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Bubble Breakdown: Michael McDowell Into Top 35; Dave Blaney Into Bud Shootout

Forget the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship – the drivers in our Bubble Breakdown are chasing a few goals of their own. With 10 races to go in the 2008 NASCAR season, the battle to be locked in the field for 2009 has become a dogfight for five spots between seven teams separated by a total of 79 points. Also on the line for several Toyota cars is a berth in next year’s new-format Bud Shootout, in which the season’s top-six performing Camrys will be selected to do battle in Daytona.

With so much at stake, how did our combatants position themselves for the final 10 weeks at Richmond? Read on to find out in this edition of the Bubble Breakdown:

Biggest Winner

Michael Waltrip Racing makes an appearance in this week’s winner’s spot, as the No. 00 Toyota driven by first-year driver Michael McDowell raced its way into the Top 35 in the owner standings. McDowell finished on the lead lap and posted a career-best 20th-place finish in his return from a three-week hiatus on the sidelines. With qualifying being rained out, MWR’s No. 00 Champion Mortgage Toyota had to start all the way back in the 37th spot, but the rookie slowly and steadily moved his way through the pack while avoiding several spins ahead of him. Using the Lucky Dog to his advantage after falling a lap down early, a call from pit road to leave the No. 00 car out while the leaders pit during a yellow flag gave the team the track position it needed to run up front. McDowell got all the way up to fifth place at one point, running well on old tires to keep his place amongst the top half of the field. He faded a bit from there, but the finish was plenty good enough to “lock in” a spot following months of being on the outside looking in. The team has a limited amount of breathing room, though – the margin between McDowell’s No. 00 and the 36th-place car is just 11 points.

Biggest Loser

With McDowell landing the spot as the week’s biggest stud, Robby Gordon is this week’s biggest dud. If it wasn’t enough that it was made public Thursday Gillett Evernham Motorsports – with whom Robby Gordon Motorsports has an alliance – had filed a lawsuit against Gordon the owner, Gordon the driver then went out and stunk up Richmond International Raceway, finishing a paltry 42nd and falling out of the Top 35 in owner points. Gordon started 35th due to the rainout and never made a move to the front, eventually finishing eight laps off the pace. He didn’t help his cause by being penalized for excessive speed entering the pits on lap 38, and for pitting before the pits had opened on lap 228. The team’s 42nd-place finish was also the sixth time in the last seven races they’ve finished outside 33rd place. The only finish better for Gordon was a 27th at Watkins Glen – at a track where the No. 7 car is normally expected to contend for the win.

Bubble Spotlight

Roger Penske’s No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge came into Richmond needing to qualify on time and post a good run to get back into the Top 35 in the owner standings. They wound up not doing either – and in the process, losing ground in this year’s Rookie of the Year Race to Regan Smith.

After posting the 44th fastest time out of the 45 drivers who practiced with a 22.687-second lap time on Friday, things looked bleak for driver Sam Hornish Jr.; however, Mother Nature came to the team’s rescue, raining out qualifying for the sixth time this year and putting the team into the starting field. When the green flag finally waved a day late due to heavy rains in the area, the Mobil 1 Dodge, which started in the 36th spot, found a way to go backwards. Despite Hornish’s repeated pleas to crew chief Travis Geisler, the team never got the handling anywhere near where it had to be and by the halfway point, the team was running in the 40th position. Shortly after that, Hornish was involved in a spin with the No. 1 DEI Chevrolet driven by Martin Truex Jr. Truex drove away from the altercation; but Hornish did not, although it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway based on the team’s first half performance. The race went on with the No. 77 Penske Dodge bringing up the rear, eventually going on to finish in the 38th spot, two laps down. The team fell to 37th in owner points, 17 markers out of a Top-35 spot it desperately hopes to regain by the end of the season. The team now heads to New Hampshire next week again having to either qualify on time – or rely on Mother Nature.

A Look Ahead

Next week, NASCAR heads to the state of New Hampshire for their second date of the year at the track. The first time around, several bubble teams had impressive showings. AJ Allmendinger qualified 10th, but was undone by a mechanical failure. Scott Riggs and Reed Sorenson also posted top-10 qualifying runs, with Sorenson converting his starting spot into a top-10 finish in what was a roller coaster, rain-shortened finish. Michael Waltrip and JJ Yeley (formerly of the No. 96 team) started in the back, but finished second and third, respectively, once the downpour arrived in July.

So, what will happen this time around? Despite Sunday’s 43rd-place performance at Richmond, Allmendinger has run very well the last month-and-a-half, and Riggs is also finishing races and staying in the Top 35. Both should run well again and finish in the top 25 at the Magic Mile. On the flip side, Bill Davis Racing has struggled for the most part at New Hampshire since Ward Burton took the Caterpillar Dodge to victory lane there in 2002. Last time around, Dave Blaney started back in 41st place and finished 33rd. Look for the team to struggle again, as I don’t see a top-30 finish in store for the Caterpillar Toyota.

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

Breaking Down The Bubble

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Bill Davis Raving 22 Dave Blaney 2,029 +70
32 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 2,009 +50
33 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 2,001 +42
34 Team Red Bull 84 AJ Allmendinger 1,969 +10
35 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Michael McDowell 1,959 0
36 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,948 -11
37 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,942 -17
38 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 1,767 -192
39 Hall of Fame Racing 96 Ken Schrader 1,704 -255
40 Petty Enterprises 45 Kyle Petty 1,703 -256
41 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,558 -401
42 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Various Drivers 1,485 -474
43 Haas CNC Racing 70 Johnny Sauter 1,396 -563

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