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Bubble Breakdown: AJ Allmendinger Shines in Possible Team Red Bull Finale

As NASCAR headed to Kansas this past Sunday, the big news from the bubble teams left many scratching their heads, as Team Red Bull is about to let AJ Allmendinger go. According to the driver himself, he’s “almost 100% sure he’ll be out of the car after Kansas” after turning down a one-year deal to remain with the team in 2009.

The pending divorce seems especially odd with the improvement the ‘Dinger has shown this year. He’s improved his average starting position from 29th in 2007 to 21st in 2008, including nine top-15 starts after failing to even qualify for 19 races just one year ago. His average finishing position has also shown a big jump, from 31st place in 2007 to 24th in 2008. Allmendinger’s finished in the top 20 in nine of the 18 races he’s run since winning the Sprint Showdown in May, and has led in five different races this year. But despite the success, TRB seems to be chomping at the bit to get replacement Scott Speed in the car as soon as possible. If they could, Speed would even be in the car this weekend at Talladega; but because he isn’t licensed by NASCAR to drive at tracks larger than 1.5 miles, it’s expected that super sub Mike Skinner will take the wheel instead.

Yet even in the midst of such a tough situation, Allmendinger still found time to leave his team a parting gift. What was it, exactly, and how did the other fellow bubble dwellers fare in the Midwest? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

Biggest Winner

In what may be his last race for team Red Bull, Allmendinger showed he’s no quitter with a solid weekend at Kansas. He put his No. 84 Red Bull Toyota on the outside of the seventh row in qualifying, ran great all afternoon and overcame a penalty for a tire outside his pit box to charge to a career-best ninth-place finish.

“Everybody was slipping and sliding,” he said of what could be his final NASCAR Sprint Cup event. “These things are a handful to hold on to. The racing is so tough out there – but we just had a good car.”

“I’m definitely going to sleep well tonight.”

STAFF SIDE-BY-SIDE: DID ALLMENDINGER GET THE SHAFT?

If nothing else, Allmendinger’s run makes a statement to NASCAR owners about both his potential and his heart, as not a lot of drivers would put out this kind of an effort after getting the shaft from their organization. But this top-10 run does a lot more than just help out AJ’s career prospects; it solidifies a spot in the Top 35 for the No. 84 team he leaves behind, putting them a hefty 118 points ahead of the No. 00 and Michael McDowell in 36th. That means even if disaster strikes at Talladega, they’ve got a leg up on the competition – and the inside track on a locked-in spot for the 2009 Daytona 500.

Biggest Loser

This one’s a toss up. Sitting just eight points out of a guaranteed starting spot, Michael Waltrip Racing’s McDowell and his No. 00 Toyota failed to qualify for the race. This became a wasted opportunity, as several bubble drivers struggled at Kansas and left an opening for this team to sneak back in. With the season winding down, it was clearly the worst time for this rookie to register his first DNQ of the season.

Also falling into this category is Scott Riggs. The good news is Riggs had his No. 66 Haas CNC Chevrolet running in the 12th position at one point in Sunday’s race. However, as the team was looking at another good run, the driveshaft came apart in his Chevrolet. After spending 30-plus laps in the garage, the team returned to the track and gutted it out, picking up one spot and finishing in the 42nd position – but losing ground to those around them in the bubble chase.

Bubble Spotlight

If there’s a free agent driver out there who deserves to at least be considered for a full-time ride, it’s Tony Raines. Tony kept the No. 96 DLP Chevrolet in the top 30 in the owner standings in 2007; but despite showing signs of improvement, he was unceremoniously dumped in favor of JJ Yeley following the season. Unfortunately for both sides, the move didn’t pay off; Yeley had struggled in better equipment than the No. 96, and looked better standing around in a pair of sunglasses than on the race track – he was fired halfway through the year. Raines didn’t do much better; he was forced to the sidelines for 2008, left only to take the occasional ride in marginal equipment. Yet even with a limited schedule, he’s still been able to experience some success at the Cup level… and Sunday was no exception.

Paired up with the No. 70 Haas CNC Automation team this weekend, Friday brought stress for Raines – a go or go homer – as the team struggled in the first practice. Running just 11 laps, the best they could muster was a 32.046, 38th on the speed charts. The only bright spot was that several other bubble teams were having a hard time finding speed, and Raines’s time put him fifth among those needing to time into the field. However, as good racecar drivers do, he got up on the wheel during qualifying and ran a 31.8, good enough to put the team in the 25th starting spot. That was as good as it got for a while with the No. 70; the next two practice sessions again brought struggles, with Raines running a 32.936 (34th) and a 33.291 (41st) in his final attempts to get the car right.

At the drop of the green flag Sunday, the No. 70 Haas Chevrolet fell through the field like a rock. Around midway through the event, the team was running in the 30s, one lap down to the leaders. By lap 180, still a lap down, they sat in 38th position – but that’s when the team’s fortunes started to turn. All of a sudden, the spotter remarked how much quicker they were taking the high line around the track. Raines’s crew chief Dave Skog suggested he back up the corners, and again, the lap times came down. Over the last 30 laps, the spotter continually told his driver that the cars ahead of him were coming back his way. With the car handling better – although still a little loose – Raines picked off cars one by one. As a result, when the checkered flag fell he had a very workmanlike 23rd-place finish to show for the team’s efforts – one of their best performances so far in 2008.

A Look Ahead

Everyone knows the biggest challenge facing the drivers at Talladega is avoiding the Big One – and one driver who tends to do that is Robby Gordon. Robby, considered a road-racing specialist most of his NASCAR career, has posted finishes of 11th, eighth and sixth in the three restrictor-plate races this year. I say Robby finishes out that four-race schedule with his fourth top-15 finish in as many races. Meanwhile, Riggs ran well earlier this year at Talladega, qualifying 19th and finishing 16th. With a poor performance at Kansas due to a broken driveshaft, the team will be determined to rebound and maintain their spot in the Top 35. So, I say Riggs posts another top-20 finish next week.

On the other hand, Sam Hornish Jr. is now slogging through a dismal sophomore season – and with the exception of a midseason four race mini-streak, has shown little sign of improvement. His past trip to Talladega resulted in a 37th-place qualifying effort and a 35th-place finish, running eight laps down to the leader in a woeful performance. I think next week, Roger Penske will be looking at a wadded up No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge by the end of the race – with another finish outside the top 30 at a restrictor-plate track.

OK, that’s it for this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown. 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 2,299 +117
32 Bill Davis Racing 22 Dave Blaney 2,290 +108
33 Team Red Bull 84 TBD 2,271 +89
34 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 2,232 +50
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 2,182 0
36 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Michael McDowell 2,153 -29
37 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 2,116 -66
38 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 Patrick Carpentier 1,958 -224
39 Hall of Fame Racing 96 Various Drivers 1,881 -301
40 Petty Enterprises 45 Kyle Petty 1,823 -359
41 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Various Drivers 1,716 -466
42 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,699 -483
43 Haas CNC Racing 70 Tony Raines 1,672 -510

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