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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Top-35 Surprises, Disappointments & Concerns In 2008

Welcome one and all to this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown. With no Sprint Cup Series race last weekend to speak of, we’re going to take advantage of the break to look back at the first eight races of the season and analyze the biggest surprises and disappointments so far. So without further ado, here’s a recap of this year’s bubble drivers.

Biggest surprise avoiding the bubble

What do you get when you take a driver who has 70 career starts, only two top-10 finishes and didn’t even race the previous season, add him to a mid-level, borderline-fading team, and put him in a car without a sponsor? 99.9% of the time you’d have a disaster. The other .1% of the time you’d get Travis Kvapil. Travis has his Yates Racing Ford sitting comfortably in 25th in owner points with no full-time sponsor on the car. He’s posted a career-best 23.5 average finish, including an eighth at Las Vegas. More importantly, he’s been running at the end of every race, which means Kvapil’s not tearing up the equipment he’s being given.

Another driver I would have figured to spend the whole year around the bubble is Paul Menard. Menard has positioned his Menards DEI Chevrolet 23rd in owner points after eight races. After struggling to even qualify early last year, Paul has taken advantage of the DEI/Ginn Racing merger, which gave him enough owner points to keep him in the Top 35 heading into this season. Without having to worry about qualifying, the team has been able to work on race runs during practice. This has allowed Menard to show tremendous improvement. With the exception of two poor showings, he’s posted finishes of 22nd or better in each of the first eight races.

Biggest disappointments

Here’s a situation for all NASCAR team owners to take note of – if you want a solid race team that will have consistent decent runs, you go out and hire a driver like Tony Raines. If you want a young driver who looks good in his sunglasses while telling a race reporter that he “Just ran out of talent” after hitting a wall and relegating himself to a 42nd-place finish at his hometown track, you go hire JJ Yeley. Raines guided that team with a little help from Ron Fellows, who finished fourth at the Glen and 15th at Sonoma, to a 25th-place finish in points. Yeley has a season’s best finish of 25th twice and sits outside the Top 35 in owner points. HOF Racing is a “satellite team” of Joe Gibbs Racing, so you can’t really blame the equipment. Kyle Busch is driving Yeley’s old car so well that old DW is slurping him every 15 minutes on Sunday afternoons. I’d guess we’ll see a driver change at some point in the season unless JJ somehow gets the ship righted.

Another big disappointment can be found over at Chip Ganassi Racing. Taking an open-wheel driver, regardless of their credentials and/or achievements, is a lot like taking an arena league football player and putting him in the NFL. Every now and then you get a Kurt Warner, who led his team to a Super Bowl win. Most of the time you get Dario Franchitti. Dario was rushed into a Cup ride with little-to-no stock car experience and is struggling to put it lightly. He now sits 39th in owner points, requiring him to qualify on time each week.

Being the good teammate that he is, Reed Sorenson is rushing to join Dario outside the Top 35. Since finishing fifth at the season opening Daytona 500, Reed’s average finish has been a dismal 31st. The recent struggles have prompted Chip Ganassi to swap crew chiefs between the No. 42 Dodge driven by Juan Pablo Montoya and the No. 41 driven by Sorenson. While I agree a change is needed, I really question messing around with the No. 42 team, which has seven straight top-20 finishes and is in 17th in points. Obviously Montoya is developing some chemistry with his crew chief and disrupting this may not sit well with a temperamental driver like Juan Pablo.

Current bubble team with the most to lose

Michael Waltrip has all three of his teams in the Top 35, though barely. All three cars are a Talladega Big One away from having to have to qualify on time all over again. David Reutimann has shown promise this year, but Waltrip has been flat and hovered around 35th all season. Michael McDowell is slowly falling back in the standings. MWR can’t blame the transition to a new manufacturer – many of their struggles were attributed to the “growing pains” of a new manufacturer last season. JGR has shown it’s not the Toyota equipment as they’ve won several races and led a lot of laps. I’ll bet we’ll see PJ Jones and Terry Labonte in two of the cars at Sonoma again this year.

Current bubble team with the most to gain

The No. 84 Team Red Bull Racing Toyota driven by AJ Allmendinger, again, has an opportunity to make an upwards move in the points. After missing the first three races, Allmendinger was replaced by Mike Skinner in an effort to get some veteran feedback as to what was wrong with the car. Mike qualified for all five races, presumably telling team Red Bull enough that they felt comfortable putting AJ back in the car, starting next week at Talladega. And it could be just in time–during the same seven week stretch last year, Allmendinger qualified for all but one of the events. If he can take the information gained from Skinner being in the car and turn it into some solid finishes over the next month or so, they’ll have put themselves into a position to race their way into the Top 35 during the second half of the season.

Another team who may be primed to improve their standing is the No. 01 DEI Chevrolet driven by Cato, N.Y. native Regan Smith. While Regan is currently in the Top 35, he has an opportunity to at least distance himself from the 36th-place car, even if he isn’t able to run off some really good runs. The reason is the next two races are impound races. That means that after qualifying, the cars are impounded by NASCAR and no work, save for some minor adjustments, may be made to them. Cars needing to qualify on speed therefore are forced race with their qualifying setup. Many go or go home teams qualify with a “lighter” engine oil to get a little extra speed needed to make the race at places like Talladega. The problem with this is that it isn’t really made to last 500 miles. Last year, four of the eight cars who had to qualify on time suffered engine failures. And at Richmond, it gets no better – a racecar set up to qualify can turn into a handful over the course of 400 laps, making a good finish extremely difficult. If young Regan can post some top-25 finishes over the next few races, he’ll give himself some much needed breathing room.

Well there you have it. The bubble summary for the first eight races of the 2008 Sprint Cup season. Check us out next Monday for the Bubble Breakdown from Talladega Superspeedway. Until then, so long from the bubble.