. Reutimann, driving the No. 00 Aaron’s Toyota, was pretty much in the same boat as Vickers at this point in 2007. He’d missed two of the first five races, and was stuck in 45th in owner points, 200 out of 35th and in an all but impossible position to gain a “locked-in” spot. But in 2008, it’s been a whole different story. Reutimann’s posted three top-25 finishes, including an 18th in the season-opening Daytona 500, while qualifying for all five events on speed in the process. The No. 00 car now sits comfortably in 26th in owner points as a result; however, it isn’t all smooth sailing for Reutimann going forward. While rookie Michael McDowell takes over the No. 00, Reutimann moves over to the No. 44 car for the remainder of the season, replacing the retiring Dale Jarrett in the UPS Toyota. And while the that team is also locked into the field, it’s just 34th in owner points, 15 ahead of 36th-place Jamie McMurray and the No. 26 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Suffice it to say, it would be wise for Reutimann to avoid the short-track wrecks that are par for the course at Martinsville.

Honorable Mentions: Kurt Busch (No. 2 Dodge), Michael Waltrip (No. 55 Toyota), whose teams were also without a 2007 exemption but have now snagged one in 2008… for now.

Biggest Losers

For the second straight year, Dave Blaney has managed to work his way out of a Top-35 guaranteed starting spot. The Bill Davis Racing team, which has struggled mightily since dismissing driver Ward Burton years ago, has only one finish higher than 30th in 2008 – a 26th at Las Vegas. Add in the fact that BDR’s second team released driver Jacques Villenueve before he ever ran a race, then shut down operations due to a lack of sponsorship, and you’ve got an organization in disarray that’s been on a long-term downward slide since winning the 2002 Daytona 500. With three starts of 34th this year, qualifying will be a real challenge for Blaney and the Caterpillar team going forward; never a short-track ace, Martinsville could be tough sledding for the veteran in two weeks.

Another loser in the switch to 2008 owner points is Franchitti. Gone is the locked in starting spot for the No. 40 the team earned with David Stremme, and now Franchitti will be forced to qualify on time instead. Dario has managed three top-30 qualifying efforts, so he’s capable of qualifying on time; however, this rookie has yet to finish higher than 32nd, so it looks like the car will be needing to accomplish that for awhile. At this point last year, the No. 40 car sat in 11th in owner points; with that in mind, who would have thought that Felix Sabates and Chip Ganassi would end up longing for the good old days of Stremme this soon?

Kyle Petty and McMurray both deserve a mention for also losing their guaranteed spots. However, all is not lost for either; there’s talk of both drivers swapping owner points with teammates in order to ensure their participation each weekend. Roush Fenway Racing may pull the switch between the No. 26 and No. 17, and Petty Enterprises is also talking about swapping owner points between their No. 45 and No. 43 cars. Why? The answer is simple; the drivers of the Nos. 17 and 43, Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte, have past champion’s provisionals to fall back on in order to get them into races. But at this point, neither team has made an official announcement as to what they’re going to do, and any points swap would be subject to NASCAR’s approval. However, a dangerous precedent has already been set in this arena last December, when the sanctioning body rubber-stamped a points switch from the No. 2 team driven by Busch to the No. 77 of Sam Hornish Jr. Stay tuned on this one – in the off-week, the maneuvering of points amongst these teams could get very interesting.

A Look Ahead

The road ahead certainly doesn’t get any easier for those outside the Top 35 heading to Martinsville. Teams go through inspection based on owner points, meaning the further back you are, the less time you may have in your first practice session on Fridays. Also, due to the small size of this particular track, there aren’t enough garage spaces to accommodate all the teams that attempt to qualify. This means some cars wind up in the parking lot under a tent, their crew battling the less-than-optimal conditions as they try and make do with what they have. Add in some quirky March weather to boot, and it could be a nightmare to attempt to get your car good enough to make it in on speed.

Some of this year’s bubble teams had varied amounts of success last year at the spring Martinsville race. McMurray qualified second and went on to a ninth-place finish, something he needs to replicate this time around in order to keep from falling further behind. On the other end of the spectrum, Blaney finished 37th; he can’t see a repeat performance of that if BDR is going to wind up in position to breathe easy once again.

At Martinsville, I see decent finishes by some teams currently on the right side of the cut line, runs that should secure their “locked in” status for the foreseeable future. Jeremy Mayfield and JJ Yeley are two of those; both have an outstanding record on this track in recent history. That’s crucial, because I see McMurray and Petty turning things around, posting top-25 finishes to get them back into the thick of the Top-35 hunt. Who does that leave vulnerable, then? More rookies. Look for Hornish to continue his fall and wind up on the outside looking in with the No. 77, as several teams behind him should have a good run next Sunday. The No. 00 team should also be expected to take a big hit in the points; Martinsville is not an easy place to make your Sprint Cup debut, as young McDowell will soon find out for himself.

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