As NASCAR made its first return trip to a racetrack in 2008, several bubble teams once again showed signs of life during Friday’s qualifying session. Joe Nemechek, Johnny Sauter and Regan Smith turned laps that qualified them in the fourth, fifth and eighth starting positions respectively, serving notice they planned to be a force during the race at Daytona the following day. On the flip side of that, JJ Yeley’s No. 96 Toyota and Scott Riggs’s No. 66 Hunt Brothers Pizza Chevrolet – teams who sat 36th and 37th respectively in owner points – both failed to qualify, giving somewhat of a break to those teams already (un)comfortably within the Top 35 in the owner standings.
However, as I’ve stated here before, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. And when all was said and done, including a last-lap melee that held up the posting of the final results for several hours, several of the top bubble finishers had come from about as far back in the pack as you can get.
With that in mind, let’s break down this week’s bubble from the Daytona International Speedway:
The biggest winner this week was easily Robby Gordon. Gordon followed up his eighth-place finish in February at Daytona by coming up from the 37th starting spot to finish sixth on Saturday night. Gordon progressed through the field steadily throughout the event, and put himself in position to win just as the Big One froze the field during the final lap of a green-white-checkered finish.
“For us to finish sixth, it shows how strong our little team is getting in this world that everybody tells us single-car teams can’t compete,” said Gordon. “We have been very fast. We seem to mess it up when it comes to race time, but we’ve been eliminating those mistakes lately. We didn’t mess up tonight.”
For the team’s efforts, Robby Gordon Motorsports climbs up two spots to 31st in the owner standings, and now has a 114-point cushion over the guaranteed starting spot cutoff.
A top-25 finish is what the Michael Waltrip Racing No. 00 needed to stop the bleeding… and that’s exactly what they got. Michael McDowell did get caught up in the last-lap wreck and suffered some damage, but still managed to move up one spot in the standings to 34th. On the down side, they only beat the No. 77 Penske Dodge driven by Sam Hornish Jr. by four spots; therefore, the margin between the two teams remains a slim 12 points. With competition around 35th continuing to be tight as ever, the team will have to string several of these top-25 runs together if they want to separate themselves from the cutoff line moving forward.
After that, the pickins’ get slim for winners here, so I’m gonna give two honorable mentions: although one, I admit, is a real stretch. Terry Labonte started dead last for this 400-miler; but on a night where wrecks appeared on every turn throughout the last 100 miles, the typical Labonte patience paid off in a big way by the end of the day. He picked off the cars one by one, got around the Big One more or less, and brought home the Petty Enterprises Dodge in the 16th position. It’s a really solid run that this team sorely needed, and the second such top-20 finish since Labonte took over the seat from Kyle Petty just a handful of races ago.
A second team that gets a bit of a boost this week – albeit not really of their own doing – is the Haas Automation No. 70 Chevrolet driven by Sauter. Again, this is a stretch – but bear with me here. With Chip Ganassi shutting down the No. 40 Dodge team, in the event of a rainout for qualifying, the No. 70 team would now be in the field even with two past champions in the lineup. This is because after those drivers who hold a past champion’s provisional, NASCAR looks at attempts when setting the field for a rainout. With Ganassi’s now defunct team having only 17 attempts compared to Haas having 18, rain next week guarantees the No. 70 team gets in even if Ganassi puts something together in the coming week. Hey, I said it was a stretch – but I figured after all this time, I should say something positive about the Haas CNC teams.
Hornish was right smack dab in the middle of the Big One at the end, and relegated the Penske No. 77 Dodge to a 29th place finish – ruining his opportunity for two consecutive top-15 finishes to start off his career at Daytona. The momentum is now not only gone for this team, it seems to be reversed. But they do, however, have a 70-point cushion over the 36th-place team, which seems to have a history – no matter which team it is – of not making races. So, they’ve got that going for them, at the very least.
Starting next week, Team Red Bull needs to start doing some sort of animal sacrifice to the racing Gods. AJ Allmendinger has shown a ton of promise, but something always happens as of late… whether it’s his fault or not. This week, after qualifying a very respectable 13th, a blown right-front tire sent them into the wall and put him back towards the 42nd spot by the finish. This was an opportunity squandered to gain plenty of ground, as both teams sitting ahead of the No. 84 in the standings missed the race.
For the third loser of the week, we’re going to give a couple of honorable mentions again. As mentioned before, the No. 40 Chip Ganassi Dodge didn’t even attempt the race as funding has dried up for that team. Mr. Ganassi felt diverting funds from his other teams to keep this one afloat may harm them, so he shut it down. Mercifully, that means the Dario Franchitti era at CGR has seemingly come to an end. Also worthy of mention are the No. 66 Haas State Water Heaters team driven by Riggs and the No. 96 DLP Toyota driven by Yeley. Both failed to make the field while their teams sat 36th and 37th in owner points, respectively. With the inconsistency being displayed by the teams currently outside the Top 35, it’s a good bet none of them are able to race their way in by Homestead at this point.
A Look Ahead
NASCAR moves to Chicagoland Speedway next week for the LifeLock.com 400. Last year at this event, there was a lot of struggling going on amongst the bubble teams. Reed Sorenson was the only driver to post a top-20 finish (12th), and Sauter was the only current bubble dweller to start in the top 20 (18th). So, with not a lot of great history, we have to look at momentum when making predictions. And to be honest, it’s easier to see who doesn’t have it as opposed to who does. Hornish is definitely someone who doesn’t, nor does Yeley or Riggs. All three of these drivers will struggle mid to back of the pack and will finish no higher than 30th. Moreover, I expect Allmendinger to qualify in the mid-teens, run a smooth consistent race until around the midway point when an asteroid falls out of the sky and hits his car, sending him to another 40-plus finish.
For those looking for better runs, this is the type of track where Smith can get some breathing room around him and bring it home in the low 20s and in one piece. Also, Gordon is building some momentum while Patrick Carpentier is coming off his career-best finish. Both of these drivers will race themselves into top-20 finishing positions by the end of the night.
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||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||1,484||+114|
|32||Chip Ganassi Racing||41||Reed Sorenson||1,475||+105|
|33||Dale Earnhardt Inc.||01||Regan Smith||1,436||+66|
|34||Michael Waltrip Racing||00||Michael McDowell||1,382||+12|
|35||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||1,370||0|
|36||Haas CNC Racing||66||Scott Riggs||1,300||-70|
|37||Team Red Bull||84||AJ Allmendinger||1,170||-200|
|38||Hall of Fame Racing||96||JJ Yeley||1,165||-205|
|39||Furniture Row Racing||78||Joe Nemechek||1,133||-237|
|40||Gillett Evernham Motorsports||10||Patrick Carpentier||1,117||-253|
|41||Petty Enterprises||45||Terry Labonte||1,092||-278|
|42||Chip Ganassi Racing||40||CLOSED||996||-374|
|43||Wood Brothers Racing||21||Various Drivers||879||-491|
|44||Haas CNC Racing||70||Johnny Sauter||851||-519|