With three races in the books already in 2009, the battle for the Top 35 locked-in spots is heating up, as there are only two races remaining to secure one of those Top-35 guaranteed starting positions. And when you looked at the starting lineup for the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Speedway, you saw the names Todd Bodine, Brad Keselowski and Max Papis as new names on the grid. This means several full-time teams didn’t make the field this past weekend, thus digging themselves a deep hole.
To see which cars and drivers took a big hit in the standings this past weekend, read on in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown…
This week’s list of drivers moving up in the standings is headed by 18-year-old Joey Logano. The young rookie started and finished in the 13th position, turning in the best performance of his short career to date. The strong run moves him and his Joe Gibbs Racing team up five spots to 32nd in the standings, meaning he now sits on the right side of the bubble. If Logano can maintain this momentum, he’ll have himself a guaranteed starting spot when the series switches to 2009 owner standings in a few weeks.
A second driver to move his team up into the Top 35 was Regan Smith and his Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Chevrolet. Smith was able to keep his nose clean despite the record number of cautions and drive relatively mistake-free, coming home with a 19th-place finish after qualifying his car on time in the 19th position. It’s a shame FRR has already missed one weekend this season, making them ineligible for a “locked-in” qualifying spot even if they change their minds and switch back to full-time competition. Right now, they’re 35th in owner points after two top-25 finishes to begin their year.
The third driver to make a big jump this weekend was another rookie in Scott Speed. Speed, like Smith and Logano, also finished in the same position (21st) that he started the race in. Scott was able to take advantage of Aric Almirola’s spin mid-race by getting the Lucky Dog award to get back on the lead lap, and was able to convert that lucky break into a solid top-25 finish. For the team’s efforts, Speed’s No. 82 Team Red Bull entry moves up five spots to 36th in the owner standings — just a measly eight points outside the Top 35.
Under normal circumstances at Las Vegas, Paul Menard would have gotten a much needed top-15 finish that would have given his team a huge boost in the points standings. However, having added 18 laps to this year’s race cost Menard huge. Running around the top 15 on lap 270, Menard made some contact with the No. 47 Toyota driven by Marcos Ambrose, sending Menard’s No. 98 Robert Yates Racing Ford Fusion into the wall and relegating the team to a 35th-place finish. Even more depressing for them is that this was their best finish of the season to date. Paul now has failed to crack the Top 35 in any of the three events he’s entered this year, and is already 47 points behind Smith, who sits in 35th place.
Almirola’s day in the No. 8 Chevy came to an end early after spinning on lap 144 and slamming into the wall. The wreck, which also involved Kasey Kahne and David Reutimann, sent Almirola to the garage for the night and kept him outside the Top 35 heading to Atlanta next week. The team sits in 38th position in the standings, 29 points off the bubble.
Since this column deals with the teams and drivers on or around the 35th position in owner points, I would never have thought I’d be writing about Mark Martin and his Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet. But after losing his power plant for the second week… I am forced to do just that. Martin’s car slipped out of gear on lap 122, causing the engine to let go as a result. With a second consecutive finish worse than 40th, Martin and his team now have fallen to a lowly 34th place, just 13 points ahead of the 36th-place Red Bull Racing team.
This week’s four ugliest performers really didn’t do much in the way of performing at all. Robert Yates Racing’s No. 28 Ford Fusion (Travis Kvapil) failed to qualify for Sunday’s event, along with Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 Toyota (Scott Riggs), MSRP’s No. 66 Toyota (Dave Blaney), and Mayfield Motorsports’ No. 41 Toyota (Jeremy Mayfield). All four of these teams had made the first two events, and Kvapil and Riggs had their teams inside the Top 35 in the 2009 owner standings. And while the climb back into the Top 35 is not insurmountable due to the large number of part-time teams, chances are there won’t be enough room at the inn for all four of them in three weeks when the field moves to Martinsville and changes over to the 2009 owner points. The race in Atlanta now becomes absolutely critical for these teams next week as they occupy the 40th, 41st, and 42nd spots in the owner’s standings to date.
A Look Ahead
NASCAR moves to Atlanta Motor Speedway next week, and that is certainly a sight for sore eyes for both Kvapil and Mayfield. Mayfield turned in his best overall performance of the 2008 season at Atlanta. Mayfield qualified 23rd in this event in 2008, finishing on the lead lap in the 16th position. And while Kvapil didn’t qualify as well, he got up on the wheel and finished in eighth spot. Both must have performances like last year if they are to get into the Top 35 come Martinsville.
Fellow bubble drivers Riggs, Sam Hornish Jr. and Robby Gordon are not looking as forward to the return to the southeast. Riggs did put up a great qualifying lap last year, starting seventh, but couldn’t convert it into a solid finish, ending the race in the 36th position. Hornish and Gordon fared even worse, finishing 41st and 42nd, respectively. Look for Riggs, Mayfield, and Kvapil to all gather themselves up and not only qualify but finish in the top 25. On the other hand, although Gordon and Hornish have guaranteed starting spots … look for them to end up towards the back of the field when the checkered flag falls.
Well that’s your Bubble Breakdown for Las Vegas. Be sure to check back in next week to see who has raced themselves in to the Top 35 and who still has some work to do. Until next Monday, so long from the bubble!