Not only is Talladega Superspeedway the “wild card” in the Chase for the Cup, it’s also the wildcard in the Chase for the Top 35. ‘Dega has been defined by the big wreck that everyone knows is coming at some point, and a bubble team can make up an enormous amount of points by missing the Big One that eats up a large number of their competitors.
Add in the fact that this is an impound race, and it makes for a sleepless weekend for a team’s crew chief. Teams outside the Top 35 set their cars up to qualify, not race, resulting in many bubble teams starting up front. That does not, however, mean they’re gonna finish there. To see which teams were able to translate good starting positions into top finishes, read on for this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown:
While Ryan Newman finished 43rd at ‘Dega this weekend, all was not lost for the driver from Indiana. Scott Riggs piloted the car that Ryan will presumably drive next year to a great top-10 finish. Riggs qualified his No. 66 Haas CNC Chevrolet in the 11th position, avoided two big wrecks, and even led the race on two occasions. Throw in solid pit stops and strategy throughout the race, and you get a season high seventh-place finish for Riggs. As the season winds down, Scott has been able to overcome a big penalty handed down from NASCAR and is putting his team solidly into the Top 35 in the owner standings. He moves the No. 66 up one spot as a result, and has extended their cushion over the cutoff to over 100 points. However, he’s still looking for the decent ride he deserves for 2009.
Sam Hornish Jr. and the Mobil 1 Dodge team once again land in the loser column this week. If it wasn’t bad enough he failed to qualify for the race while sitting in the 37th spot in the owner standings, Robby Gordon, who sat in 35th heading into the race, finished in the top 10. As a result, Roger Penske’s No. 77 team now sits 177 points out of 35th with just a handful of races remaining. While mathematically still alive, the team’s inconsistency would lead one to believe this is probably the straw that breaks the camel’s back as far as getting a “locked-in” spot for next year’s Daytona 500.
Gordon, driver and owner of Robby Gordon Motorsports, has gone from road-course ringer to restrictor-plate ace. While struggling at the road courses where he normally challenges for the win, Robby had posted top-15 finishes at each of the first three restrictor-plate races, and went into this weekend attempting a NASCAR grand slam of four top-15 finishes at the plate tracks.
Robby was fast right off the truck, posting the fourth-fastest time with a 48.980, over 195 mph. However, during the second practice, when the team set up for qualifying runs, they managed only a 51.900 — placing them 36th on the speed charts and causing much concern amongst the team. Their fears were realized Saturday afternoon during qualifying, as Robby’s slow time earned them the 42nd starting spot on a provisional. RGM was now faced with the prospect of having to drive through the Big One that everyone knows is coming, while many of his fellow bubble drivers were in the front of the field, hopefully putting themselves ahead of the big wreck.
When the race began on Sunday, Robby took the green flag and ran around the back of the pack. Losing the draft early, he fell a lap behind but was saved by a timely caution that got him back on the tail end of the lead lap through the Lucky Dog. At the quarter-race mark, he was still running back in the 40th position. But during this time, Robby radioed to his crew chief that the car felt good, and if they could hang around until the end, they would be in line for a strong finish. By lap 100, Robby was running up in the second position, desperately looking to lead a lap to pick up those five additional bonus points. He never did manage to lead, but what he did do though was work his way up through the field and stay there. Robby scooted through both multi-car wrecks unscathed, and by lap 170 was inside the top 10. His car was fast in the draft, as it was in the first practice, and when the checkered flag flew, Robby had another top-10 finish in a restrictor-plate race — finishing in the ninth spot. Shortly after the race, NASCAR ruled Regan Smith gained a position by passing under the yellow line, moving Robby up into eighth. All in all, it was a much needed successful weekend for a team struggling through both racing and legal problems.
A Look Ahead
NASCAR heads to Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and no one’s happier about that than Hornish. Team Penske’s No. 77 Dodge team had one of its most successful weekends of the season on their last trip to North Carolina. The team qualified 13th, ran well all night, and finished in the 20th position. Having missed the race at Talladega, the Mobil 1 Dodge needs a great run if they don’t want to be heading to Daytona in February having to qualify on time.
Another bubble team who was able to taste success at Lowe’s back in May was Bill Davis Racing’s No. 22 Caterpillar team, led by driver Dave Blaney. In an up and down year for the Caterpillar team, Lowe’s Motor Speedway was an up for them. Fast right off the truck, Blaney put his car on the inside of row six to start the race. He then followed it up by running a rather clean, albeit anonymous race and finished 17th. It’s finishes like this — solid and consistent — that will keep the Cat team in the Top 35 for the rest of 2008. Look for Blaney to finish in the top 25 once again at Charlotte.
A team not looking forward to the trip back home is Robby Gordon Motorsports. In his last two trips to Charlotte, Robby has finished 40th and 43rd, respectively. Gordon’s No. 7 Dodge team does have some momentum after a good finish at ‘Dega, but he has yet to establish any consistency this year, and will struggle again at Lowe’s.
That’s it for this week’s edition of the 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||2,410||+86|
|32||Bill Davis Racing||22||Dave Blaney||2,387||+63|
|33||Haas CNC Racing||66||Scott Riggs||2,383||+59|
|34||Team Red Bull||84||Mike Skinner||2,341||+17|
|35||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||2,324||0|
|36||Michael Waltrip Racing||00||Kenny Wallace||2,285||-39|
|37||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||2,147||-177|
|38||Hall Of Fame Racing||96||Ken Schrader||1,996||-328|
|39||Gillett Evernham Motorsports||10||Patrick Carpentier||1,986||-338|
|40||Petty Enterprises||45||Terry Labonte||1,935||-389|
|41||Furniture Row Racing||78||Joe Nemechek||1,834||-490|
|42||Wood Brothers||21||Various Drivers||1,780||-544|
|43||Haas CNC Racing||70||Tony Raines||1,733||-591|