NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Hidden Within Indy Madness, Scott Riggs, No. 66 Team Sneak Back Into Top 35

As difficult as Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be for drivers and crew chiefs alike, it proved to be even more difficult for Goodyear engineers on Sunday. With the company’s few racing tires lasting only a handful of laps before showing excessive wear, NASCAR, in the name of safety, was forced to throw competition cautions every dozen or so laps for the duration of the race. This allowed teams to come down pit road and grab fresh rubber to keep the cars from blowing their right sides off during a full green-flag run and winding up in the wall.

But amidst all the starting and stopping, crashes, and various pit strategies, an interesting subplot emerged concerning the usual slate of bubble teams. As the clouds lifted on a strange day of racing, Scott Riggs managed to post his second straight top-25 finish, giving his team enough of a boost to race their way back into the Top 35 in owner points. And if the No. 66 State Water Heaters Chevrolet is back in… then obviously, someone’s bubble just popped.

Whose bubble was it, exactly, and how big of a hole have they dug for themselves starting at Pocono next week? To find out more, read on in this week’s installment of the Bubble Breakdown

Biggest Winners

The team who gained the most this weekend was easily the No. 66 Haas CNC Racing group mentioned above. Two weeks after it was sold in part to NASCAR veteran Tony Stewart, the pressure’s been turned up for that organization to at least get one of its cars back within the Top 35 in owner points by the end of the 2008 season. For now, at least, that mission is accomplished – courtesy some hard work at Indy by veteran driver Riggs. That team led a lap under yellow flag conditions, then used several two-tire pit strategies to gain track position and bring the car home in 25th. That was enough for Riggs’s team to move back into the Top 35 in the owner standings – albeit by the skin of their teeth. They’re just 14 markers ahead of 36th place heading to Pocono; but nonetheless, that’s enough to leave them locked in the field for the first time since the Michigan race last month.

This week’s second big gainer was the Target Chip Ganassi Dodge driven by Reed Sorenson. Reed posted a solid qualifying run (22nd) at a track where he’d won the pole back in 2007, then maintained his position throughout the race, finishing a very respectable 17th. As a result, the No. 41 team moved up three spots in the owner standings to 29th place. It’s not the ideal spot for a team owned by a guy that’s leading the IRL standings with driver Scott Dixon – but for a team struggling like CGR has this season, Sorenson’s was a run that gets them tilted back in the right direction.

Our final bubble winner of the week goes out to rookie Sam Hornish Jr. The Roger Penske-owned No. 77 Dodge posted a 21st-place finish at a track where Hornish has won in the IRL, putting Indy 500 experience to good use at a track that’s historically led to opportunity for first-year stock car converts (See: Montoya, Juan Pablo). Sunday was made all the more impressive since Hornish started way back in 38th, staying on the lead lap during conditions that proved so treacherous, teammate and 2004 Cup champ Kurt Busch couldn’t handle it and suffered a hard crash. Now armed with this solid (if unspectacular) run, the Mobil 1 Dodge team extended its cushion from 19 to 40 points over the 36th-place team. And believe me, they’ll need that extra space heading to Pocono – for if you remember, Hornish’s last visit there was stopped cold by several wrecks, crashes which reminded us all this veteran still has a laundry list of stock car mistakes left to make as a rookie.

Biggest Losers

By virtue of falling out of the Top 35 in owner points, Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 00 team gets this week’s biggest clunker award. While Michael McDowell didn’t run a really bad race, all of the cautions meant a lot of pit stops – and McDowell’s Champion Mortgage team couldn’t keep up with the Joneses. Several stops late in the race dropped McDowell’s Toyota all the way back to the 34th position at the finish, with just two cars on the lead lap finishing behind him. As a result, the team will now have to qualify on time starting next week at Pocono, where last month they posted just a 39th-place qualifying effort. Uh-oh.

Also out of the MWR stable is the second biggest loser of the week – none other than Michael Waltrip himself. Very early in the race, while battling with Hornish Jr., Michael lost the car when it got loose and hit the wall hard, damaging all those NAPA parts built to keep the car running. The team did make repairs and get the car back out, but still weren’t able to pass anybody, finishing the day in 43rd position, 69 laps behind the leaders. Despite his dropping one spot in the owner points, his lead over teammate McDowell for the last guaranteed spot does remain at 115 – still a fairly reasonable cushion moving forward.

Last but not least, a team who had once left the bubble is now slowly working its way back down the list. Bill Davis Racing’s No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota driven by Dave Blaney dropped one spot in the owner standings to 30th place on Sunday after a horrible run at the Brickyard. The team never had a grip on the car’s handling all weekend and struggled during qualifying, as they rolled off in the 41st position. When all was said and done, he basically passed only the teams that wrecked, finishing 35th.

A Look Ahead

Watch out, bubble drivers; AJ Allmendinger and the No. 84 team are coming fast. The sophomore’s previous career best finish of 12th came just a few weeks ago at Pocono; and with AJ improving upon that at Indy this week with a 10th-place run, combined with a 13th at Chicagoland Speedway in mid-July, I see him continuing his push to get that team into the Top 35 by Homestead. Expect a top-15 start and finish for the No. 84 Red Bull car at Pocono, as they continue their momentum rolling in the Pennsylvania mountains.

Riggs also is showing some signs of life over at Haas CNC Racing, as his run at the Brickyard was his second consecutive top 25 finish. Add to that his ninth place start and 21st place result last month at Pocono, and we may see Riggs moving away from the bubble – making life much easier for whoever takes over that ride in 2009 for Stewart-Haas Racing.

On the flip side, MWR’s No. 55 NAPA Toyota driven by Waltrip and No. 00 Toyota driven by rookie McDowell continue to fall in the standings. The Mikes finished 43rd and 34th at the Brickyard, respectively, in practice times – and in the race, neither one was ever a serious factor. To make matters worse, both teams struggled at Pocono during their last trip to Pennsylvania – with McDowell finishing 27th and Waltrip posting a 37th-place run. The bottom line is that neither team is showing any signs of turning their luck around, and one would think their lack of success will continue next week – even if they’re not too happy about it.

That’s it for this week’s Bubble Breakdown. 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 1,636 +140
32 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 1,597 +101
33 Dale Earnhardt Inc. 01 Regan Smith 1,572 +76
34 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,522 +26
35 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 1,496 0
36 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Michael McDowell 1,482 -14
37 Team Red Bull 84 AJ Allmendinger 1,433 -63
38 Hall of Fame Racing 96 JJ Yeley 1,335 -161
39 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 1,299 -197
40 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,255 -241
41 Petty Enterprises 45 Terry Labonte 1,223 -273
42 Haas CNC Racing 70 Jason Leffler 1,000 -496
43 Chip Ganassi Racing 40 CLOSED 996 -500
44 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Various Drivers 968 -528

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