The Kobalt Tools 500 marked the fourth race in the 2009 season, meaning there is just one more event to get into the Top 35 in owner points before NASCAR shifts to this year’s standings to determine who is or isn’t locked into the starting grid each week. This made the race at Atlanta critical for many, as no one wants to have to go to Bristol under pressure to post a stellar finish — the race in Thunder Valley is one of the more unpredictable races on the circuit.
So, to see which big name teams fell short at AMS and will head to Tennessee a nervous wreck — as well as which smaller teams have surprised everyone by driving safely into the Top 35 — read on in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.
Tony Stewart is proving you can still be a successful driver/owner in NASCAR if you actually have a good driver driving the car. Stewart rebounded from being two laps down at AMS, getting one back from the free pass rule and another by actually passing the leader on the track. After rallying to an eighth place finish at Atlanta, Stewart has now officially locked up a Top 35 spot when the series switches to the 2009 owner standings at Martinsville.
Martin Luther King once said, “A guaranteed starting spot at last, a guaranteed starting spot at last, Thank God almighty, a guaranteed starting spot at last!” Or something like that, anyways. But that’s just what A.J. Allmendinger and crew are saying now, as it would take a pretty improbable set of circumstances to knock the ‘Dinger and his Richard Petty Motorsports No. 44 Dodge out of the Top 35 in two weeks. A.J. rebounded from two lackluster performances at California and Las Vegas with a 17th place showing at Atlanta to all but lock up a guaranteed starting spot. Even if the ‘Dinger missed the Bristol race, the top 10 would have to include David Gilliland, Joey Logano, Scott Speed, and Aric Almirola to knock him out.
While a 24th place finish four laps down to the leader is nothing to normally get too excited about, the folks at TRG Motorsports are doing just that. Gilliland posted his second straight top 25 finish, moving the month-old team up into the top 35 in the owner standings. After missing the Daytona 500 with Mike Wallace, Gilliland was put in the car and has put up some solid performances, including a 14th place run at Las Vegas last week. With their team so near the bubble, TRG’s confidence is high heading to Bristol, where last year their driver had an average finish of 16th and one top 15 qualifying effort. One more solid run for the No. 71, and they’re locked in heading to Martinsville as perhaps the season’s biggest surprise.
Yates Racing’s No. 28 Ford Fusion, driven by Travis Kvapil, qualified on Friday in the 22nd spot and looked poised to race their way back into the top 35 heading into NASCAR’s first weekend off. However, any hope of that went up in smoke along with the team’s engine after only 33 laps. The disappointing performance of the power plant led to a 42nd place finish on Sunday, doing little to help them climb back into the Top 35 in the owner standings.
MSRP Motorsports’ No. 66 Toyota, driven this week by Dave Blaney, didn’t fare much better than Mr. Kvapil. Mechanical problems forced the Toyota machine to the garage, ending their day around lap 80. Phil Parsons’ team was relegated to a 41st place finish, and in all likelihood will be outside the Top 35 and have to continue to qualify on speed come Martinsville.
NEMCO Motorsports’ No. 87 Toyota team continues to show improvement with each race weekend. After missing the Daytona 500, they qualified for each of the next three races, finishing 43rd at California, 41st at Las Vegas, and 39th last week at Atlanta. Don’t laugh; at this pace they’ll win at Michigan, which no one thought they would ever do. Like the aforementioned bad performers at Atlanta, Joe Nemechek had mechanical troubles, ending his day earlier than expected and producing a dismal 39th place finish from a promising eighth place effort in qualifying. This is another team that in all likelihood will be working on the car under a tarp in the parking lot at Martinsville, as they’re too far back in points to get a spot in the actual garage.
Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 Toyota team led by driver Scott Riggs missed their second straight race, as did Jeremy Mayfield, driving for his own No. 41 Toyota race team. After making the first two events of the 2009 season, both single car teams now will not make it into the Top 35 when NASCAR switches to the current year’s owner points. The only good news for these two cars is with fewer teams running full schedules, it may not be as difficult to climb back into the Top 35 as in previous years.
A Look Ahead
NASCAR’s top series takes next weekend off before heading to Bristol’s high-banked half-mile bullring. This is not real good news for the bubble teams trying to get up into the Top 35. Riggs, Nemechek, and Kvapil all failed to qualify any better than 30th or finish higher than 22nd in either of the Bristol races in 2008. Look for all three to again have their problems in Tennessee in two weeks, both in qualifying and come race day. At least Nemechek should continue to show improvement, finishing 37th in his slow, steady march through the field.
As far as the teams having to race their way in on Friday, Stewart’s qualifying average was 17th and his finishing average was 11th in 2008 at Bristol. I see him replicating these numbers in two weeks without much of a problem at all. Meanwhile, Allmendinger was pulled from his Team Red Bull car last year early in the season and didn’t attempt this race. He did, however, qualify in the eighth position in the fall, although he wound up in 34th by race’s end. I see the ‘Dinger again qualifying well and definitely improving his finish, coming home around 20th and solidifying his place in the Top 35.
So, there’s your Bubble Breakdown for the Kobalt Tools 500 from Atlanta. Check back in two weeks to see who has locked up their guaranteed starting spots, as NASCAR sheds the last remnants of 2008 and switches to the 2009 owner standings for their guaranteed starting positions. Until then, so long from the bubble!