NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Michael Waltrip, Michael McDowell in a Bind After Tough Go at Chicago

NASCAR began a short Midwest swing this weekend in Chicagoland with the running of the LifeLock.com 400. Mother Nature decided to play a big role in the proceedings early on, as the rains moved in and washed out NASCAR’s qualifying session. But the washout actually gave our Sprint Cup bubble teams a sigh of relief; with just 43 full-time entries remaining on the circuit, the field was set by owner points, allowing each of them to secure a spot in the starting lineup without so much as lifting a finger. Even the No. 70 Haas Automation Chevrolet – despite being 44th in the overall standings – made the cut in 43rd due to the shutdown of the No. 40 Chip Ganassi car.

But once the race began, the era of good feeling left over from qualifying quickly faded away into frustration and disgust for these organizations. Similar to the race at Chicagoland last year, many of the bubble teams struggled to get their cars up to speed, with only two of them posting top-20 finishes to make their case to get back towards the Top 35.

So, who were those two small surprises? And which team finds itself in the new, unenviable position of 35th place? For the answers to those questions and more, here’s your Bubble Breakdown after a Saturday night spent under the lights:

Biggest Winners

For the first time in weeks, AJ Allmendinger finally had an uneventful race. Team Red Bull’s No. 84 steered clear of trouble, had nothing break, and snapped a streak of miserable finishes in their first week under the direction of new crew chief Jimmy Elledge. “He’s easy,” said the sophomore driver about his new head wrench, who used pit strategy to push him up into the top 15 midway through the event. “I had more information than I ever could imagine. I love knowing what’s going on. His experience level – it’s great to have that and learn from that.”

That experience gave Allmendinger track position all night long, and some solid driving helped turn a 39th-place start into a solid 13th-place finish. That performance doesn’t move the team up any spots in the owner standings, but it does close the gap to 35th from 200 points to a much more manageable 122. With several teams in the Top 35 struggling to find consistency, the door is back open for the No. 84 team to sneak in for the first time this season – if only they can just string a few more of these solid finishes together.

Here’s something that doesn’t happen very often: a good week for Haas CNC Racing. The big news, of course, was the new partnership announced next season with Tony Stewart, which apparently has sponsors lining up to throw money his way for 2009. But here in 2008, the program is still trying to make noise of its own, with the team’s top car (No. 66) trying hard to make its back way up into the Top 35. And after failing to qualify last week, Scott Riggs certainly did his part to help out, bouncing back as he begins what’s likely an open audition to find another ride for the beginning of next year. After making this race with ease due to the rainout, the No. 66 Haas Automation Chevrolet driven by Riggs came through with a 20th-place finish, their best performance since Darlington in May to coincide with the return of suspended crew chief “Bootie” Barker. That narrowed their gap to just 13 points behind the 35th-place team and a guaranteed starting spot for 2009. And if that wasn’t enough for Haas CNC, Jason Leffler made the race and put together a credible 27th-place finish in the team’s No. 70 Chevrolet.

The final big winner on my list this week is Hall of Fame Racing’s No. 96 DLP Toyota piloted by JJ Yeley, who managed to bring the car home in one piece and in the 24th position for one of his better runs of the year. Indeed, it was a solid comeback for the No. 96 bunch, who not only missed the race at Daytona last week but nearly missed the beginning of this one, with NASCAR penalizing the car with a pass through penalty for removing weight from the vehicle following pre-race inspection. Falling one lap behind, Yeley needed the help of a timely Lucky Dog to fight his way back and ultimately towards a top 25 performance. While not earth-shattering by any means, as stated before, there’s a lot of inconsistency among the teams from 30th on back that have opened the door for teams outside the Top 35. By putting together some of these modest runs, the gap towards the bubble can close in a hurry… and the team’s working hard on doing just that. The DLP car shaved 45 points off the race to 35th, and now sits 160 behind Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 00 team that sits in the last guaranteed spot.

Biggest Losers

Speaking of Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 00 Toyota, it has has now finished 42nd or worse in two of the last three races. Michael McDowell got tangled up with Leffler on lap 4 Saturday night, hit the wall, and never recovered in what was perhaps the poorest run of his rookie season to date. A low number of cautions and 42 cars running at the checkered flag left the double zero team in the unenviable 43rd position at the finish — nine laps down to the leaders — and scratching their heads as to how it all went wrong. What’s worse is that poor performance — combined with the three teams directly behind them all finishing in the top 25 — has made the chase for the Top 35 far tighter than it’s been in recent weeks. In fact, the No. 00 team’s cushion over 36th position has now shrunk to 13 points, leaving them in position to be knocked off as early as Indianapolis next week.

LUMBIS: SPRINT CUP ROOKIE REPORT AFTER CHICAGOLAND

Just ahead of McDowell, the struggles continue for Roger Penske’s No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge team. Driver Sam Hornish Jr.’s inconsistency continued Saturday night, as the team was unable to capitalize on the other bubble teams’ poor runs. Struggling with an ill-handling car virtually all night long, Hornish wound up in just the 37th spot once the race was all said and done. While the finish moves them out of a tie for 35th position, their edge over 36th is just 19 points heading to the Brickyard in two weeks. Hopefully, back in Indianapolis is where Hornish can find some of the success he had during his open-wheel days. If not, the Team Penske Dodge may also soon find itself having to qualify on time.

With a 36th place finish Saturday night, MWR’s No. 55 NAPA Toyota, driven by Michael Waltrip himself, fell several spots to 31st in the owner standings – and right back onto our Bubble Watch. While David Reutimann continues to improve and finish consistently in the top 25, MWR’s other two Toyotas continue to do just the opposite; and with rumblings around the garage of sponsor UPS jumping ship, creating that type of distraction with the other two cars is just what Waltrip doesn’t need right now. If all three cars are going to secure spots in the Top 35 heading to Daytona next year, they have to buckle down now and start getting results that are a little more in line with the money being put into these teams. Otherwise, their current sponsors may look to invest elsewhere with drivers who are having a lot more success with a lot less backing. NAPA, can you say Robert Yates Racing?

A Look Ahead

There’s no race next week, so we’ll look ahead to two weeks from now when NASCAR heads to the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Amongst the bubble teams, I like Chip Ganassi’s No. 41 Target Dodge in particular to continue to have success at this venue. Last year, Reed Sorenson sat on the pole and finished fifth, leading a season-high 16 laps in the process. As a whole, both car owner and team have always run well here, and I see no reason to expect otherwise in two weeks. I’m also expecting Cato, N.Y.’s Regan Smith to post a decent top-20 finish. Last year, this team finished sixth at Indianapolis and while Regan has been in a bit of a mini-slump, he’s due to break out of it – especially considering no Rookie of the Year candidate has posted a top-10 run yet this season.

On the flip side, last year both MWR entries blew motors and finished 30th and 38th, respectively, while a third failed to even qualify. The standings will tell you that MWR hasn’t made much in the way of progress since then; and while all three cars have now slid into guaranteed starting spots, expect at least one and maybe two to leave Indiana having to qualify on time for Pocono the following week. Finally, while the mood at Haas CNC Racing may be lifted by the announcement of Stewart buying into the team, that optimism may not transfer to within the organization, as many crew members looking are facing the prospect of losing their jobs as soon as 2008’s complete. With the No. 66 and No. 77 teams finishing 43rd and 37th last year at Indy, I say that all adds up to both of them folding up like lawn chairs once again.

With no race scheduled next weekend, we’ll see you in two weeks after the Brickyard 400 at Indy. Until then, so long from the bubble!

Breaking Down The Bubble

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 1,563 +147
32 Chip Ganassi Racing 41 Reed Sorenson 1,545 +129
33 Dale Earnhardt Inc. 01 Regan Smith 1,497 +81
34 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,422 +6
35 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Michael McDowell 1,416 0
36 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 1,403 -13
37 Team Red Bull 84 AJ Allmendinger 1,294 -122
38 Hall of Fame Racing 96 JJ Yeley 1,256 -160
39 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 1,190 -226
40 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,179 -237
41 Petty Enterprises 45 Terry Labonte 1,141 -275
42 Chip Ganassi Racing 40 CLOSED 996 -420
43 Wood BrothersRacing 21 Various Drivers 937 -479
44 Haas CNC Racing 70 Jason Leffler 933 -483

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