NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Michael McDowell, AJ Allmendinger Tangle Costly in Top-35 Race

As NASCAR’s top teams began their Chase for the Cup Sunday at New Hampshire, the bubble teams continued their quest for a Top 35 spot in the owner standings. The number of cars fighting to either get into or stay in one of those locked in spots has been pretty much narrowed down to seven at this point – but for those seven drivers and crews, the final 10 races will leave them on the edge of their seat each week. Just 87 points separated 31st from 37th in the owner standings heading into the Sylvania 300, and the racing at NHMS suggested things will remain tight all the way down to the season finale at Homestead.

Read on to see who stepped up and who stumbled on Sunday in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

Biggest Winners

The Haas CNC Racing No. 66 and No. 70 teams both came from way back in the field to each post top-20 runs. Scott Riggs, driving the Haas Automation Chevrolet, started 33rd and moved slowly through the field. Riggs took advantage of a Lucky Dog award to get back on the lead lap just past the halfway point, and gradually improved from there en route to a 19th-place finish. That run moves his team up two positions in the owner standings to 31st – the highest the No. 66 has been since a 150-point penalty earlier this season knocked them down into this whole bubble mess to begin with.

Teammate Johnny Sauter mirrored Riggs’s run, also taking advantage of a Lucky Dog to get back on the lead lap and come home in 20th spot. However, while the No. 70 team is mathematically still able to move towards 35th in the standings – it’s a good bet they won’t make it. Sitting dead last of the 43 full-time teams, they stand over 500 points behind the bubble spot. They did, however, earn the USG Sheetrock Improving Positions Award for the race, gaining 23 spots – which is something positive to build on.

Robby Gordon Motorsports also gets a mention here this week, moving back into the Top 35 in the owner standings. Robby Gordon drove his No. 7 Dodge from the back – as qualifying was rained out – missed the late-race accidents, and finished a respectable 26th. With the run, the RGM No. 7 locks in a starting spot next week, as they move up into 35th place.

Biggest Loser

Team Red Bull’s No. 84 Toyota has again dropped out of the Top 35 with a disappointing finish Sunday in New Hampshire. While running in the low 20s on lap 265, AJ Allmendinger got together with the No. 00 Toyota driven by rookie Michael McDowell, hitting the wall and suffering heavy damage to his Red Bull-sponsored machine. The accident ruined what was a decent run, one that probably would have kept AJ and his No. 84 Toyota in the Top 35. However, at the end of the day you are what you are – and the cold reality is that Team Red Bull is once again on the outside looking in, falling to 36th place in points once more.

This was also not the first time McDowell and Allmendinger have gotten together this season – the two tangled at Richmond in May. The wreck for McDowell proved ironic, considering the No. 00 felt he was the target of Haas CNC Racing during a July crash at Chicagoland in order to drop him out of the Top 35.

Bubble Spotlight

Riggs is a driver in limbo. He’s running for what’s really a lower level team, yet has overcome a massive NASCAR penalty to drive his way back into the Top 35. He has started in the top 15 in eight of the 27 events that didn’t have qualifying rained out, keeps his equipment in one piece, and finishes races consistently. Yet there has been no word from what will be Stewart-Haas Racing as to whether they will field a third team for Riggs. And while he plugs along each week, drivers like Reed Sorenson and David Stremme get named to higher-level rides without the resume Riggs has put together while driving in what could not be termed upper-level equipment.

The veteran’s performance this weekend could also be described as nothing less than a workmanlike effort. The No. 66 Haas Automation Chevrolet came off the truck and struggled a little early in Friday’s first practice. However, with good communication between he and crew chief Bootie Barker, the team ran a 29.355 on their 35th and final practice lap, putting him eighth fastest in the session. Unfortunately, the car was never given a chance to convert that time into a good starting spot, as rain canceled qualifying for the second time in as many weeks. That meant the next two sessions on Saturday were used to work on some longer runs; and when the final practice ended, Riggs and company were sitting 15th on the speed charts – leaving them with a sense of optimism going into Sunday’s race.

When the green flag waved Sunday, Riggs and his No. 66 Haas Automation Chevrolet struggled, as the car wasn’t getting any forward bite off the corners. Crew chief Bootie Barker spent the first half of the event making air pressure changes trying to get the car to where Scott needed it to be; and by the halfway point at lap 150, Riggs had driven his way up to 22nd. Unfortunately for the No. 66 team, the second half of the race didn’t produce the same improvements as the first. They never got the handling to Scott’s liking for more than a few laps at a time, and the team eventually went a lap down. The No. 66 was able to get a Lucky Dog award and charge back on the lead lap, but had to pit on lap 285 for gas to make it to the finish. When the checkered flag waved, Riggs managed to bring home his No. 66 Chevrolet in 19th place, the best finish posted by any of the bubble cars.

Hmm… so another top 20, the car’s intact, and Riggs moved up to 31st in the owner standings. Just a typical day at the track for this guy, as he waits patiently for the phone to ring with an offer for 2009.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR’s traveling circus moves to Dover, Del. next week, where several bubble teams posted decent runs last time around. Allmendinger started eighth but wasn’t able to convert it into a good finish, as he wound up running in the 37th spot when the checkered flag waved. He has, however, improved dramatically as the year has progressed, and I see another good qualifying run for this group. Maybe it’s not a top 10 this time, but I’d definitely a better finish – maybe even a top 15. Dave Blaney has also run well there, posting one of his two top-10 finishes at the Monster Mile. Blaney has a history of good runs at Delaware and will post another next week.

On the other end of the spectrum, McDowell struggled at Dover, qualifying 32nd and finishing 30th in June. Along with McDowell, Michael Waltrip managed only a 40th place qualifying effort and finished just 28th. In 154 career “short-track” starts, Michael has just 16 top-10 finishes – and won’t get number 17 next week. I say both teams finish outside the top 30.

That’s it for this week. So long from the bubble…

Breaking Down The Bubble

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 2,107 +74
32 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 2,097 +64
33 Bill Davis Racing 22 Dave Blaney 2,093 +60
34 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Michael McDowell 2,046 +13
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 2,033 0
36 Team Red Bull 84 AJ Allmendinger 2,018 -15
37 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 2,015 -18
38 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 1,837 -196
39 Hall of Fame Racing 96 Various Drivers 1,771 -262
40 Petty Enterprises 45 Kyle Petty 1,740 -293
41 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,592 -441
42 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Various Drivers 1,561 -472
43 Haas CNC Racing 70 Johnny Sauter 1,499 -534

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