As the NASCAR traveling circus made its way to Alabama last weekend for the running of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, it was expected that the bubble drivers would do well entering Saturday’s qualifying session. After all, the top-eight spots for the fall race were taken up by teams outside the Top 35; in that event, their qualifying setups easily outpaced those “safely” in the field, who were more focused on a winning combination for Sunday.
While the “outsiders” didn’t pull through a sweep, several of the bubble dwellers made very strong qualifying runs this time around. AJ Allmendinger, returning from a one-month hiatus, put his No. 84 Red Bull Racing machine on the outside of the second row for Sunday’s race. Next to AJ in row 2 was Ken Schrader, showing there is still life in the No. 70 team by qualifying in the third spot – by far the team’s best qualifying effort of the year. The run was made all the more impressive by the fact it was Schrader’s first go-round in the No. 70 Chevrolet.
Saturday’s biggest surprise, though, came courtesy of Joe Nemechek and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy, which took the pole position. That team, owned by Barney Visser, has had its share of tough times this year as it came into the race 44th in owner points, 195 out of the 35th spot.
But as we all know, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish the race at these restrictor-plate tracks. So, let’s break down the Aaron’s 499, and see how our bubble dwellers fared at the 500-mile madness that is Talladega.
Look what happens when you actually put a stock car driver in a stock car instead of an open wheeler. David Stremme’s 28th-place finish doesn’t reflect how well he ran Sunday afternoon; and if it did, the No. 40 probably wouldn’t have to qualify on speed at Richmond this Friday night. Subbing in his old ride from last year for an injured Dario Franchitti, Stremme had the Ganassi Dodge at the front of the field for most of the second half of the race, looking like an outside contender to win at one point. Unfortunately, Stremme got caught up in a last-lap wreck while running in the top 15, turning his day from productive to disappointing for a team that’s been dealt its fair share of tough finishes so far. Still, the team moves up three spots in the standings to 36th position, 58 points out of a guaranteed starting spot.
Regan Smith did what he had to do… almost. The Cato, N.Y. native took advantage of the two cars directly behind him in the standings missing the show, and posted a decent 21st-place run in the No. 01 DEI Chevrolet. Running strong all day, Smith also was caught up in the melee on the last lap, or he also would have posted a top 15 to further distance himself from the competition. Smith’s team remains 35th in the owner standings; however, the margin of error he has is now a far more comfortable 58 points.
David Reutimann rounds out this week’s list of winners. A solid 20th-place finish – on the heels of an 18th at Phoenix – moved the UPS team up one spot in the owner standings to 33rd place. Reut is showing that he’s capable of posting respectable finishes when his Toyota makes it through the entire race without something on it falling apart.
Team owner Bill Davis has gone from sitting in victory lane with his driver at a restrictor-plate race (2002 Daytona 500 with Ward Burton) to sitting in his living room watching them. Coming into Talladega, the No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota sat just eight points out of 35th and missed the race, squandering an excellent opportunity to get back into the Top 35. BDR fells to 39th in the owner standings as a result, and now stands 82 points back of the “safe zone.”
Hall of Fame Racing was just three points out of 35th coming into Talladega, but they, too, blew a golden opportunity to get back into the Top 35 by missing the race. JJ Yeley’s 51.906 was faster only than John Andretti amongst the go or go home crowd, causing the first DNQ in the three-year history of the organization. The No. 96 DLP Toyota fell to 38th following the race, 80 points behind the No. 01 for the 35th position.
Just four laps into the Aaron’s 499, Reed Sorenson keyed his radio and said “I think we just blew up.” Reed’s whole season has pretty much blown up since the Daytona 500, actually, and Sunday’s rough ride was the low point of that slump. Chip Ganassi’s Polaroid Dodge finished Sunday in 43rd place after that engine problem, dropping one more spot in the owner standings to 32nd. What’s worse, the points margin between the No. 41 and 36th has shrunk to just 77.
A Look Ahead
NASCAR races under the lights next weekend in Richmond, Virginia. Last year at this race, Dave Blaney qualified in 10th and finished 11th with the No. 22 car, while Yeley, Kyle Petty and Sorenson all posted top-25 finishes. Not this year. As I look into the crystal ball, I see top-20 runs being posted by Allmendinger and Reutimann instead, a turning of the tide in a Top-35 battle that’s often been fought by the same drivers and teams over the last 18 months. While Yeley and Petty both should fail to qualify, Nemechek will, and look for Smith to post another solid top 25 to continue his hold on a guaranteed starting spot.
Until next week, so long from the Bubble.
Breaking Down the Bubble
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|31||Michael Waltrip Racing||55||Michael Waltrip||708||+49|
|32||Chip Ganassi Racing||41||Reed Sorenson||678||+19|
|33||Michael Waltrip Racing||44||David Reutimann||670||+11|
|34||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||663||+4|
|35||Dale Earnhardt Inc.||01||Regan Smith||659||0|
|36||Chip Ganassi Racing||40||David Stremme||598||-61|
|37||Haas CNC Racing||70||Ken Schrader/Johnny Sauter||584||-75|
|38||Hall of Fame Racing||96||JJ Yeley||579||-80|
|39||Bill Davis Racing||22||Dave Blaney||577||-82|
|40||Team Red Bull||84||AJ Allmendinger||521||-138|
|41||Gillett Evernham Motorsports||10||Patrick Carpentier||459||-200|
|42||Petty Enterprises||45||Kyle Petty||453||-206|
|43||Furniture Row Racing||78||Joe Nemechek||447||-212|
|44||Wood Brothers Racing||21||Various Drivers||441||-218|
|45||Front Row Motorsports||34||John Andretti||302||-357|