NASCAR’s Sprint Cup teams raced under the lights Saturday night at one of the crown jewel of the series: Darlington Raceway. The track labeled as “Too Tough to Tame” looked quite timid during qualifying for several of the bubble teams as five drivers managed to qualify their cars in the top 18 during Friday evening’s qualifying session. But Saturday night, the Lady in Black showed her true self, as only two of those bubble teams were able to manage top-20 finishes, and left us wondering why the others even bothered to paint the right sides of their cars. As the checkered flag waved, one team raced its way into the Top 35, one wrecked its way out, and the rest were just happy to get out in one piece. With that, here’s your break down of the bubble teams this week for the Dodge Challenger 500.
Apparently missing Talladega may not have been such a bad thing. Since missing the Aaron’s 499, Dave Blaney finished 18th at Richmond and a season’s best ninth at Darlington. Not since Ward Burton put Bill Davis’s No. 22 Caterpillar machine in victory lane twice at Darlington has that team looked this good at the Lady in Black. Blaney qualified the car in the 13th position, ran in the top 15 all night, got great pit stops from his Caterpillar team, kept it off the wall and brought home a rare top-10 finish for BDR. For their efforts, the team is rewarded by getting the car back into the Top 35 in owner points, (35th) thus having one of the coveted guaranteed starting spots heading into the Coca-Cola 600 in two weeks at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
David Reutimann continues to show improvement in NASCAR’s top series, posting a 19th-place finish in a race that got the better of a lot of drivers. While his 30th-place qualifying run was rather unspectacular, the Florida native improved upon his 33rd-place finish in this event last year. The solid run moves the No. 44 car up one spot in car owner points to 31st place and builds his cushion to 49 points over the No. 22 BDR Caterpillar Toyota, which currently sits on the bubble. If the car continues to stay in one piece for the duration of the races, I think we’ll see young David continue to distance himself from the bubble.
Normally, a 28th-place finish three laps down to the leader wouldn’t qualify you as one of my big winners, but to be honest, this week the ‘pickins are a little slim. So Michael McDowell rounds out this week’s winners. To McDowell’s credit, he did qualify the No. 00 car in the 18th position. He was also the highest-finishing rookie in the race. Most importantly, he put a little more distance between himself and the bubble position. While Michael McDowell, the driver sits 43rd in driver points, the Michael Waltrip Racing team he drives for moves up one spot to 30th in owner points; and when it comes time to qualify, the owner standings are the only ones that matter.
For the first time this year, Gene Haas won’t be able to point to the television and brag to all the other guys on his cell block that he owns one of the cars on television. While Johnny Sauter turned a lap at 174.789 mph, a full mph faster than Ward Burton’s track record, it wasn’t good enough to make the field of 43. The No. 70 Haas Automation Chevrolet falls two spots to 39th in owner points, 145 markers behind the 35th position, a position that is beginning to look more and more unattainable with each poor showing by the No. 70 team.
Sam Hornish Jr. now joins his fellow rookie open wheelers outside the Top 35 in the owner standings. Roger Penske’s No. 77 car smacked the wall hard on lap 11 and had to go to the garage for repairs. The Mobil 1 Dodge did return to action, but 86 laps down to the leader. By the time the race mercifully ended for the Penske boys, Hornish was 97 laps down, mired in 38th position. The dismal showing drops the team from 35th to 36th in the owner standings, 18 points behind the last guaranteed spot. One can only imagine with the team performing as poorly as it is that Hornish must wondering why he was struggling in Darlington instead of running for the pole at Indy.
Penske wasn’t the only NASCAR owner getting bad news at Indy on Saturday night. The Chip Ganassi-owned No. 41 Dodge came back to earth at Darlington, qualifying a miserable 39th and finishing 32nd. The crew chief swap certainly hasn’t brought consistency to the No. 41 Target Dodge driven by Reed Sorenson, who’s posted finishes of 43rd, 12th and 32nd since the swap. After the Dodge Challenger 500, the Ganassi team drops ever closer to the bubble, now sitting in the 32nd spot, 48 points ahead of the bubble. The good news for Penske and Ganassi is, at least they’re not Gene Haas.
A Look Ahead
The Coca-Cola 600 is a tough one to make predictions for. Some late-race shenanigans last year led to a top-five finishing order of Casey Mears, JJ Yeley, Kyle Petty, Sorenson and Brian Vickers, and I guarantee you nobody called that before the race. But we’re gonna give it a shot anyways. I like momentum, and right now Blaney has it. He’s posted his two best finishes of the year the last two races. Last year he started eighth and finished 18th in the 600. Combined with his career average finish of 24th on intermediate tracks and I like him to finish top 20 and keep BDR’s hold on the 35th spot.
Yeley doesn’t have momentum, but I like him anyway, mainly because I also like history. In 2007, Yeley started 12th and finished second, and in 2006 he started fourth and finished 20th. Going with the history, I also like Sorenson. In the last two 600s he hasn’t qualified well but finished fourth and 10th, and he’s still got a guaranteed starting spot. The crystal ball says top-25 runs by both Reed and JJ.
On the flip side, Michael Waltrip has neither momentum nor history on his side at Lowe’s. He missed the race in ’07 and started 43rd in ’06, not finishing much better, bringing it home in 41st position. I see him maybe cracking the Top 35, but definitely not the top 30. After the Coca-Cola 600, Petty begins his seven-race summer hiatus, with Terry Labonte stepping in for five races and Chad McCumbee getting the other two. I’m thinking neither the focus nor the horsepower will be there to get him in the show. So there’s your Bubble Breakdown for this week, we’ll see you in two weeks after the Coca-Cola 600. Until then, so long from the bubble…
Breaking Down the Bubble
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th|
|31||Michael Waltrip Racing||44||David Reutimann||873||+49|
|32||Chip Ganassi Racing||41||Reed Sorenson||872||+48|
|33||Michael Waltrip Racing||55||Michael Waltrip||851||+27|
|34||Dale Earnhardt Inc.||01||Regan Smith||835||+11|
|35||Bill Davis Racing||22||Dave Blaney||824||0|
|36||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||806||-18|
|37||Hall of Fame Racing||96||JJ Yeley||730||-94|
|38||Chip Ganassi Racing||40||Sterling Marlin/Dario Franchitti||690||-134|
|39||Haas CNC Racing||70||Johnny Sauter/Ken Schrader||679||-145|
|40||Team Red Bull||84||AJ Allmendinger||654||-170|
|41||Furniture Row Racing||78||Joe Nemechek||593||-231|
|42||Petty Enterprises||45||Kyle Petty||575||-249|
|43||Gillett Evernham Motorsports||10||Patrick Carpentier||541||-283|
|44||Wood Brothers Racing||21||Various Drivers||536||-288|
|45||Front Row Motorsports||34||Jeff Green||355||-469|