NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: AJ Allmendinger Creeps Closer to First-Ever Trip Inside Top 35

Set up in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania is NASCAR’s tricky triangle known as Pocono Raceway. Like Indy, it’s a track that can be a nightmare to set up the car, as it has three straightaways all of different lengths, as well as three completely different types of turns. To make matters worse for teams and drivers, Mother Nature reared her ugly head all weekend, battering the track with enough rain on Saturday to completely wash out both practice sessions. Rain also played a role during the race Sunday, as a brief shower moved in causing a short red-flag session to dry the track. But despite all the wet weather, the sun did manage to shine down on some of our bubble teams by the time the checkered flag flew. So, read on to see which teams basked in the sun’s warm glow – and which teams wound up all wet in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

Biggest Winners

A pair of Toyotas tops Sunday’s win list from Pennsylvania. Team Red Bull’s No.84 driven by AJ Allmendinger and Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 00 piloted by rookie Michael McDowell had runs that closely mirrored each other. AJ started 31st and McDowell started 35th, and both drivers spent most of their days in the mid-30s – up until around lap 170. At that point, they were within their fuel window and pitted for the last time; both teams packed their cars full of gas and each picked up multiple positions in the last four laps as competitors ahead of them fell out of contention when their fuel cells ran dry. That allowed McDowell to jump up to 24th place, the highest-finishing Rookie of the Race for the second time at Pocono Raceway. But Allmendinger fared even better; and with his 19th-place result, he’s served notice to the bubble teams ahead of him that the Dinger is comin’. This was his fifth top-20 finish in the last eight races as Team Red Bull continues to improve substantially in their second year on the Cup circuit. While both drivers remain in the 36th (McDowell) and 37th (Allmendinger) positions in the owner standings and will have to qualify on time at the Glen next week, two more solid performances should put them over the hump and back into a “locked-in” starting spot.

Biggest Losers

Michael Waltrip once again finds himself in this part of the column, as he posted his second straight 43rd-place finish. His No. 55 NAPA Toyota’s engine looked to implode on lap 24, with Michael running just 33rd. As a result, Mikey drops one spot in owner points to 33rd place; but more importantly, his point lead ahead of 36th shrunk from 101 heading into Sunday’s race to 63 heading to Watkins Glen.

Robby Gordon also makes the loser list this week. Gordon’s No. 7 Menards Dodge started back in the 38th position and never got higher than 27th. The uncompetitive car was involved in a couple of paint-swapping incidents with other competitors, and Gordon finished a dismal 37th place – spending part of the event as the only car running off the lead lap. After this run, Gordon remained in the 31st position in owner points, but his cushion also took a big hit, shrinking from 140 to 115 heading to the Glen. The good news for the No. 7 team is that they’re heading to a road course, where Gordon’s had a lot of success in recent years – including a win at the western New York track itself several years ago.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR heads up my way to Watkins Glen next week for their second and final road course venue of the season. And where there’s a road course, there are the hired guns, creating a dangerous environment for those cars who stick with their regular drivers. Those bubble teams now have to deal not only with each other, they have to deal with the likes of Ron Fellows – who just won the Nationwide road-course race – Boris Said, PJ Jones and a number of veterans far more experienced in making left and right turns. At least one advantage for those bubble teams without a ringer is that qualifying has been rained out three of the last four years, locking in the field by owner points; that could be a relief for teams like the No. 96, who missed out at Infineon with regular driver JJ Yeley.

Looking to next week, Patrick Carpentier made his Cup debut on the road course last year and finished a strong 22nd, leading a number of laps in the No. 10 Gillett Evernham Dodge. Also having a good showing in 2007 was the Haas CNC Racing’s No. 66 team. Jeff Green finished a respectable 20th place, and with Scott Riggs coming on strong lately in an attempt to find a job for 2009, the team could reasonably expect to again get decent results at the Glen. Finally, after two straight 43rd-place runs, the No. 55 NAPA Toyota driven by Waltrip is due for a decent run. Considering his average career finish of 19th at the road courses is better than his restrictor-plate average of 21st, now seems like as good a time as any for that team to rebound.

One final note: starting in two weeks – as I will be on vacation next week – I’m going to add a “Bubble Spotlight” segment to the column. It will basically cover one of the bubble teams from the time they unload off the trailer to the time they box it back up and head to the next venue. As I haven’t decided who to start with, any readers who would like to make suggestions feel free, as I’ll probably start with the driver who gets the most votes.

So, until two Mondays from now, 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 1,688 +111
32 Dale Earnhardt Inc. 01 Regan Smith 1,660 +83
33 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 1,636 +63
34 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,607 +30
35 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 1,577 0
36 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Michael McDowell 1,573 -4
37 Team Red Bull 84 AJ Allmendinger 1,539 -63
38 Hall of Fame Racing 96 JJ Yeley 1,381 -196
39 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 1,366 -211
40 Petty Enterprises 45 Kyle Petty 1,335 -342
41 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,295 -382
42 Haas CNC Racing 70 Jason Leffler 1,109 -568
43 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Various Drivers 1,076 -601

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