Bubble Breakdown: Rain Shines Down On Several “Bubble” Teams

The teams on the edges of the Top 35 – or simply forced to qualify on speed – ruled the roost in Friday’s qualifying session. After a rain delay cooled the track, bubble dwellers swept five of the top-10 spots, including rookie Patrick Carpentier taking the pole to become the first top qualifier not born in the U.S. since 1953.

That led to heightened expectations for this crowd on the weekend; and with Mother Nature playing a major role, those lofty goals were granted by the end of the day. With rain calling off the race with 17 laps to go, the sudden ending allowed bubble teams to take three of the top six spots after some solid pit strategy.

So, who stayed out on the track to hog the glory, and who ended up stuck in the pits? Read on in this week’s Bubble Breakdown of the LENOX Industrial Tools 301.

Biggest Winners

Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 NAPA Toyota, driven by none other than Michael Waltrip, posted his best finish since April 2005 at Phoenix, when he also finished second. Good pit strategy combined with a late-race caution gave the team a huge boost that was sorely needed after a whopping zero top-20 finishes so far in 2008. With the team’s performance, they moved up to 28th in the owner standings; and more importantly, they expanded the points margin from the bubble to 152 over Scott Riggs and 36th-place Haas CNC Racing.

JJ Yeley and the No. 96 DLP Toyota also used good strategy and some luck with the rain to come home in third, the best oval finish ever for Hall of Fame Racing in its three years of existence. And with a top 25 already in hand from racing at Daytona this year, perhaps this team can gather it up and make a run at the Top 35 after all. But it’s not going to be easy; after failing to qualify three times this season, the team sits 37th in the owner standings and is almost 200 points off of the bubble. As the season hits the halfway mark this week, time is of the essence; should Yeley and Co. make a run back towards a “locked-in” spot in the field, the charge has to start this Saturday night.

Finally, Chip Ganassi’s No. 41 Target Dodge really needed a weekend’s worth of wet weather to start salvaging their season. After sitting out a rain delay during qualifying, they started sixth and managed to finish in the same spot after a difficult race – Reed Sorenson fell a lap down at one point after contact with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya sent him spiraling down to 31st. But this run now becomes an opportunity to build some badly needed momentum, as driver Sorenson brought the car home in fifth position at the Daytona 500 back in February. A repeat performance in Florida would allow this team to finally move away from the bubble for good. With this week’s strong run, the No. 41 Target Dodge moved up from 35th to 31st spot in the owner standings, 109 away from falling outside the Top 35.

Biggest Losers

While Team Red Bull continues to make strides in their programs, the No. 84 team still seems to be searching for a way to close the deal. AJ Allmendinger put up a strong qualifying run – starting in the 10th spot – but a blown engine in the later stages of the race relegated him to a 43rd-place finish. As a result, the team dropped from 37th to 38th in owner points, erasing most of the gains they’d made on the Top 35 this month in the process.

Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 00 also fell victim to a blown engine moments after Allmendinger’s. The team, led by rookie Michael McDowell, continues to struggle, and after finishing 42nd at New Hampshire is busy scratching their heads as to how to right the sinking ship. It didn’t help the rookie admitted he missed a shift after the race, the latest downer in a series of roller-coaster weeks for the freshman in which he’s struggled to acclimate to the Cup Series. Well, he better start adjusting in a hurry; the team dropped several spots in the owner standings with the poor run and is now squarely on the bubble in 35th.

After a string of good finishes, Team Penske’s No. 77 Dodge has again fallen on hard times. After running poorly at New Hampshire, a late-race spin certainly didn’t help any as Sam Hornish Jr. finished in a disappointing 38th place. As a result, they moved back into a tie with MWR’s No. 00 Toyota for that dreaded 35th spot on the bubble. Once again, the team’s margin of error is zero; but on the bright side, the team is heading back to a track where they posted a top-15 run earlier in the season at Daytona this Saturday.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR starts making the return trips to the race track next week, as the series heads back to Daytona International Speedway for the second time this year. Team Dodge dominated the Daytona 500, taking six of the top eight spots – including great runs by Ganassi’s No. 41 Target Dodge and Robby Gordon Motorsports’ No. 7. Hornish Jr. also looked good, finishing a very impressive 15th. I like all three of these teams to repeat their early season success, timing into the field with ease due to their Top-35 protection.

Ganassi’s No. 40 team also had a guaranteed spot in the first race at Daytona this year, but doesn’t have that luxury this time around. They’ll make the race, but after finishing 33rd in the season-opening event – and making little progress since then – we won’t see them anywhere in the top 30 when the checkered flag flies. But if there’s any consolation for Dario Franchitti, it looks like fellow rookie McDowell will be joining him at the back of the pack. David Reutimann drove the MWR No. 00 Toyota to a top-20 finish at Daytona in February, but based on the team’s performance since he moved over to the No. 44 and McDowell slipped into the cockpit, don’t expect anything higher than a 35th this time around.

That’s it 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 Chip Ganassi Racing 41 Reed Sorenson 1,378 +84
32 Dale Earnhardt Inc. 01 Regan Smith 1,345 +51
33 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,329 +35
34 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,294 0
35 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Michael McDowell 1,294 0
36 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 1,269 -25
37 Hall of Fame Racing 96 JJ Yeley 1,137 -157
38 Team Red Bull 84 AJ Allmendinger 1,133 -161
39 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,024 -270
40 Chip Ganassi Racing 40 Dario Franchitti 996 -298
41 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 996 -298
42 Petty Enterprises 45 Chad McCumbee/Terry Labonte 977 -317
43 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Various Drivers 815 -479
44 Haas CNC Racing 70 Jason Leffler 772 -522
45 Front Row Motorsports 34 Tony Raines 522 -772