You’d think that over the offseason, it’d be hard for the Top-35 situation to change as no one would be accumulating any more points. But in an offseason filled with teams folding, merging, and selling off their “locked-in” places on the starting grid, the landscape of Who’s In and Who’s Out looks completely different than it did when I left you back in November. Several teams that were out of the Top 35 after Miami have gained access to automatic spots, while others have seen their points go to different cars within their own teams.
It’s all enough to leave you more than a little confused. So, without further adieu, let’s clear the air and preview the Top 35 for 2009.
First, the changes. We’ll start with Penske Championship Racing’s No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge driven by Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish was locked out of the Top 35 at the end of the year – even failing to qualify at Homestead – but has now moved into the 31st spot in owner points for Daytona. This was accomplished when Bill Davis bought into Team Penske as a minority owner, bringing with him a spot on the starting grid from his now defunct No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota team.
Single-car Hall of Fame Racing made perhaps the biggest moves of the bubble teams during the offseason. After struggling mightily in 2008, the addition of Bobby Labonte in the driver’s seat and an alliance with Robert Yates Racing brought in a past champion driver, the advantage of Yates horsepower under the hood, and the owner points of the former No. 38 team – moving them into the 28th position in the owner standings. Should they falter, Labonte’s past champion’s provisional will keep them solidly in the field until they right the ship.
Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 47 Toyota also advanced into the Top 35 by virtue of doing basically nothing – which is pretty much what they did during the season, anyways. When the No. 41 Chip Ganassi team was shut down, NASCAR nixed the selling of those points to the No. 09 of James Finch Racing – causing everyone behind them to move up one spot. That caused MWR’s Toyota team to advance from 36th to 35th, thus guaranteeing them a starting spot in the first five races of 2009.
And here’s the one that gets me the most. Front Row Motorsports’s No. 34 entry driven by John Andretti – a team which made less than a half-dozen races last year – is locked into the Top 35 by acquiring the owner points from the former DEI No. 15 Chevrolet. Suddenly, one of the sport’s biggest underdogs has acquired a technical alliance with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to go along with an automatic spot in the field.
Meanwhile, going 180 degrees in the other direction is Travis Kvapil. All Kvapil did for Yates Racing was to take an underfunded team, keep its cars in one piece, and not only keep it inside the Top 35 – but never flirt with ever falling out of it. However, when Paul Menard came over with all of daddy’s sponsorship money, he got the owner points from the No. 28 team, landing him now in 23rd in the owner standings. You know, there’s a term in the construction industry for what happened to Travis, but I’m not gonna write it – because I know the editors aren’t gonna clear it.
Also getting the golden handshake was Regan Smith, who won Rookie of the Year in 2008 with DEI; and Scott Riggs, who like Kvapil kept an underfunded, undermanned team afloat, overcame a huge NASCAR penalty, and got the team back into the Top 35 by season’s end. Instead, both drivers have managed to land themselves in worse rides than last year, a feat that you wouldn’t think possible for these two.
A Look Ahead
With all the points swapping out of the way, it’s time to go racing at Daytona. And if you are not in the Top 35, qualifying at Daytona is probably the most confusing thing you’ll ever try to get your arms around. So, here is the most painless way I can think of to explain it. The Wood Brothers’ No. 21 (Bill Elliott), Yates Racing’s No. 28 (Kvapil) and Stewart-Haas’s No. 14 (Tony Stewart) all qualified last Sunday based on their speed. Since Stewart and Elliott are in on speed, that guaranteed Terry Labonte and his No. 66 Toyota for Prism Motorsports will get in on a past champion’s provisional regardless of where he finishes.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky. If any or all of these drivers race their way in, then the next four drivers to qualify based on their speed would be, in order: the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet of Smith, the No. 87 Toyota of Joe Nemechek, the No. 08 Ford of Boris Said, and the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Toyota piloted by Riggs. If the four drivers already locked into the Daytona 500 just cruise around in the back, then everybody else has to race their way in by beating all of the other “bubble drivers” in their respective Gatorade Duel race on Thursday.
Let’s assume they all ride around the back and leave the other 17 drivers to fight for the last four spots – two from each Duel. Duel number two is tough, with AJ Allmendinger, Said, and Smith all in the field. Allmendinger meshed with his team well last year and ran strong in the Bud Shootout – so I like him to race his way in. Meanwhile, Smith had a win taken from him last year at Talladega, and is quite capable on the restrictor-plate tracks. Look for him to take the second bid by a nose.
The first Duel is a crapshoot loaded with squirrels – you never know what they’re going to do. So, I’m going to pick the No. 09 driven by Brad Keselowski to race his way in, as that car always seems to make the Daytona 500 – along with the No. 37 Front Row Motorsports entry driven by Tony Raines. Last year, FRM put their No. 34 car in the Daytona 500, so we’ll give Tony the advantage there.
Alright, there you have it: the bubble preview for the Daytona 500 and the Gatorade Duels. Be sure to look for the bubble picks between Phil Allaway and myself in this and every Friday’s Frontstretch newsletter in 2009, along with the first Top-35 Bubble Breakdown next Monday.
Until then… so long from the bubble!