After rain washed out Friday’s qualifying, this weekend’s road race at Watkins Glen was set by owner points – a decision that turned out to be a double-edged sword for our faithful set of bubble dwellers. On the plus side, all 43 full-time teams qualified without the risk of being knocked off by road-course ringers Boris Said and Brian Simo. But making the field was no consolation when each of these teams were forced to start 31st or worse. In a race where track position proves key, that made it more difficult than ever for programs already struggling to climb out of the hole they’ve slowly dug themselves into all season long.
But despite that disadvantage, there were not one but two drivers outside the Top 35 who shocked many by finishing inside the top 11. Which teams were they, and who was hurt the most by a devastating nine-car crash that decimated several cars in the race’s final laps? To find out, read on for this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.
Other than victory lane, you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger smile in the Finger Lake Region than on AJ Allmendinger’s face Sunday. After over a season and a half of struggling to get over the hump – during which he was removed from the driver’s seat of the No. 84 for nearly three months – the open-wheel convert has moved his team into a Top 35 spot in owner points. Appropriately, it was strategy from crew chief Jimmy Elledge that put the team in a spot to succeed; ever since he joined this team the second week of July, they’ve reeled off four consecutive top-20 finishes with Allmendinger at the wheel.
“Jimmy (Elledge, crew chief) has done a great job,” beamed the sophomore driver after coming home 11th. “We have been running well and we just needed some luck on our side and some good strategy. Jimmy has brought that along.”
Elledge certainly had his bag of tricks out this day. After bringing the No. 84 in earlier than anyone else, on lap 17, pit strategy from the early stop served to give Allmendinger the track position he needed to slowly work his way up from his 35th-place starting spot. By the race’s halfway point, he was up to 20th; and by the time Allmendinger completed his second and final stop, he was in the top 15 with less than 25 laps left. Reaching a high of eighth place, the No. 84 got loose in the final laps to drop outside the top 10. That led to a brief bout with disappointment for Allmendinger; but after 50-plus races of having to qualify on speed, trust me – that sour taste will quickly turn to sweet.
“We’re in the Top 35 and that’s been our big deal,” said Allmendinger, who now has a cushion of just eight points over the No. 00 car and friend Michael McDowell. “I know once we get in, we’re not going to fall back out.”
His team may be too far down the bubble list to have a realistic shot at the Top 35, but I’d be remiss not to mention the performance of Marcos Ambrose. It was truly a career-defining weekend for the Tasmanian, who won his first Nationwide Series race at the Glen on Saturday before following up with a third-place finish in the Cup race the following day. How impressive was this rookie’s performance? He not only started 41st, but came to the front with a team that had a previous best finish of 20th. Ambrose not only shattered that mark, he gave the team its best result since the retired Ricky Rudd finished second for them at – guess what – a road course, coming home second at Infineon in 2005.
“I’m just really proud,” Ambrose said after the race. “And I hope it can give the Wood Brothers a shot in the arm that they need to really get the momentum to move forward.”
In truth, it’d give them a better shot in the arm if Ambrose was their driver for 2009. But he isn’t, and the team still faces a sobering reality: sitting 428 points outside the Top 35 with 14 races remaining.
Scott Riggs has never been known as a road racer; so much so, in fact, that the team “removed” him from his ride prior to Infineon, renumbering his car from No. 66 to No. 70 so hired road-course ace Max Papis could have a better chance of bringing the No. 66 program back into the Top 35. This weekend at the Glen, the team decided to let Riggs run his regular number; but looking back, they may point to that choice as a terrible mistake. Riggs was never a factor, clearly struggling against some of the experienced road racers and road-course ringers running the bubble cars. Falling a lap down during the long green-flag run to start the event, Riggs came home 34th and watched his team fall from 35th to 37th in owner points. What’s worse is that for whatever reason, the man still hasn’t been told he’ll be out of a job at newly named Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009. Tony, Tony, Tony… will you just let the man out of his misery, please? Perhaps clearing up Riggs’s future will motivate both him and the team in the present to work their way back up towards a “locked-in” spot.
Michael Waltrip had the pleasure of announcing primary sponsor NAPA will be back with him for a ninth consecutive year this week; but that’s about the only thing at Watkins Glen that went right. Not only did each of his three teams finish outside the top 20, but rookie McDowell started the day’s big wreck with a tap of David Gilliland on lap 82. Waltrip was among those involved, and his No. 55 car limped home a disappointing 39th. Amazingly, that’s the team’s best finish over the last three weeks, as Waltrip’s No. 55 had posted two consecutive last-place finishes at Indianapolis and Pocono. Now 33rd in the owner standings, the No. 55 is just 29 points away from being forced to qualify on speed once again.
A Look Ahead
The Cup Series heads back to the Irish Hills of Michigan this week for their second and final trip around the 2-mile oval this season. And make no bones about it, this is not the track these bubble drivers wanted to see, as just one team currently 31st or worse in owner points finished in the top 20 at this track back in June.
Who was that lone exception, you ask? Why, none other than Allmendinger, who charged from his 39th starting spot to come home a solid 19th in June. With the welcome relief of not having to qualify on time for the first time in his two-year career, expect the ‘Dinger and his No. 84 team to come to the track relieved, relaxed, and focused more than ever on that all-important race setup. As a result, it’d be a minor shock if they don’t place in the top 20 again come Sunday.
With their poor performance in June, it’s also easy to forget how well Michael Waltrip Racing did at Michigan throughout the 2007 season. But there’s still time to make up for a June race in which each of the three cars finished 23rd or worse. McDowell remains outside the Top 35, but due to a small entry list (44-45 cars) qualifying should be relatively easy. And once every one of these cars is makes the show, a top-10 finish for any of them isn’t out of the question. My bet’s on Waltrip, who’s got to break out of his season-worst slump before he’s on the outside looking in on the bubble once again.
As far as who’s in tough shape, it’s expected to be a rough debut for new Hall of Fame Racing driver Brad Coleman. The No. 96 started 40th and finished 41st with JJ Yeley behind the wheel in June; adding insult to injury, a poor run was cut short with a blown engine just past the 200-mile mark. Considering Coleman has no Cup experience – and finished 15th in his lone Nationwide start at the track – even a top-25 finish in his Cup debut would be a major shock. The Haas teams shouldn’t be all that great, either – Riggs finished a distant 33rd and the No. 70 car failed to qualify in the first Michigan race of 2008.
Breaking Down The Bubble
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|31||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||1,770||+101|
|32||Bill Davis Racing||22||Dave Blaney||1,767||+98|
|33||Michael Waltrip Racing||55||Michael Waltrip||1,682||+13|
|34||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||1,674||+5|
|35||Team Red Bull||84||AJ Allmendinger||1,669||0|
|36||Michael Waltrip Racing||00||Michael McDowell||1,661||-8|
|37||Haas CNC Racing||66||Scott Riggs||1,638||-31|
|38||Gillett Evernham Motorsports||10||Patrick Carpentier||1,469||-200|
|39||Hall of Fame Racing||96||PJ Jones/Brad Coleman||1,433||-236|
|40||Petty Enterprises||45||Various Drivers||1,426||-243|
|41||Furniture Row Racing||78||Joe Nemechek||1,344||-325|
|42||Wood Brothers Racing||21||Various Drivers||1,241||-428|
|43||Haas CNC Racing||70||Jason Leffler||1,143||-526|