NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Jeremy Mayfield Out, Sam Hornish Jr. Back Inside Top-35 Safety Net

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made its annual spring journey to the Lone Star State for the running of the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend. They tell me that everything is bigger in Texas; and apparently, this adage can be applied to the problems of some bubble teams. There’s bickering at Petty Enterprises, sponsor issues at Michael Waltrip Racing, and Chip Ganassi seems to be of the belief that there needs to be some personnel changes on his No. 40 team currently driven by former open wheeler Dario Franchitti. All of this only seven races into the year; who says Silly Season in NASCAR ever stops?

In addition, UPS announced this week they are reviewing their sponsorship of the No. 44 car, now driven by David Reutimann after Dale Jarrett‘s retirement and currently outside the Top 35 in car owner points. They have stated they’re currently looking at five different teams, including MWR’s No. 44, to support for 2009 and beyond. According to UPS, they are “looking to compete for championships” and want a “rock star” driver like they had with Jarrett in his heyday. Maybe it’s just me, but I never associated DJ with being a rock star; and hey, it’s their money. Nevertheless, it’s just another news bite that has Reutimann behind the 8-ball for a team that is once again struggling to compete with the Big Boys on the NASCAR circuit.

As the weekend progressed, the news bites didn’t stop popping up. Franchitti was one of just three cars not to qualify Friday afternoon, prompting Chip Ganassi to state on Sirius Satellite Radio on Sunday morning, “Frankly, there are 46 cars there and if you can’t beat three of them, that’s pretty pathetic.” One of those on the DNQ list was also Petty Enterprises’ No. 45, driven by Chad McCumbee; but prior to qualifying, Petty said it wasn’t his decision to be taken out of the car and replaced with the rookie for just one week. The differs from Robbie Loomis’s account; the Vice President of Competition at Petty Enterprises claimed it was Petty’s call. Both were hoping to get some good feedback from a different driver to help get the team going in the right direction, similar to what team Red Bull has done with the No. 84. You would think to accomplish that, they would have turned to a veteran such as Sterling Marlin or Ward Burton; instead, they turned to McCumbee, who failed to even qualify to Sunday’s race.

Just think; all this news happened even before the race reshaped this week’s Top 35! Here are this week’s biggest Winners and Losers after the Lone Star State made another program a lonely outsider to their “locked-in” qualifying luxury:

Biggest Winners

Since we’re racing in Texas, I’m gonna say it; Jamie McMurray has driven off into the sunset. On the strength of another strong finish (14th), he moved from 31st to 25th in points, probably bidding farewell to the qualifying bubble for good. McMurray’s Roush Fenway Racing team now will undoubtedly change their focus towards making a run at the Chase for the Cup. Say hi to the guys at the top end of the points for us, Jamie!

While there’s normally not a whole lot to celebrate about a 32nd-place finish, Sam Hornish Jr. took advantage of a generally lackluster showing of the cars around the bubble and was able to work his way up to 34th in owner points. It wasn’t always pretty – the rookie got into a few on-track skirmishes which damaged the front end of his Mobil 1 Dodge – but he held on for a 32nd-place finish, thus guaranteeing his No. 77 Penske Dodge a starting spot next week when the series moves to Phoenix.

And lastly, we have Dave Blaney. Bill Davis’s No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota didn’t move into the Top 35 in owner points, but he did move up two spots from 39th to 37th with his season-best performance of 21st on the 1.5-mile oval. More importantly, Blaney closed the gap separating him from that all-important 35th spot from 65 points to just 23; and with new general manager Marty Gaunt coming on board, it appears changes are on the way to make this team even more competitive in the coming weeks.

Biggest Losers

Where there are winners, there also have to be losers. This week’s biggest loser is the No. 70 Haas Automation Chevrolet piloted by Jeremy Mayfield. With his 38th-place finish at Texas Sunday, Mayfield is the only car to fall out of the Top 35 this week. That means he will need to make the field on time at Phoenix, something he’s familiar with; last year, he spent most of the season outside of the bubble while driving Bill Davis’s No. 36 Toyota. However, Mayfield didn’t do so well in that environment; he failed to qualify for over half his attempts in that car.

Here’s the good news from this past weekend for JJ Yeley; he finished ahead of Jeff Gordon. The bad news is that Gordon was the only car he finished ahead of. JJ got loose and hit the wall hard on lap 175, ending his day. According to Yeley, “I just ran out of talent and hit the wall.” Hey, he said it, not me.

Reutimann once again joins this week’s biggest losers, as he’s now 0-for-2 on finishing in his new ride. Reut brought his No. 44 UPS-sponsored machine to the garage on lap 259 after an overheating problem led to an engine failure, ruining what had been a decent weekend in Texas up until that point. David’s second straight DNF due to a mechanical issue drops his team to 38th in owner points, 38 out of the 35th position.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR races under the lights next Saturday night in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 from Phoenix International Raceway. This is good news for Yeley, who hails from Phoenix and last year, qualified 22nd for this race. The car he drives now qualified 23rd, setting up what should be a pretty good bet for a solid finish; of course, that’s something his team really needs. Also welcoming the trip to Phoenix is Joe Nemechek, who in 2007 started and finished in 16th place. Already far behind the eight-ball, Joe’s No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet must qualify on time and have a decent finish if they are to have any hope of making the Top 35 by Miami. They currently sit 44th, 180 points out of the 35th spot.

On the flip side, not looking forward to the trip is two-thirds of Michael Waltrip Racing. Mikey didn’t make either race at Phoenix, and Reutimann missed one and finished 32nd in the other. The Dodges of Kyle Petty and Chip Ganassi’s No. 40 also can’t be too enthused about the return trip to PIR. Combined, their average qualifying position was 38th, with 36th being the highest starting spot. Both cars will have to improve if they want to make the show.

Looking into my crystal ball, I see both the Haas cars of Scott Riggs (31st in owner points) and Jeremy Mayfield (36th in owner points) having strong runs at PIR, especially considering the way both cars performed at the track in recent history. While I don’t see both finishing in the top 10 as they did last year, a top 25 for each is a pretty good assumption. Riggs will follow McMurray in driving away from the bubble, and Mayfield will get himself back into a guaranteed spot. Going the other way, the Crystal Ball says Petty doesn’t make the field, Michael Waltrip fails to finish and drops out of the Top 35, and Reutimann continues to join him after something else breaks on the No. 44 UPS Toyota.

Breaking Down the Bubble

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 588 +92
32 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 530 +34
33 Hall of Fame Racing 96 JJ Yeley 505 +9
34 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 502 +6
35 Dale Earnhardt Inc. 01 Regan Smith 438 0
36 Haas CNC Racing 70 Jeremy Mayfield 490 -6
37 Bill Davis Racing 22 Dave Blaney 473 -23
38 Michael Waltrip Racing 44 David Reutimann 458 -38
39 Chip Ganassi Racing 40 Dario Franchitti 447 -49
40 Team Red Bull 84 Mike Skinner 327 -132
41 Petty Enterprises 45 Kyle Petty 355 -141
42 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 325 -171
43 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Bill Elliott 316 -180
44 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 316 -180
45 BAM Racing 49 Ken Schrader 276 -220
46 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 249 -247

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