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Bubble Breakdown: David Gilliland Drives TRG’s No. 71 Right Into Top 35

If you remember back to 2008, Jamie McMurray – a good driver on one of the super teams, Roush Fenway Racing – was not only sitting on the bubble heading to Bristol, but on the wrong side of it when he left there. It was proof even the best organizations could fall victim to having to qualify on speed.

One year later, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin felt that same pressure, needing strong performances from their top-tier organizations to avoid what happened to McMurray last year. Bristol marked the final race using 2008 owner points in determining who has a guaranteed starting spot, as NASCAR’s top series now uses the 2009 owner standings for the remainder of the season. So, did Martin and Newman avoid being the big-name drivers on the outside looking in? And what underdog defied the odds to sneak into the Top 35? Read on to find out as we break down the bubble for the Food City 500 from Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Good

Rick Hendrick expected Martin to slide into the No. 5 Chevrolet and compete for a championship. Things haven’t really gone as planned with that car to this point, however. Martin sat just 35th in the owner standings heading to Bristol, and he desperately needed a strong run to start turning the team around. Luckily, the 50-year-old veteran really came through with his strongest all-around performance of the season to date. Mark won his second straight pole position on Friday, led a few laps early, and was able to last all 500 laps to post a sixth-place finish. The run moves the No. 5 Chevrolet up to 31st, 106 points ahead of the 36th-place team in the standings. It’s a nice cushion that should keep him entrenched in the Top 35 moving forward – but it’s still far from what was expected from this team.

AJ Allmendinger has to be sitting back with a huge smile on his face right now. After missing half the races his rookie season, the ‘Dinger was pulled from Team Red Bull’s car early in his second year and then let go from the team late last year. My, how things have turned around for the open-wheel veteran. Allmendinger has had to qualify on time for every race he has run for his new team, GEM/RPM, and he’s done just that. Now, after finishing on the lead lap in the 16th spot at Bristol, he sits 16th in the owner standings and has a guaranteed starting spot next week at Martinsville. Also this week, Richard Petty Motorsports announced they have sponsorship for four more races for AJ, securing his future with the organization through at least the end of May. It’s good to be the ‘Dinger these days…

BOWLES: DESPITE STRUGGLES, OPTIMISM HIGH IN PETTY CAMP

Another driver sitting outside the Top 35 in the owner standings as a result of forming a new team is Tony Stewart, driving for the Stewart-Haas organization he bought into. Smoke didn’t have a great run – he started 15th and lost two positions to finish 17th – but it was enough to solidify a locked-in qualifying spot for Martinsville and beyond. Let’s face it, though; Stewart driving his way up into the Top 35, new team or not, is really no surprise – he’s a former series champion and can drive anything with wheels on it. So, as we did last year with McMurray and David Reutimann, we bid farewell to Tony from the Bubble Breakdown, as he’ll now focus on making the Chase for the fifth time in the last six years.

The Bad

A trio of Toyotas dominates the bad section of this week’s Bubble Breakdown. Dave Blaney, driving for Phil Parsons’s Prism Motorsports’ No. 66 team, was involved in a seemingly easy bump and spin with John Andretti and drove straight to the garage, never to return and finish dead last. Right there with him was Gunselman Motorsports’ Todd Bodine, who was involved in a not so easy bump with Michael Waltrip around lap 100 and wrecked his Toyota entry hard. Mikey drifted up the track and pinched the Onion into the outside wall, also collecting Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in the melee. The result was a 42nd-place finish for Bodine. Finally, mechanical problems once again plagued NEMCO Motorsports’ No. 87 Toyota team driven by Joe Nemechek. With the team pulling out around lap 125, they were relegated to a 41st-place finish, thus ending Nemechek’s streak of improving in each race he’s qualified for. It’s the fourth DNF in as many races for the self-owned team, now sitting 160 points out of a locked-in qualifying spot.

The Ugly

Once again, Friday was not kind to Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 Toyota piloted by Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield’s self-owned No. 41 Toyota. Both teams got a head start on Martinsville by missing the Bristol race, forced to load up and head home two days early. Both teams have now missed three consecutive races and dug themselves huge holes to get out of with the Top 35. Perhaps a merger would help? Before you call me crazy, both teams run Toyotas already, and a two-car team would benefit them in the form of reduced expenses and shared knowledge. Another option for each car may be to start picking and choosing their races, much like the Wood Brothers No. 21 and Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 are doing at the present time. Both those teams have run very well for the most part at the tracks they have showed up at, and while they are both out of the Top 35 in the owner standings by only running select races, so are the teams owned by Mayfield and Baldwin – who have attempted all of them.

Who Drove Their Way Into The 2009 Top 35

  • Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 driven by Stewart: Is anyone really surprised?
  • RPM’s No. 44 driven by Allmendinger: My darkhorse for the Chase in 2009. AJ will win something other than the Sprint Showdown this year as he finds enough sponsorship to run a full season with RPM.
  • TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 driven by David Gilliland: A bit of a surprise here. Gilliland is a solid performer, but is driving for a new team that missed the Daytona 500 with Mike Wallace behind the wheel. Doug Yates may be kicking himself with his offseason decisions now, as his former employee is showing the type of potential that brought him to that former team in the first place. While the TRG car struggled at Bristol (finishing 36th), it’s still notched an average finish of 26.8 with Gilliland, just good enough to make them the only organization starting from scratch to claw its way into the Top 35 this season.

Who Drove Their Way Out Of The 2009 Top 35

  • Red Bull Racing’s No. 82 Toyota driven by Scott Speed: Speed is a young driver who has struggled early. If the past is any indication, he’ll start coming on strong later with this team – and promptly get thrown out of his ride.
  • Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s No. 8 Chevrolet driven by Aric Almirola: Almirola’s a solid, young driver who is still learning as he goes. But it seems that the combination of two underachieving organizations doesn’t necessarily create a championship-caliber one.
  • Yates Racing’s No. 98 Ford driven by Paul Menard: Menard has almost singlehandedly ruined Yates one year after some dramatic improvements. He took Travis Kvapil’s owner points from the No. 28 team to start this season, but quickly wasted them by driving out of the Top 35 with no better than a 25th-place finish. Meanwhile, Kvapil’s “new” team (still with No. 28 on the side) was forced to shut down after not charging into the Top 35 and thus securing the needed sponsorship to keep going. Perhaps we would all be better served if Mr. Menard took Sam Hornish Jr. and the two of them went back to their old job of heckling Kermit and Miss Piggy from the balcony on the Muppet Show.

A Look Ahead

Next week, NASCAR heads to the paperclip-shaped oval at Martinsville, Va. For some of our bubble drivers, it can’t come soon enough; and for others, they’d rather the short track get taken off the schedule altogether. Earnhardt Ganassi’s No. 8 Chevrolet driven by Almirola is one of those who can’t wait to get to Virginia; after all, it was one of their best tracks last year. Almirola qualified third and 15th in his two events, posting one to-20 finish in the fall and running well in the spring before blowing an engine. The young driver will need to duplicate that success from 2008, as his team is still searching for sponsorship to keep Almirola in the seat for races beyond Texas in April. And while I wouldn’t say that Gilliland tore the place up with his success at Martinsville in 2008, his qualifying average was 25th and his average finishing position was 28th with the old No. 38 team at Yates Racing. Those numbers, if put up again next week, should be enough to keep the No. 71 Chevrolet inside the Top 35 in owner points.

On the other side of the coin are Robby Gordon and Nemechek. Robby finished 40th twice and couldn’t muster a qualifying run better than 34th at Martinsville last year. Another stinker in 2008 was Nemechek, who missed one race and shouldn’t have bothered to show up for the other – qualifying 42nd and finishing dead last.

So, folks, there you have it – your weekly breakdown of the bubble for Bristol Motor Speedway. Make sure to check in next week and every week thereafter, as from here on out the drivers with the locked in spots can and assuredly will change on a week-to-week basis. Until next Monday, so long from the bubble.

2009 Bubble Chart After Bristol

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Hendrick Motorsports 5 Mark Martin 441 +85
32 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 398 +42
33 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 397 +41
34 Joe Gibbs Racing 20 Joey Logano 370 +14
35 TRG Motorsports 71 David Gilliland 356 0
36 Team Red Bull 82 Scott Speed 335 -21
37 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing 8 Aric Almirola 335 -21
38 Yates Racing 98 Paul Menard 326 -30
39 Yates Racing 28 Travis Kvapil 323 -33
40 Prism Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney 230 -126
41 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Scott Riggs 218 -138
42 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 206 -150
43 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 196 -160
44 Mayfield Motorsports 41 Jeremy Mayfield 179 -177
45 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Bill Elliott 149 -207
46 Gunselman Motorsports 64 Todd Bodine 143 -213
47 Phoenix Racing 09 Sterling Marlin 143 -213

 

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