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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Regan Smith Builds Cushion With 14th-Place Run

Once again, the half-mile bullring that is Bristol Motor Speedway proved to be too much for the teams sitting around the bubble. Only one driver ranked between 29th and 37th finished in the top 25; and for that same group of nine drivers, the average starting position was 29th and the finishing position 31st. To add insult to injury, six of those nine cars were also involved in wrecks.

With that list of poor performers, which lone driver was able to stand out and take advantage of the others’ misfortunes? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

Biggest Winner

This week’s biggest winner is easily the No. 01 DEI Chevrolet driven by Cato, N.Y. native Regan Smith. Smith had a great qualifying run that saw him put the car on the outside of the second row to start the race. The team did have some problems finding the handling on the car from there, however, and was twice the beneficiary of the Lucky Dog award on separate occasions. But after losing ground on pit stops early, crew chief Dan Stillman made some key adjustments and calls on top of the box that had the car heading back towards the front when it counted. The Principal Financial Group Chevrolet wound up taking the checkered flag in the 14th position – on the lead lap – giving the team a much needed boost on a night when many bubble teams struggled. The team didn’t move up any positions in the owner standings, but they do extend their 29th-place cushion to a very comfortable 158 points over 36th. Regan’s run, along with young teammate Aric Almirola finishing 13th, gave DEI a glimpse of optimism heading into 2009 beyond with its two returning stars.

Biggest Loser

Tough pick this week with so many teams doing poorly at BMS. So, by the fact that the team dropped in the standings one spot, the award goes to Sam Hornish Jr. and the Team Penske Racing No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge. The team struggled all weekend – posting a dismal 35th-place qualifying run – then followed it up by getting caught in a wreck on lap 216 and finishing a disappointing 37th, 203 laps down. For their efforts (or lack thereof) the team now falls to the bubble, just 14 points ahead of hard-charging AJ Allmendinger.

Bubble Spotlight

This week’s bubble spotlight features the No. 01 Principal Financial Group DEI Chevrolet driven by Smith. And what a weekend the team had at BMS! They were fast right off the truck, fast on qualifying day and fast in the race – finishing a very impressive 14th.

Friday’s first practice gave notice to all the other competitors that the No. 01 DEI Chevrolet was ready to do some business. They posted the 10th-fastest overall time with a 15.920, raising eyebrows after consistently remaining up or near the top of the charts during the session. After wrenching on the car a little bit, they knocked off half a tenth of a second for qualifying, running a 15.847 and putting the car on the outside of the second row. Friday’s final practice again showed a strong run was looming, as Dan Stillman and his crew made a few more tweaks to the DEI Chevrolet and posted the seventh fastest time in the final practice session.

As the race began, Regan settled into a nice groove for the first 100 laps, keeping the car in the top 10 without much of a concern. However as the race wore on, the car began to push, causing the No. 01 Chevrolet to fall off the lead lap twice and as low as 19th in the running order. It took smooth pit stops, solid driving and a bit of luck to make up that ground – but even at its worst moments, the car was able to stay in the top 20 all night. Twice, on laps 343 and 451, Smith and his team were the beneficiaries of the Lucky Dog award to get back onto the lead lap. With the second of the two being so late in the race, they were able to stay on the lead lap and bring the car home not only in one piece, but in the 14th spot. To show just how good the team was, they ran 456 of the 500 laps (91%) in the top 15. And as an added bonus, Smith has now climbed back to the top of the rookie standings, despite having two fewer starts than second-place Hornish.

A Look Ahead

Auto Club Speedway in California is another of the tracks where all the bubble teams seem to have more than their fair share of problems. As with Bristol the first time around, only one car qualified in the top 10 for the “spring” race there; and he went on to finish dead last. Only Robby Gordon posted a top-20 finish in what became a dismal week for these cars. With the DEI Chevrolet driven by Smith pulling away from the 35th spot in the owner standings, there are really no bubble dwellers that have either momentum or a proven track record at California. So, let’s go with the law of averages for one of the teams. Bill Davis Racing’s No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota is bound to eventually finish another race without wrecking. For the last three races, driver Dave Blaney has gotten caught up in accidents and destroyed the car. The law of averages says he finishes the race, but not in the top 25.

Scott Riggs wasn’t stellar by any means the last time around in California, but did manage a 21st-place finish. And while his 27th-place run at Bristol isn’t much to get excited about, Riggs is doing what he needs to do by finishing in the top 30 every week to keep the car in a ‘locked-in” starting spot. Look for Scott to run another clean race, posting a top-20 finish. Two other teams to keep an eye on are the Team Red Bull No. 84, who failed to qualify for the first race out west this year, and Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 00, who finished 23rd the first go-round – but was then driven by David Reutimann. Both teams can use this as a way to see how far they’ve progressed, or maybe regressed.

That’s it for this week; until next Monday, so long from the bubble!

Breaking Down The Bubble

PosOwnerCar #DriverPointsPoints +/- of 35th Place
31Robby Gordon Motorsports7Robby Gordon1,868+45
32Michael Waltrip Racing55Michael Waltrip1,861+38
33Bill Davis Racing22Dave Blaney1,856+33
34Haas CNC Racing66Scott Riggs1,843+20
35Penske Racing77Sam Hornish Jr.1,8230
36Team Red Bull84AJ Allmendinger1,809-14
37Michael Waltrip Racing00Mike Skinner1,798-25
38Hall of Fame Racing96Various Drivers1,582-241
39Gillett Evernham Motorsports10Patrick Carpentier1,570-253
40Petty Enterprises45Kyle Petty1,563-260
41Furniture Row Racing78Joe Nemechek1,481-342
42Wood Brothers Racing21Various Drivers1,360-463
43Haas CNC Racing70Tony Raines1,325-498