The competition to stay in the Top 35 in owner points has dissolved into a dogfight, with many more teams falling back towards the bubble as opposed to moving away from it. While a few select cars – such as Bill Davis’s No. 22 Caterpillar entry and Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 44 UPS Toyota – have been able to develop some semblance of consistency, many others have simply not developed any at all… or have just been consistently bad. And while those two teams have distanced themselves from the bubble fray, others – like Chip Ganassi’s No. 41 Target Dodge and Robby Gordon’s No. 7 – have struggled enough to come back towards the cut line. As it stands now, there’s less than 100 points separating 30th from 36th in owner points – a number that has plenty of organizations just a little nervous. At least there’s just one spot they’ve got to worry about, for now; a healthy gap of 128 points currently separates the 36th-place team from 37th.
Sunday’s Pocono 500 was a microcosm of the year for many of these cars looking to find some sort of rhythm. Five teams were able to post top-12 qualifying efforts, and several ran well during the early portion of the race itself. But unfortunately for these teams, NASCAR doesn’t award any points until the checkered flag flies; and when it flew on Sunday, only one bubble team was to be found in the top 20.
To figure out what happened to the rest – and which car was the one that broke through – read on for your Bubble Breakdown from Sunday’s Pocono 500:
Finally, some good news for Haas CNC Racing. Scott Riggs, who had to qualify on time, did just that, putting his No. 66 State Water Heaters Chevrolet on the inside of row five at Pocono. He followed that up by running in the top 10 for the first third of the 500-mile race – even leading six laps after a timely caution flag in the middle of pit stops shuffled him to the front – before fading a little in the late stages to come home in the 21st position. While the finish may be disappointing based on their early-race performance, what isn’t disappointing is that the No. 66 team has now raced their way back into the Top 35. This gives them a guaranteed starting spot next week at Michigan – and allows them to breathe a huge sigh of relief for the time being.
AJ Allmendinger piloted his No. 84 Team Red Bull Toyota to a career-best 12th-place finish at Pocono. The No. 84 team has had good qualifying efforts and several strong runs, but was never able to close the deal until Sunday afternoon, when Allmendinger drove a heck of a race that saw him hanging in or around the top 10 for most of the afternoon. With so many of the teams struggling around the bubble, the No. 84 car seems most likely to race its way into the Top 35; but they need to make a move soon, as they are still 140 points out of a guaranteed starting spot in 37th.
Regan Smith is bound and determined to put Cato, N.Y., on the map for something other than its fine golf course. This past weekend, Smith brushed off rumors of the team shutting down to post a second row starting spot and another top-30 finish. His performance moves the No. 01 DEI Chevrolet up one more spot in owner points to 31st, pushing them ever so slightly further away from his previous perch on the bubble in 35th. While some drivers with more money, more experience or who have been determined to be more marketable sit outside the Top 35, Smith continues to fly under the radar while running strong in his quest for Rookie of the Year honors.
This week’s biggest loser would be the No. 55 Toyota driven by Michael Waltrip. While running in the mid-20s just before the halfway point in the race, Mikey smacked the wall, ruining many of the NAPA Auto Parts in his car, putting him a lap down and relegating the team to a 37th-place finish. Now, the team must qualify on time at Michigan and beyond as the MWR No. 55 Toyota has fallen out of the Top 35 in owner points. But while the team is struggling, Michigan couldn’t have come at a better time for MWR. Last year, the No. 55 NAPA Toyota twice qualified in the top 20 and turned one of those efforts into a 10th-place finish.
All the momentum the No. 77 Team Penske Dodge had built up came to a screeching halt in Long Pond, Pa. on Sunday afternoon. Sam Hornish Jr. was involved in several incidents which relegated the team to a 42nd-place finish. The poor performance drops them right to the bubble, only 12 points ahead of having to qualify on time. However, this is another team who couldn’t be happier to head up north to Michigan next week; they will look to rebound in what one could consider a home game for all three Penske teams at a track once owned by Roger Penske.
Last year at this point in the season, Hall of Fame Racing’s No. 96 Chevrolet was cruising along, 24th in owner points with Tony Raines as its driver. But during the offseason, Hall Of Fame Racing switched both drivers and manufacturers – from Chevy to Toyota – to maintain their alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, and the results ever since have been nothing short of disastrous. It would be difficult to blame the switch from Chevy to Toyota for the problems, though, since JGR has thrived with the new Camry. That leaves the driver as the most likely place to point the blame – and it’s clear JJ Yeley has struggled mightily with his performance. On Friday, the No. 96 DLP Toyota was the only team to load up and go home as Yeley failed to qualify the car, again. Perhaps if the powers that be were to ask nicely, I’m sure Raines would consider – and deserves – another shot. But they had better do something fast, as the team continues to fall every week in the standings.
A Look Ahead
Of the roughly 10 predictions made last week, five were right on, two were awful close and three were just plain awful. Therefore, we’ll try a little harder this week. The No. 96 DLP Chevrolet last year had its share of problems at Michigan International Speedway. Between the two races there a year ago, their average start/finish was 35th/37th with Raines at the helm. So, based on HoF Racing’s performance this year, I say they’ll miss the race once more. In contrast, MWR qualified well at Michigan last season, with the No. 55 team posting 11th and 18th-place qualifying runs, while the No. 00 added a 12th-place effort in the fall race. But they are also struggling this year, and while I expect each team to qualify in the top 25, neither will finish in the top 30.
Allmendinger didn’t have a lot of success at Michigan last year, but is coming off his career best finish, and has shown at times he can run in the top half of the field. Team Red Bull as a whole continues to improve, and will continue to do so – the No. 84 car should post his second straight top 20 next week. Smith and the No. 01 DEI Chevrolet will continue gelling with new crew chief Dan Stillman – qualifying in the top 30, staying out of trouble, and finishing in the top 25. Finally, Hornish will rebound from a poor run at Pocono to log a solid top 25 at the track once owned by the same man who owns the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge team he drives for.
That’s a wrap for this week; until next Monday, so long from the bubble.
Breaking Down the Bubble
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|31||Dale Earnhardt Inc.||01||Regan Smith||1,120||+44|
|32||Chip Ganassi Racing||41||Reed Sorenson||1,118||+42|
|33||Michael Waltrip Racing||00||Michael McDowell||1,105||+29|
|34||Haas CNC Racing||66||Scott Riggs||1,086||+10|
|35||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||1,076||0|
|36||Michael Waltrip Racing||55||Michael Waltrip||1,064||-12|
|37||Team Red Bull||84||AJ Allmendinger||936||-140|
|38||Hall of Fame Racing||96||JJ Yeley||901||-175|
|39||Chip Ganassi Racing||40||Dario Franchitti||888||-188|
|40||Furniture Row Racing||78||Joe Nemechek||752||-324|
|41||Gillett Evernham Motorsports||10||Patrick Carpentier||736||-340|
|42||Petty Enterprises||45||Chad McCumbee/Terry Labonte||731||-345|
|43||Wood Brothers Racing||21||Various Drivers||695||-381|
|44||Haas CNC Racing||70||Jason Leffler||661||-415|
|45||Front Row Motorsports||34||Tony Raines||429||-647|