Sunday evening, NASCAR’s top series put out its version of an endurance race with the running of the Coca-Cola 600. The series’ longest event, it’s a true test of both man and machine, and everyone needs to be on top of their game. But two of Sunday’s 43 starters — one a bubble dweller and one who soon may be — were already at a serious disadvantage before the marathon even got underway.
On Saturday, NASCAR was alerted by a garage informer to take a peek under the rear deck lids of the Haas Automation Chevys driven by Johnny Sauter and Scott Riggs. Once they did, both cars were hauled out by NASCAR and taken to their Research and Design Center for further inspection — it appears that the rear wing mounts on both cars were messed with. Despite the infractions, NASCAR did allow the Haas teams to run backup cars and start at the back of the field; but it was a serious blow to both programs. At least Sauter was already starting at the back in 43rd; Riggs took a huge hit after qualifying in the 13th position.
However, the bigger repercussions from this are the impending penalties to be doled out by NASCAR. The No. 70 team was already outside the Top 35, and Riggs wasn’t that far from the bubble; while a 100-point (or maybe more) penalty may not land his No. 66 team outside that, it is going to drag them back into the worry zone. Combined with the fact six bubble drivers finished in the top 25 at Lowe’s — while both the No. 66 and No. 70 cars came home 28th or worse — and you’ve got a really rough weekend for the Haas duo.
Who else has reason to be sweating bullets after Charlotte? Without further ado, here’s your Bubble Breakdown for the Coca-Cola 600:
The good news for Michael Waltrip Racing is that David Reutimann is starting to show the potential he was thought to have when he was hired to drive for the team. David posted the first top-10 finish of his career at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and has slowly but surely moved away from the bubble since taking over for Dale Jarrett in March. The No. 44 team avoided a string of caution flags, getting good fuel mileage and pit stops to post their fifth straight top-25 finish. Now in 29th place, my guess is this is the last time we’ll be talking about Reut in this column; so, as we did with Jamie McMurray a few weeks earlier, let’s all wave goodbye and wish him well the remainder of the season.
Sam Hornish Jr. also posted his best career finish on Sunday, posting a 13th-place run in his No. 77 Penske Dodge. But due to strong runs by several bubble teams, the No. 77 Mobil 1 car wasn’t able to race its way into the Top 35. Still, after a strong run in the All-Star Race — combined with an excellent run in the Coca-Cola 600 — the team has momentum that it hasn’t ever had with Hornish behind the wheel. Adding to the excitement surrounding the team, the point margin has been reduced to just three from being in one of the guaranteed starting spots.
Bill Davis Racing’s No. 22 Caterpillar car rounds out this week’s big winners. Dave Blaney drove a solid race, led some laps, and recorded a decent 17th-place finish to build on the momentum of his Darlington performance two weeks earlier. In fact, it’s the team’s third straight top-20 run since missing the Talladega race, allowing Blaney to stay above the cut line from having to qualify on speed. BDR’s Toyota is clearly a team building momentum these days, and moved up two spots to 33rd in the owner standings.
A 38th-place finish is not what the doctor had ordered for the ailing team that puts JJ Yeley behind the cockpit. Hall Of Fame Racing’s DLP-sponsored Toyota struggled all evening — already many laps down, Yeley got involved in a wreck with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 296 — and a poor run was made worse by several strong runs by the teams right around the bubble. The end result is that the No. 96 car will again have to attempt to qualify on speed at Dover, as it sits in place in 37th place in the owner standings — now 154 outside the Top 35.
The NAPA Toyota driven by Michael Waltrip now sits precariously on the bubble. Another lackluster performance by NASCAR’s made for TV driver continued a dismal season for the No. 55 team, as MWR’s NAPA machine again finished several laps down and was never a factor in Sunday’s race (Waltrip came home 27th). The team dropped two spots in owner points to 35th, and is now just three ahead of a surging Hornish.
The final third of MWR’s trio of Toyotas also finds itself in the loser column again. Like his teammate, Michael McDowell‘s No. 00 finished a handful of laps down in 32nd, and also fell two spots in the owner standings. While the double zero Toyota hasn’t fallen out of the Top 35 yet, it sits in 32nd and has steadily fallen in the standings since the young rookie took over for Reutimann. One can only assume it’s only a matter of time before one or more of Waltrip’s teams are again trying to qualify on time for the races.
A Look Ahead:
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series moves to Dover next Sunday afternoon; but considering what happened last year, it’s hard to envision any of the bubble teams looking forward to their return trip to the Monster Mile. Gillett Evernham’s No. 10 Dodge managed an 11th-place start with former driver Riggs, but no one around this year’s bubble finished higher than 21st. So, I’m going with a little bit of long-term history combined with momentum when predicting this week’s performances. I see a strong run by Blaney, whose career average at this type of track is a 24th-place start and a 24th-place finish — slightly better than some of the other teams surrounding him in this group. Not only that, but Bill Davis Racing has strung together some impressive finishes since missing Talladega — looking like an organization who has no plans on going back to having to qualify on speed.
Waltrip also has decent numbers at this type of track — he’s got a 23rd-place average start and a 22nd-place average finish. Joe Nemechek is in the same boat (19th in average start, 23rd in average finish); both need to replicate those numbers next Sunday afternoon in a big way, especially considering Nemechek’s No. 78 team was a Lowe’s Motor Speedway DNQ.
On the down side, the No. 70 Haas Automation Chevy started a distant 42nd last year, and the whole team is a mess right now, whoever drives it — especially considering the impounding of its car and the impending penalties to come. The Petty Enterprises No. 45 Dodge also isn’t great at Dover. Then driven by Kyle Petty, the No. 45 qualified 39th in 2007 and rode around the back almost all day, finishing 34th. At least former champion Terry Labonte will get that car into the field; but I wouldn’t expect much more than that.
Breaking Down the Bubble
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th|
|31||Chip Ganassi Racing||41||Reed Sorenson||969||+36|
|32||Michael Waltrip Racing||00||Michael McDowell||945||+12|
|33||Bill Davis Racing||22||Dave Blaney||941||+8|
|34||Dale Earnhard Inc.||01||Regan Smith||941||+8|
|35||Michael Waltrip Racing||55||Michael Waltrip||933||0|
|36||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||930||-3|
|37||Hall of Fame Racing||96||JJ Yeley||779||-154|
|38||Chip Ganassi Racing||40||Sterling Marlin/Dario Franchitti||760||-173|
|39||Team Red Bull||84||AJ Allmendinger||757||-176|
|40||Haas CNC Racing||70||Johnny Sauter/Ken Schrader||737||-196|
|41||Petty Enterprises||45||Kyle Petty||630||-303|
|42||Furniture Row Racing||78||Joe Nemechek||615||-318|
|43||Gillett Evernham Motorsports||10||Patrick Carpentier||595||-338|
|44||Wood Brothers||21||Various Drivers||561||-372|
|45||Front Row Motorsports||34||Jeff Green||386||-547|