The 2009 Sprint Cup season officially kicked off Sunday afternoon with the running of the Daytona 500; and with that, the battle for the Top 35 is on. For those of you new to the sport, the Top 35 teams in owner’s points are locked into the starting grid each week. For the first five races of the season, NASCAR uses the owner’s standings from the previous year, then reverts to the current season’s standings from there on out. So while the Top 35 are locked in for the first few races, the jockeying for position has begun with the bubble teams in an effort to transfer into a locked in spot when the series visits Martinsville in a month and a half. So, read on to see who improved their position and who is already behind the 8 ball in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.
A.J. Allmendinger picked up right where he left off in 2008 by coming up huge at Daytona with a third place finish for his No. 44 Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge. This caps a week which saw A.J. finish 10th in his qualifying race on Thursday as well as fifth in last Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout — and getting three top 10s in a week at Daytona makes for a nice start to any season. RPM’s No. 44 Dodge now sits third in the owner’s standings, but NASCAR still uses last years owner points for the first five races, meaning A.J. will still have to qualify on time over the next four weeks. What makes this an even bigger issue is that this team is only scheduled to run about eight more races unless sponsorship can be found. But this finish, along with the races the ‘Dinger strung together at the end of ’08, may well land the sponsorship dollars needed to run a full season and make a push for the Chase.
Another team sitting outside the Top 35 in the owner’s standings to post a top 10 run in the 500 was the Stewart-Haas No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet driven by team owner Tony Stewart himself. Despite having to go to a backup car after a practice crash that saw both team cars destroyed, Tony came from the back to the front to finish eighth in the rain-shortened Daytona 500. By making smooth, fast pit stops and getting good calls from the top of the box all night long, this team looks more like a well-oiled machine rather than a rebuilding outfit with a first-time Cup Series owner. With a strong Daytona Speedweeks, Stewart made a statement as to the progress his team has made so quickly, looking like a frontrunner to make the Chase and break the stranglehold the top four teams have held over those 12 spots for the season championship.
While Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota is locked into the starting grid for the next four races, this is not the beginning to the Joey Logano era at JGR they had envisioned. While running towards the back of the pack on lap 80, Scott Speed got loose and into young Joey, sending him bouncing into the front of Greg Biffle‘s Ford, then careening into the inside wall — causing heavy damage to the nose of the car and ending his night. This puts the team in a very bad spot, as they now have to make up a lot of ground in the next four races with an 18-year-old driver. If the No. 20 bunch encounters any more bad luck, they are likely to be on the outside looking in when the point system switches over to the 2009 standings, as they now sit dead last in the 43rd position.
Another owner/driver had a little different luck than Stewart did. Jeremy Mayfield, unable to land a ride, started up his own team just a month ago and was able to race his way into the Daytona 500. Unfortunately the euphoria of making the race ended just 32 laps into the run when a vibration in the front of the car forced him into the pits, losing a number of laps. And while just making the race with a team that didn’t even exist not long ago is quite an accomplishment, the reality is they now sit in the 40th position in the owner’s standings and need to make up some points if they don’t wasn’t to find themselves working on their car in the parking lot at Martinsville.
Both Robert Yates Racing entries had nights that they would just as soon forget. The No. 98 Ford Fusion driven by Paul Menard was tagged by Regan Smith about three quarters of the way through the race and did enough right side damage to shelve the car for the night in 38th place, not exactly what Menard had in mind for his RYR debut. His teammate Travis Kvapil had no better luck with his No. 28 Ford entry. After having to qualify on time due to Robert Yates Racing reenacting a scene from Deliverance on Mr. Kvapil during the off-season, Travis lost a right side tire on lap 55 and slapped the wall hard, doing significant damage to his machine and relegating the team to a 42nd place finish.
A Look Ahead
California wasn’t kind to any of the bubble dwellers in 2008. At this race last year Smith and Sam Hornish, Jr. both qualified well but Hornish finished 43rd after a nasty wreck with Casey Mears on lap 20, and Smith plodded around and finished in the 31st position. Throw in several more poor performances by Kvapil finishing 36th, Mayfield 39th, John Andretti 35th and Joe Nemechek, who failed to even make this year’s Daytona 500, finishing 34th, and you have a lot of nervous bubble drivers heading out west. The only bubble driver who must qualify on time who performed well last year in this event was Stewart and let’s face it, Stewart is not a bubble caliber driver and will be well up in the ranks when they move to this years owner’s standings.
So which drivers who have to qualify will do so? Obviously Stewart will with his past champion’s provisional if need be. I also like Allmendinger to make the race after failing to even qualify last year for this event. This is definitely not the same ‘Dinger as last year and not only is he going to make it, he’s going to finish in the top 17, all but locking up a spot in the Top 35 come Martinsville. Finally Scott Riggs, driving for another start-up team, Tommy Baldwin Racing, will put his No. 36 Toyota on the starting grid and probably put up another top 25 finish. On the flip side, Nemechek did not qualify well last year for this event and won’t for this year’s. Mayfield will do the same as last year, qualify but run poorly as will the No. 28 Ford driven by Kvapil.
So there’s your Bubble Breakdown for the 2009 Daytona 500. Make sure to check back next Monday, as even though the 35 cars with a guaranteed starting spot won’t change yet, the intensity for getting into the Top 35 increases and the number of races to get in decreases. So until next Monday, so long from the bubble!