And so it begins. With NASCAR switching to the 2008 owner points at Martinsville, the quest for a guaranteed Top-35 spot became a mad scramble at the back end of the points standings. When the season began at Daytona, the Top 35 were locked in for the first five races; that meant mistakes like slipping in the rain at California could be made up for with several weeks of solid performances. Now, as the guaranteed spots shift to 2008 owner points, a mistake this week could have you on the outside looking in for the next event… and beyond.
That’s where outside of the Top 35 becomes a slippery downhill slope for these teams. A missed race here, a miss there, then a rained-out qualifying session, and suddenly you’re a few hundred points behind with no hope to catch up. The pressure to make the races week to week becomes intense; and if you don’t get back into the Top 35 by Miami, it may be tough getting sponsorship for the following season, continuing a downward spiral which can only cripple a team. But don’t take my word for it; just ask the boys over at Morgan-McClure Motorsports. Despite having a solid driver in Ward Burton and a team history of winning, not being in the Top 35 meant they couldn’t secure enough sponsorship dollars to run the 2008 season; and now they’re sitting dormant in their Virginia home.
For those who haven’t heard, this week NASCAR denied Michael Waltrip Racing’s request to swap owner points between the No. 00 and the No. 44. This means that after 41 races, David Reutimann finally got himself solidly up in owner points, only to have his team owner drop him back to 34th. John Darby, Sprint Cup series director stated that, “Point swaps are typically granted only when there’s a change in business function, or when an owner is trying to reorganize during the offseason. This was never meant to be used to give a driver the best position he can get.” With this ruling, we can assume there would also be no points swapping allowed at Roush Fenway Racing between the No. 17 and No. 26 or at Petty Enterprises between the No. 45 and the No. 43. But would some of those teams even be needing to consider that type of swap after this weekend? Without further ado, let’s take a look at who this week’s Winners and Losers are after the Goody’s Cool Orange 500.
By far the biggest winner this week was Jamie McMurray in the No. 26 Ford Fusion, who raced his way well up into the Top 35 in owner points by virtue of his first top 10 of the season. McMurray, whose team was the biggest surprise of those who were outside the Top 35, duplicated his 2007 success at this race by qualifying fifth and finishing in the eighth position. That moved McMurray’s car up five spots in the standings; it now sits him in the 31st spot in owner points, thus locking him into the field next week at Texas.
Another driver to race his way into the Top 35 was Regan Smith. After a miserable start to his rookie season, Regan opened a lot of eyes by posting a career-best finish of 14th at the Goody’s Cool Orange 500. Regan was steady if unspectacular, and used good pit strategy along with some luck to avoid the 18 cautions that waved at Martinsville. With that finish, he moves into the 35th and final guaranteed starting spot in next week’s Samsung 500, locking all four DEI cars in the starting field.
Those DEI cars will join the four Hendrick entries, as Casey Mears put some breathing room between the No. 5 team and the bubble. Coming into the weekend, that program was only 12 points ahead of the 35th-place car; but on a track where he’s historically not been strong, Mears got it together at the best possible time. Piloting his Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevrolet to his first top-10 finish of the season, Mears moved up six spots in owner points and increased his cushion to a much more comfortable 76. One can only imagine the sighs of relief coming from that No. 5 car, as the pressure to keep up with their Hendrick teammates eases a little with their seventh-place finish.
One can only wonder how long it’ll take for the novelty that is Sam Hornish Jr. to wear off at Team Penske. After the open wheel convert failed to make five of seven races in 2007, team owner Roger Penske swapped points between the No. 2 and No. 77 programs, thus locking Hornish into the Top 35 for the first five races of the season. At the time, Penske called it “a good business decision;” but perhaps a better business decision would have been to swap Hornish for another driver. After being involved in several cautions this past week, Hornish is now out of the Top 35 and must qualify on time at a track where he hasn’t competed in a Cup car. That’s got to have the Defiance, Ohio native undergoing a lot of sleepless nights in the coming days.
Likable sophomore Reutimann just can’t seem to catch a break. He qualifies on time for the first five events, and races his way into the Top 35 with his old No. 00. Then, Reutimann moves into the No. 44, which is right on the bubble, only to have the rear-end gear burn up with less than 25 laps to go. Now, after a 39th-place finish in his first race with his new team, he sits back in 37th place in owner points, once again having to race his way into the starting field with the UPS Toyota.
After being involved in a pair of wrecks, and seeming to wage his own personal demolition derby with Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip fell three spots to 33rd in the owner standings at Martinsville. This leaves him only 22 points ahead of the 35th-place team heading to a track he does not have a strong history at; Waltrip will need to put it together this weekend, or face the consequences.
A Look Ahead
Things look good again for McMurray next week in Texas. Last year, he posted two top 10s in the Lone Star State, and with Roush Fenway Racing getting stronger each race, I like him to post at least a top 15, if not a top 10 next Sunday. Expect a strong run to also be put in by fellow bubbler Dave Blaney, who tends to excel on 1.5-mile intermediate speedways.
However, things do not look good for Kyle Petty, Reutimann and Joe Nemechek. Petty is going to have to qualify on time, and finished 42nd and 35th in the two races there last year… not exactly a confidence builder for the Petty Enterprises squad. Reutimann hasn’t done much better; he failed to qualify for the first race he entered at Texas and lost an engine just 90 laps into the second, relegating him to a 43rd-place finish. Finally, Nemechek has struggled, too, having qualified and finished 35th with the Barney Visser-owned No. 78 team in November. He’ll need to improve on that if he wants to make the show again this year, and I just don’t see it happening.
When the dust settles down South, look for the No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota of Bill Davis Racing to sneak its way up into the Top 35 after Texas; while Waltrip, who failed to qualify for both Texas races last year, should fall out of the Top 35.
Breaking Down the Bubble
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|31||Roush Fenway Racing||26||Jamie McMurray||494||+56|
|32||Hall of Fame Racing||96||JJ Yeley||468||+30|
|33||Michael Waltrip Racing||55||Michael Waltrip||460||+22|
|34||Haas CNC Racing||70||Jeremy Mayfield||441||+3|
|35||Dale Earnhardt Inc.||01||Regan Smith||438||0|
|36||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||435||-3|
|37||Michael Waltrip Racing||44||David Reutimann||418||-20|
|38||Chip Ganassi Racing||40||Dario Franchitti||416||-22|
|39||Bill Davis Racing||22||Dave Blaney||373||-65|
|40||Petty Enterprises||45||Kyle Petty||327||-111|
|41||Team Red Bull||84||Mike Skinner||288||-150|
|42||BAM Racing||49||Ken Schrader||276||-162|
|43||Furniture Row Racing||78||Joe Nemechek||264||-174|
|44||Wood Brothers Racing||21||Bill Elliott||255||-183|
|45||Gillett Evernham Motorsports||10||Patrick Carpentier||246||-192|
|46||Front Row Motorsports||34||John Andretti||206||-232|