On Tuesday, NASCAR announced a new format to the season-opening Budweiser Shootout, and in doing so, gave several bubble teams something new to focus on. The new format now takes the top-six cars in owner points from each manufacturer. With the new format, the sixth Toyota to make the show is going to be a team now around the 35th place in the owner standings. Heading to California, the No. 55 NAPA Toyota, No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota and the No. 84 team Red Bull Toyota were separated by only 52 points. So with the proverbial carrot dangling in front of them, were any of these teams able to step up and make a run at being the final Toyota in the Budweiser Shootout? To find out, read on in this week’s Bubble Breakdown.
The No. 84 Team Red Bull Toyota driven by AJ Allmendinger is becoming a regular in the biggest winner’s column. After posting a career-best second-place qualifying effort, the team dropped a bunch of spots early. However as the race wore on, the team stabilized the handling on the Red Bull Toyota, and made a late-race surge with less than 20 laps to go. They picked up a half-dozen spots in the last part of the race to post another top-15 finish, taking the checkered flag in the 14th position. For the team’s efforts, not only do they move up five spots to get back into the Top 35 in the owner standings (31st), they are also now in the sixth position in the Toyota standings, thus putting them in next year’s Bud Shootout.
Sam Hornish Jr. and his Penske Racing No. 77 Dodge have again fallen out of the Top 35 in the owner standings. This is becoming a regular occurrence, as the team has been about as inconsistent as a team could be. The Mobil 1 Dodge was off all weekend, practicing, qualifying and racing poorly. After starting in the 32nd spot, the team went nowhere once the green flag waved. They never got the handling right and made several gaffes on pit road, leading to a dismal 31st-place finish. The team now has to regroup in a hurry as they will be required to qualify on time next week at Richmond International Raceway.
If ever a team came into a weekend with a reason to just fold up, it would be the No. 10 Dodge out of the Gillett Evernham Racing stable. With the new Budweiser Shootout qualifying format, the No. 10 team, which won the pole earlier this year at New Hampshire, would no longer be included in the race. To make matters worse, on Friday their driver, Patrick Carpentier, announced that “They hired Reed Sorenson for next year, so it’s over.” With all of this going on, and a race at California that began in the daylight and ended under cover of dark making for a crew chief’s nightmare, leaving Cali with a decent finish seemed to be an almost insurmountable task.
The first practice let the team know that the engineers at the shop had done their homework in setting the car up. A fast lap of 40.80 seconds put the team 18th on the speed chart. But more importantly, they were the second fastest of the go or go home qualifiers. After some adjustments by crew chef Mike Shiplett, Carpentier went out and laid down a blistering lap of 40.25 seconds. The six tenths of a second they knocked off from their practice time put them in the fifth qualifying spot, their third top-five qualifying run of 2008.
When the green flag waved late Sunday afternoon, Carpentier immediately started losing spots. He radioed in that the car was tight in the corners and really tight in traffic. The No. 10 Sears Automotive Dodge team spent the first half of the race trying to work the tightness out of the car with air pressure, track bar and wedge adjustments. Eventually the handling came around to Carpentier’s liking, but not until they had gone down a lap. He was, however, able to put the No. 10 in position for the lucky dog. The team got the break they had been looking for when part of a light fell onto the track, bringing out the caution they so badly needed on lap 164. They restarted in the 21st position and picked up several spots in the ensuing green-flag run. But after a dozen or so laps, the tightness in traffic returned, stopping the team’s forward progress. The No. 10 GEM Dodge spent the remainder of the race fighting the tight condition, bouncing between the 17th and 22nd spots, eventually taking the checkered flag in the 18th position. After the week the team had just endured, really not a bad effort by any means.
A Look Ahead
NASCAR moves to Richmond International Raceway next Saturday night. The first time around at RIR, several bubble teams posted solid runs, with four teams posting top 25s. As the season winds down, top-25 runs are what these teams need. Next Saturday night, I see a good run coming for Dave Blaney and Bill Davis Racing’s No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota. They had a good effort earlier this year, started 17th, stayed out of trouble, and came home 18th. Add to this last year when the team qualified in the 10th spot and finished 11th, and you’ve got some successful history for this team at Richmond. Another team with some modest success at Richmond over the past two years is the Haas CNC Racing No. 66 Chevrolet, driven by Scott Riggs. In the past three races at Richmond, the team has posted two top-20 qualifying runs and two top-25 finishes. Driver Riggs also has a third-place qualifying run while driving for GEM in 2007. Teams I expect to struggle are the No. 77 Team Penske Dodge driven by Hornish, which qualified in the 35th spot and finished 23rd, three laps down, and the No. 55 NAPA Toyota, driven by Michael Waltrip. Mikey was only able to muster a 27th-place qualifying run and finished a disappointing 37th earlier in the year. This comes after missing both races at Richmond in 2007.
That’s it for this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown, until next Monday, so long from the bubble!