NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Michael Waltrip Gives Himself Top-35 Breathing Room with 2nd Top-10 Finish of 2008

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made their second appearance at Dover International Speedway Sunday amidst rumors of bubble drivers wrecking each other in order to stay in the Top 35… and there is some evidence to back that up. With crashes involving Michael McDowell and AJ Allmendinger on several different occasions, the Chase for a “locked-in” qualifying spot seems just as heated as the Chase for the Cup these days … if not more so.

With tempers on the rise, which bubble drivers survived the Monster Mile and which didn’t? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown:

Biggest Winner

Michael Waltrip posted just his second top-10 finish of the season to earn this week’s biggest winner award. Mikey came all the way from the 40th starting spot to post a great finish that his team really needed. Waltrip’s No. 55 Camry stayed smooth all afternoon and, combined with great pit stops, was able to come home in 10th position.

“I’m just real proud of my team,” Waltrip said after the event. “We qualified bad. I told them after qualifying – I said, ‘That’s me. I screwed up qualifying and you all gave me a good car here. I can race them on Sunday.’ To battle all day long and run good – that’s what it’s all about. We spent enough Sundays just trying to stay out of the way, and it’s fun to race.”

This gives the team a huge boost going to Kansas, where they have struggled mightily the last three years. For now, Waltrip’s No. 55 Camry moves up one spot in the owner standings to 31st – nearly moving him out of the bubble conversation for good.

Note: Honorable mention goes to Allmendinger, who fought his team back into the Top 35 in what’s rumored to be his final race with Team Red Bull. Allmendinger posted a 16th-place finish in the No. 84 Toyota, knocking the No. 00 car and McDowell down to 36th and on the outside looking in at the bubble.

Biggest Loser

With a 42nd-place finish, Roger Penske’s No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge is watching their chances for a “locked-in” spot next year slowly fade away. With rumors swirling about bubble teams taking out other bubble teams, one wonders if the tangle with Brian Vickers – whose teammate is involved in the chase for the Top 35 – was entirely accidental for Sam Hornish Jr. But regardless of intent, at the end of the day it was Hornish missing his bumper cover and hitting the wall in turn 1 – bringing out a caution flag and sending the rookie tumbling.

“It’s one of those things,” said Hornish, who to refused to blame Vickers for what went on. “The car was just terrible after the damage. As loose as it was before that, it was twice as bad afterwards.”

With five straight finishes of 35th or worse, Hornish’s No. 77 team has now dropped 78 points behind 35th-place Robby Gordon‘s Dodge for that final spot on the bubble.

Bubble Spotlight

Bill Davis Racing was at one time one of the more competitive organizations in NASCAR. Former driver Ward Burton and current crew chief Tommy Baldwin combined to post several top-10 finishes in the points, claiming several big wins that included the Southern 500 in 2001 and NASCAR’s crown jewel – the Daytona 500 – in 2002. But when Burton left the team in 2003, the success left with him and never returned. After struggling with Scott Wimmer behind the wheel for a little over a year, current driver Dave Blaney has flirted with 35th in the owner standings for Davis during the last few seasons. However, the team approached the Monster Mile last Sunday with a sense of optimism, as they posted a top-10 finish at the track back in June.

That optimism faded early, as the Caterpillar Camry finished the first practice posting a best time of 23.480 – putting them towards the bottom of the speed chart in 35th spot. That was the same time they ran in qualifying, again putting them in the back of the field in the 37th starting position. Saturday brought no relief for BDR as they struggled to find the handling on the car, practicing almost a full second slower than Friday’s session. As the second practice came to an end, they managed a time of only 24.340 – 29th-fastest in the field – and left shaking their heads as to how to get the handling right on this car.

But after the green flag flew on Sunday afternoon, a strange thing happened for Blaney; the car actually handled pretty well. After two dismal days of practice and qualifying, the last minute adjustments by Tommy Baldwin and the boys seemed to work, as the Caterpillar Camry immediately began picking up positions. By the 100-lap mark, the team had picked up 17 spots and was running on the lead lap in 20th spot. The team continued to miss wrecks, make great pit stops and keep the handling on the car; and by the halfway point, they were running as high as fourth. But that’s where the team would peak for the day; by lap 300, they had slid back to seventh, which was still a pretty good run for them nonetheless.

During the team’s second to last stop, Baldwin called for a track-bar adjustment, as air pressure and wedge were no longer enough to keep up with the track. Blaney radioed in that the car was way too tight in the middle of the corner and if they got a chance, he asked the team to undo the track bar change. But they never got the time to make the adjustment, and he fought a tight condition the rest of the way. So when the checkered flag flew, the Caterpillar Camry was sitting 12th in the field. While it wasn’t the top 10 the team was hoping for, it was still a great run for the boys from Bill Davis Racing – and a much-needed one, too, as several other bubble teams finished in the top 20.

“We had a pretty good car all day,” said Blaney. “We just kept creeping forward and that’s about all we had, actually. We could change the car, the characteristics, but we couldn’t really change the speed. We’re happy to get a decent finish, though. There’s a lot of times we could run like that and something happens, so we’ll take it – that’s what we could get.”

A Look Ahead

NASCAR heads west to Kansas next Sunday where last year, five bubble drivers/teams posted top-20 finishes – four of which started 37th or worse. The No. 66 Haas Automation Chevrolet, then driven by Jeff Green, finished in the 20th position, while the current driver of that car, Scott Riggs, qualified third and finished 10th. These two factors combined say the team is looking good next week and comes home in the top 20. Also poised for a good run is BDR’s No.22 Caterpillar team, led by driver Blaney. In three starts for BDR at Kansas, Blaney has an average finish of 20th. I say the team solidifies their Top-35 points position with a top-15 run.

As for those who aren’t so good in K.C., Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota piloted by Waltrip himself has posted finishes of 35th and 30th the last two trips to the 1.5-mile D-shaped track. With the team struggling again this season, I don’t see any reason their performance gets much better.

That’s it for this week’s Bubble Breakdown. So until next Monday, so long from the bubble…

Breaking Down The Bubble

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 2,236 +106
32 Bill Davis Racing 22 Dave Blaney 2,220 +90
33 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 2,195 +65
34 Team Red Bull 84 AJ Allmendinger 2,133 +3
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 2,130 0
36 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Michael McDowell 2,122 -8
37 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 2,052 -78
38 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 1,877 -253
39 Hall of Fame Racing 96 Various Drivers 1,835 -295
40 Petty Enterprises 45 Kyle Petty 1,783 -347
41 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,650 -480
42 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Various Drivers 1,628 -502
43 Haas CNC Racing 70 Johnny Sauter 1,578 -552

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