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Bubble Breakdown: AJ Allmendinger’s Stay in Top 35 Was a Short One

Not a lot of news coming from the bubble teams this week – but the one story that did grab some headlines came from what is currently Haas CNC Racing. After plenty of speculation, Ryan Newman was formally introduced as the driver of what will be the No. 4 Chevy for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009. This now officially makes Newman the biggest fan of current Haas CNC Racing driver Scott Riggs, as he fights to get the No. 66 Chevrolet back into the Top 35 in the owner standings – thus eliminating the need for Newman to qualify on time next year.

On Sunday, Riggs didn’t disappoint his new fan, posting a strong 15th-place finish at Michigan. But was it enough to get the No. 66 Chevy back into the Top 35? To find out, read on in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

Biggest Winners

Riggs has raced the Haas CNC Racing No. 66 Chevrolet back into the Top 35 in the owner standings – again. Riggs was able to convert a top-10 starting spot into a 15th-place finish, getting great pit stops all afternoon long and staying out of trouble that some other drivers couldn’t avoid. While the team chased the handling all afternoon on the car, the aforementioned pit stops gained him track position on a consistent basis, and a convenient Lucky Dog kept Riggs on the lead lap at the right time. Combine that with some trouble to cars ahead of Riggs on the track, and you get one of the Haas team’s best finishes of the season. However, the No. 66 car has little margin for error; they sit just 18 markers ahead of the hard-charging Team Red Bull Toyota No. 84 driven by AJ Allmendinger.

Michael Waltrip didn’t move up at all in the standings, nor did he finish on the lead lap. What he did, though, was overcome a 42nd-place starting spot to bring home his No. 55 NAPA Toyota in the 19th position, one lap off the pace. The team’s effort increases his cushion over the bubble spot from 13 points to 40, giving Waltrip some much-needed breathing room considering what’s up ahead. MWR’s Toyota sits in the 33rd place in the owner standings heading to Bristol – where pretty much anything can and usually does happen.

Biggest Losers

After 53 races without a guaranteed starting spot, Team Red Bull’s stay in the Top 35 with their No. 84 lasted just one week. Fighting a loose-handling machine all weekend, combined with a speeding penalty on pit road late, the No. 84 Toyota could only muster a 28th-place finish – far beyond the top-10 performance of teammate Brian Vickers. The disappointing race, combined with the strong run by Riggs, has them on the outside looking in once again heading to Bristol next Saturday night.

For the second week in a row, Bill Davis Racing’s No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota was in the wrong place at the wrong time. While running on lap 85, Paul Menard got into the back of Newman, who then careened into the left rear of Dave Blaney’s car. That sent his Toyota hard into the wall, and inflicted heavy damage to the Caterpillar machine. He would return, but only complete 117 of the 200 laps and finish in the 41st position. Bill Davis’s team remains in the 32nd spot in the owner standings, but their cushion is cut down from 98 points heading to Michigan to just 41 leaving the track.

Bubble Spotlight

No bubble team rolled into Michigan International Speedway on a hotter streak than Team Red Bull’s No. 84 Toyota driven by Allmendinger. AJ had posted six top-20 finishes in the last nine races, including the last four in a row. As a bonus for the team, for the first time in 53 races they were in the Top 35 in owner points, meaning they had one of the 35 coveted locked-in starting spots and didn’t have to worry about qualifying on speed.

But the momentum from the Glen for the No. 84 would stop short of heading to Michigan. Friday’s practice session for Team Red Bull found the guys fighting a loose condition that would continue throughout the weekend. AJ posted just the 24th-fastest speed in practice, and then duplicated the time of 39.1 seconds during qualifying. Unfortunately, several teams made better gains during their fastest lap runs, and Team Red Bull would roll off the starting grid in the 33rd starting spot.

Saturday saw two practice sessions for the NASCAR teams, and AJ and crew chief Jimmy Elledge worked in both practices to try and tighten up their Red Bull Toyota. They eventually succeeded, knocking off a tenth of a second between sessions. The final Happy Hour saw the No. 84 post the 23rd-fastest time, but with a much better handle on the car.

That optimism quickly dissipated, however, once the green flag dropped. The Red Bull team spent much of the first half of the race Sunday struggling again with a loose handling racecar. The condition was bad enough to not only keep the team from making any real gains, but they found themselves losing ground; they had lost a lap by lap 75. The caution flew on lap 84, and AJ radioed into Elledge that he needed “Big, big help.” The team adjusted on the car during their yellow-flag stop, and for a time, AJ got the help he needed. When the caution flew again on lap 97, they were in position for the Lucky Dog and got back on the lead lap – where they immediately started moving toward the front of the field. But around 15 laps into the run, the loose condition returned, and it wasn’t long before Allmendinger fell down a lap once more. The Red Bull Toyota remained around the 25th position, trying to salvage an OK finish until a driver error late in the race. With less than 15 laps to go, NASCAR said the No. 84 Toyota was too fast entering the pits and had to restart at the tail end of the longest line on the restart. Allmendinger would rebound to pick up a few positions, but ended up back in the 28th position when the checkered flag flew. Much to Team Red Bull’s disappointment, they fell out of the Top 35 in the owner standings, dropping one spot to 36th – 13 points behind Haas CNC Racing’s No. 66 Chevrolet.

A Look Ahead

Bristol Motor Speedway probably wouldn’t be classified as a happy place for any of the bubble teams: Only Roger Penske’s No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge had a decent qualifying effort in the spring (seventh) and wound up finishing 29th. Among those ranked 31st to 43rd in owner points, the only driver close to even sniffing the top 20 was Riggs in the State Water Heaters No. 66 Chevy – and he finished a mediocre 22nd. To make matters worse, not a single bubble driver has an average qualifying position higher than 21st (Dave Blaney) and the highest average career finisher is Regan Smith with a 22nd-place average. So, as we look ahead to Bristol, you have to look at momentum since no one has much of a successful history there. Riggs did have the best finish amongst the bubble teams in the spring and – with the exception of the road course at Watkins Glen – has run well in recent weeks. Another team running well of late (despite their Michigan finish) is the No. 84 Team Red Bull Toyota driven by Allmendinger. I like both teams to qualify and race strong, leaving the half-mile bullring with top-25 finishes.

Going the other way, Blaney has been unimpressive in his career at the short tracks, posting a career average finish of 27th. Added to that is the fact that his luck has been horrible the last two weeks, being involved in wrecks that were not of his doing. Look for Bill Davis’s No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota to struggle once again; and with another poor performance, he’s staring at a very real possibility of having to qualify on time in two weeks at Fontana, California.

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 1,822 +61
32 Bill Davis Racing 22 Dave Blaney 1,807 +46
33 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 1,788 +27
34 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,771 +10
35 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 1,761 0
36 Team Red Bull 84 AJ Allmendinger 1,748 -13
37 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Mike Skinner 1,719 -52
38 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 1,542 -219
39 Petty Enterprises 45 Various Drivers 1,493 -268
40 Hall of Fame Racing 96 Brad Coleman 1,482 -279
41 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,405 -356
42 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Various Drivers 1,275 -486
43 Haas CNC Racing 70 Tony Raines 1,213 -548

 

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