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Bubble Breakdown: Heavy-Duty Wreck Leaves High Drama for Top 35 Heading to Homestead

Editor’s Note: We’re happy to report Mike Ravesi was unable to do this column for the best possible reason – he and his wife are having their first child! All of us at Frontstretch couldn’t be happier for the Ravesis and their new addition to the family. While Mike is out, Managing Editor Tom Bowles will sub in his place.

Sunday’s race at Phoenix could very well have been the day all teams in the Top 35 officially clinched their spots for 2009. But instead of the bubble teams following the lead of Jimmie Johnson and all but wrapping up their case, one big wreck turned the tables and made the battle to “lock-in” a spot in next year’s first five races a real barnburner heading to Homestead. Instead, it comes down to seven teams fighting for the final five spots with just 400 miles to decide it all. Needless to say, the battles at the back of the pack on Sunday may be more exciting to watch than the front of the field.

Which teams are in and which are out of this whole fracas? Find out in the penultimate edition of this year’s Bubble Breakdown.

Big Winner

Personally, I questioned moving Marcos Ambrose into the No. 00/47 ride over the final four races of this season, knowing that would knock him out of the Rookie of the Year battle for 2009. Well, turns out the freshman may not need that yellow stripe as he’s adapting far faster than anyone expected. After runs of 29th and 21st in his first two starts with the team, Ambrose jumped up to 18th Sunday in his Little Debbie Snack Cakes Toyota – his best-ever finish on an oval track in Cup. In all honesty, Ambrose’s run could have been even better, but involvement in a massive wreck on lap 275 damaged his Camry to the point it struggled to hold on to the lead lap at race’s end. Still, a top 20 was good enough to officially “lock” him back into the field heading to Homestead. Now 17 ahead of 36th, Ambrose will be focused and fired up next Sunday to defend a possible spot in the 2009 Daytona 500.

Big Losers

No question about it, Ambrose’s major gain was Scott Speed‘s major pain in the Arizona desert. After another miserable afternoon struggling to get the handle on his No. 84 Team Red Bull Toyota, Speed was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Casey Mears and Juan Pablo Montoya spawned that multi-car wreck mentioned above. Before the rookie knew what hit him, none other than David Gililland was landing on top of his Camry, sparking a small fire that forced Speed to scramble out of that car in a hurry.

“I tried to slow down, closed my eyes, screamed a little bit and it was all over,” joked Speed. “Honestly, I didn’t see much. I got out as quick as possible because David [Gilliland] was still trying to get going, and he was burning rubber all over me. Luckily, I don’t think anyone got hurt.”

Physically, that may have been true but in the world of the bubble Speed’s chances at a Daytona 500 automatic berth took a major, major hit. His team is now outside the Top 35 heading to Homestead, 17 points behind Ambrose and clearly filling the role of the underdog. In four career Cup starts, Speed has yet to finish better than 30th – and he’s never raced at next week’s track in a stock car.

The man Speed replaced at Red Bull, AJ Allmendinger, was feeling just as bad after his day in the No. 10 car. On the surface, things didn’t look so bad, as a 16th-place finish was the free agent-to-be’s third top 20 in four races in the car. But the ‘Dinger was dinged up in more ways than one at the finish of a race that could have easily seen him run in the top 10. While racing Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, the McDonald’s Dodge got loose and rammed into his competitors while racing three-wide. The resulting wreck irked Stewart and took all three drivers out of top-10 contention.

“I feel bad for getting into Matt, who got into Tony,” ‘Dinger said in apologizing after the race. “You just can’t go three-wide in that position and I needed to be a little bit more patient.”

And as if that weren’t enough, the frustrated driver finished his night off by wrecking coming to the line racing Montoya. That all but eliminated the faint hopes of getting the No. 10 car into the Top 35 for Daytona; they’re 160 points out with one race left, leaving their chances at slim to none unless Homestead gives this team an absolute miracle.

Who’s Locked In

Everyone NOT on the bubble table below – from the 30th-place team of Dale Earnhardt Inc.’s No. 01 on up – merely needs to start the race at Homestead to earn an automatic spot in the first five races of 2009. Among those who moved into “lock” in position at Phoenix were Michael Waltrip‘s No. 55 and the aforementioned DEI car driven by Regan Smith.

Bud Shootout Update

While Waltrip can breathe easy for the Top 35, though, his place in next year’s Bud Shootout remains open to question. With a 20th-place finish, Dave Blaney and his No. 22 Bill Davis Racing car closed to within 55 of the sixth and final Toyota spot in next year’s 24-car dash for cash. All other positions are now set, with Gilliland’s wreck leaving no chance his No. 38 could catch teammate Travis Kvapil for the last of the six spots offered up to Ford Fusions.

Homestead Scenarios

In place of A Look Ahead, let’s do a little analysis at what could happen to all seven teams jockeying for a “locked in” spot at Homestead:

31st: Bill Davis Racing (No. 22) – +147 ahead of 36th place
With the experience of driver Blaney and the pressure of a sponsorship search on their hands, there’s no way this team falls down to 36th. As it is, Speed would need to win in order for that scenario to have any chance of happening. Let’s move on.

32nd: Chip Ganassi Racing (No. 41) – +136 ahead of 36th
This team with lame-duck driver Reed Sorenson is in the same boat. While Sorenson’s struggled over the last two months – for sure – it’s going to be tough for this team to get knocked off. Again, Speed would have to win or finish second – and that’s a pipe dream.

33rd: Haas CNC Racing (No. 66) – +127 ahead of 36th
While Scott Riggs was an unlikely victim Sunday, getting swept up into that multi-car wreck while running in the top 20, he’s also far enough ahead to consider this team safe. Ryan Newman should breathe easy with a spot in Daytona for 2009.

34th: Robby Gordon Motorsports (No. 7) – +47 ahead of 36th
With a tough summer and early fall, Robby Gordon‘s made his bubble life far more stressful than he’d like with sponsorship uncertain for 2009. And if there’s anyone vulnerable to falling off the wagon, it’s someone like him. Seven times this season, the No. 7 has finished 40th or worse; and with an average finish pushing 28th at Homestead, Gordon’s part of a small minority who doesn’t want his season to end in the Florida Keys. He should be OK, but this car is definitely the one you keep an eye on.

35th: JTG/Michael Waltrip Racing (No. 00/47) – +17 ahead of 36th
Ambrose has been spectacular in this ride as he transitions to Sprint Cup. With three solid finishes in a row, a top 20 will be all he’ll need to keep this team above the cutline; and based on his recent success at 1.5-mile tracks, there’s no reason to believe he won’t get it. Ambrose also had a top 10 at Homestead in his only Nationwide Series start there.

36th: Team Red Bull (No. 84) – -17 out of 35th
The best laid plans for Speed backfired after four lackluster finishes have left this team on the outside looking in at the Top 35. It’s clear Speed’s going through a learning curve, and while he’ll be a good Cup driver someday, it doesn’t look like it’ll come in time to give this team a chance at climbing back up the ladder. With no experience and little success at racing’s top level so far, there’s nothing here to suggest that Speed will push his way through. But keep this in mind: a 25th-place finish, while nothing to crow about, could be enough if Gordon forgets his long-term goals and wrecks his No. 7 Dodge – as he’s been known to do.

37th: Penske Racing (No. 77) – -101 out of 35th
While Hornish is this year’s likely winner of Rookie of the Year, the freshman needs the race of his life to have a shot at the Top 35. Anything less than a top-five finish and there’s no shot at making up the gap between he and Ambrose’s car; but then again, Penske cars have been strong the last week or two, so you just never know.

What’s my prediction? The No. 84 and No. 77 get locked out, while Ambrose and Gordon squeak in to give their teams a major boost in momentum heading into 2009.

That’s it for this week. Until next time, so long from the bubble!

Breaking Down the Bubble

PosOwnerCar #DriverPointsPoints +/- of 35th Place
31Bill Davis Racing22Dave Blaney2,785+130
32Chip Ganassi Racing41Reed Sorenson2,774+119
33Haas CNC Racing66Scott Riggs2,765+110
34Robby Gordon Motorsports7Robby Gordon2,685+30
35Michael Waltrip/JTG Racing47 (was 00)Marcos Ambrose2,6550
36Team Red Bull84Scott Speed2,638-17
37Penske Racing77Sam Hornish Jr.2,554-101
38Gillett Evernham Motorsports10AJ Allmendinger2,495-160
39Hall of Fame Racing96Ken Schrader2,337-318
40Petty Enterprises45Chad McCumbee2,207-448
41Wood Brothers Racing21Bill Elliott2,169-486
42Furniture Row Racing78Joe Nemechek2,037-618
43Haas CNC Racing70Johnny Sauter1,996-659
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