NASCAR’s top series headed out west to start a two-race stint on the left coast beginning with the first stop of the year at the Auto Club Speedway in California. With this just the second race of the season, the race to get into the Top 35 is a complete mess, with teams jumping way up and falling way down in the standings on a week-to-week basis. And while Matt Kenseth has opened the year with two victories, a pair of teams with guaranteed starting spots has opened up with two finishes outside the Top 35. Read on to see which teams rebounded and which teams dug a deeper hole heading to Las Vegas.
After finishing 33rd in the Daytona 500, Penske Championship Racing’s No. 12 Dodge driven by David Stremme rebounded nicely with a 13th-place run, moving them solidly up into the Top 35 in the 2009 owner standings. Stremme ran a mistake free race and the pit crew turned in solid performances every time he brought the team Penske dodge down pit road for service. Stremme even was able to lead a handful of laps, picking up five bonus points to give the team that little extra boost that may be the difference come race number six when the series flips to the 2009 standings.
A second Penske Championship Racing team who made a nice comeback performance was the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge driven by Sam Hornish Jr. Sam mirrored his teammate’s performance, staying out of trouble and taking care of his car to come home in the 23rd position, just one lap down. If Hornish can put his past struggles behind him at Vegas and post another top-25 run next week, the team will be sitting pretty in its quest for one of the coveted locked in starting spots.
Another team who was able to rebound from a dismal Daytona 500 performance was Yates Racing’s No. 28 Ford piloted by Travis Kvapil. While the team’s performance was by no means spectacular, it was consistent and led to an 18th-place finish just one lap down to the winner. With this finish and Travis’s history at Las Vegas where the series moves to next week, the team looks poised to move well into the Top 35 going into the week off.
Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 Toyota entry led by driver Scott Riggs again did a nice job making the race as a new single-car team. However the results this week were not what they had hoped for. Riggs had to take his Toyota to the garage around lap 70 for repairs, ruining the team’s night early. Riggs returned to the track after a short stint in the garage and soldiered around, 10 laps down t0 finish in the 36th spot. Riggs and company will have to fight for every position as the team hovers around the 35th position for the time being.
Scott Speed is having a tough start to his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. After a 35th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, Scott brought his Red Bull Toyota to the pits complaining that there was no power in the engine on lap 168. The blown engine resulted in a 41st-place finish, dropping him out of the Top 35 in the 2009 owner standings. While he still has a locked in starting spot for the next three races, the team has a lot of work ahead of them if they want to keep that coveted guaranteed starting spot.
The good news for Yates Racing No. 98 Menards Ford Fusion race team is that they did improve upon their finish at the Daytona 500. The bad news is they only improved it by two positions and finished 37th last Sunday. With his 29 laps-down performance, Paul Menard joins Speed as the only two drivers to finish outside the Top 35 in both races this season. Like Speed, Menard has a locked in spot for the next three races, but now has a mountain to climb to maintain a guaranteed spot when the series gets to Martinsville.
The No. 87 Toyota driven and owned by Joe Nemechek followed up a missed Daytona 500 by lasting about 40 laps at California before parking it for the night. Planning to run a full schedule with a single-car team is looking like it may be a bit too much for Front Row Joe to manage. With just three more races to get himself into the Top 35 for Martinsville, things are looking grim, especially considering Joe’s lack of success at next week’s venue.
A Look Ahead
Looking into the crystal ball shows a jumbled mess for the bubble drivers next week at Las Vegas. In 2007 four of the current bubble drivers started in the top 10, only one of which managed a top-20 finish. In 2008, three started outside the top 20, and all finished in the top 20.
So looking ahead, Riggs has started sixth and seventh in this race each of the last two years. His average finish though is only a measly 30th place. So I like him to carry his new team to a top-20 start and a top-25 finish. Basically a typical Riggs race. Kvapil last year didn’t qualify all that well with a 29th-place start; but he was able to parlay that into a top-10 performance. Based on his good run last week at California, I think Kvapil’s righting the ship at Yates Racing, and another top-15 finish is in the works for the No. 28 Ford Fusion. Not so good in the desert are Nemechek and Hornish. Front Row Joe finished 35th in 2007 and missed the race in 2008. Hornish managed to start 20th in ’08, but limped around and finished in the 41st spot. Both will again struggle this year, as Nemechek has performed poorly this year and Hornish has a history of inconsistency.
So that’s a wrap from California. Check in next week to see who has all but sewed up a Top-35 spot when the points revert to the 2009 standings and who really has to get going to make it. Until next week, so long from the bubble!