Bad news has hit one of our bubble teams since the last race at Texas. After several patchwork sponsorship deals to keep the team afloat through March, the No. 8 Chevrolet driven by Aric Almirola has been shut down due to a lack of funding. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing plans to bring everyone back once sponsorship is found, but with the car sitting outside the Top 35, sponsors aren’t really lining up to throw money at them. Despite that disappointment, there was also plenty of good news coming out of Phoenix, too. Several teams sitting outside the Top 35 posted top-10 qualifying performances, while another one fighting to stay inside it actually managed to finish there. So, read on to see who’s moving up and who’s moving in the opposite direction in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown:

Bubble Breakdown: Sam Hornish Jr. Rips Off First Top 10 of 2009, Solidifies Locked-In Spot

Bad news has hit one of our bubble teams since the last race at Texas. After several patchwork sponsorship deals to keep the team afloat through March, the No. 8 Chevrolet driven by Aric Almirola has been shut down due to a lack of funding. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing plans to bring everyone back once sponsorship is found, but with the car sitting outside the Top 35, sponsors aren’t really lining up to throw money at them. If you don’t believe me, just go ask the folks at Robert Yates Racing, whose No. 28 car also folded earlier in the year when put in a similar spot.

Despite that disappointment, there was also plenty of good news coming out of Phoenix, too. Several teams sitting outside the Top 35 posted top-10 qualifying performances, while another one fighting to stay inside it actually managed to finish there.

So, read on to see who’s moving up and who’s moving in the opposite direction in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown:

The Good

Penske Championship Racing’s No. 77 Dodge driven by Sam Hornish Jr. – Hornish flat out drove a great race at Phoenix Saturday night. Throw in some pit strategy, solid stops by the crew, a bit of good luck, and that all equates to a top-10 finish for the Mobil 1 Dodge boys. After starting 35th, Hornish spent the evening working his way up to ninth by the time the checkered flag flew, a career-best for him in Sprint Cup competition. The run also boosted the No. 77 to 158 points ahead of 36th — a rather comfortable cushion by any stretch of the imagination. But I am not going to proclaim him gone from the bubble just yet; remember, as a rookie, he strung together several strong runs early on before tanking the rest of the year.

Robert Yates Racing’s No. 98 Ford driven by Paul Menard – I will admit, I have bashed Paul early in the year… but there’s no denying that he has turned in a few strong runs as of late. If you remember, I even called a good run for him at Phoenix, and this weekend the third-year driver followed through on my prediction with ease. Paul qualified the car in ninth, drove smart, got decent pit stops, and brought the car home in 23rd position, just one lap off the pace. Not great… but that’s good enough for now. Two straight top 25s have maintained Menard’s 32nd spot in the owner standings, extending his margin of error to a reasonable 86 points.

LUMBIS: SPRINT CUP ROOKIE REPORT AFTER PHOENIX

Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 driven by Joey Logano – Like Hornish, Logano started back in the field in 31st, kept out of trouble, and got good calls from crew chief Greg Zipadelli en route to a 21st-place finish. It was the rookie’s first run better than 30th in the last five races, building slowly on momentum gained by a Nationwide Series win at Nashville in the off week. For the No. 20 team’s efforts, they moved up two spots in the owner standings to 33rd, giving the 18-year-old rookie 59 points of breathing room heading to Talladega. That race will be a real test for the young man in Cup, since you need to run up front for the most part to avoid the Big One that always happens behind you.

The Bad

Front Row Motorsports’s No. 34 driven by John Andretti – Let’s give this team some credit; they are still in the Top 35 with a rather small operation. But after a solid start, they are also slowly moving back towards the cutoff line as each week goes by. Andretti started 41st at Phoenix and never got going forward, finishing several laps down in 38th. It was their seventh straight finish outside the top 20, dropping the team one spot in the owner standings to 34th — only 38 markers ahead of 36th place.

Robby Gordon Motorsports’s No. 7 Toyota driven by Robby Gordon – Running back in the pack, Robby got tangled up with Michael Waltrip on lap 167 after Waltrip got loose and then into the No. 7 car. Of course the driver/owner, who by the way has never caused a wreck before, immediately commented afterwards in his interview how much “we’re all looking forward to a new driver in the No. 55 car next year.” Almost as much as we’re looking forward to a new driver in the No. 7 car, Robby. Gordon now sits squarely at the cutoff point in 35th position, just 26 points ahead of David Gilliland in 36th.

The Ugly

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s No. 8 Chevrolet – It doesn’t get any uglier than closing up shop. The team has suspended operations due to a lack of funding for the car after never finishing better than 21st all year. Their intention is to eventually get some sponsorship money and get back on track — but we all know how that goes in today’s NASCAR.

Gunselman Motorsports’s No. 64 Toyota driven by Todd Bodine – Bodine wasn’t able to qualify the car this weekend at Phoenix, not that it would have mattered anyways. This team may be wise to take note of Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 game plan, choosing to race at selected events in order to get better results that way.

Mayfield Motorsports’s No. 41 Toyota driven by Jeremy Mayfield – Mayfield’s entry also missed the show again, his fifth DNQ in the first eight races this year. As rumors about sponsorship continue to swirl around, one would think this team will be the next to fold.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR heads to the state of Alabama and Talladega Superspeedway next week for what is sure to be another exciting race. And with restrictor-plate racing comes the big wreck. That’s not good news for the bubble teams, as let’s face it — these guys don’t run up front much to begin with, and most of those crashes occur in the middle or the back of the pack.

So, who looks good next week? Well, Menard has some momentum built up and he also has Yates horsepower under his hood. Those two things may be enough to get him another solid finish. I am also going to say Hornish finishes near the front once again. The whole Penske Racing organization has improved this season, and Dodge cars have proved their restrictor-plate strength, leading all manufacturers with four top-10 finishes at Daytona.

As for who’s in line to get caught in the “Big One,” TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 Chevrolet has made races but has run mostly mid-pack — which is not where you want to be when the big wreck occurs. Expect Gilliland to get caught up in it, as well as Scott Speed in his team Red Bull Toyota and Gordon — who will probably cause it, then say it was someone else’s fault.

Well, that’s it for this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown. Check the newsletter for my official spoiler picks, then check back next Monday to see which of our bubble dwellers survived the 2.66-mile monster that is Talladega.

Until then, so long from the bubble!

2009 Bubble Chart After Phoenix

PosOwnerCar #DriverPointsPoints +/- of 35th Place
31Penske Championship Racing77Sam Hornish Jr.709+132
32Yates Racing98Paul Menard637+60
33Joe Gibbs Racing20Joey Logano610+33
34Front Row Motorsports34John Andretti589+12
35Robby Gordon Motorsports7Robby Gordon5770
36TRG Motorsports71David Gilliland551-26
37Team Red Bull82Scott Speed475-102
38Earnhardt Ganassi Racing8Aric Almirola451-126
39Tommy Baldwin Racing36Scott Riggs365-212
40Furniture Row Racing78Regan Smith355-222
41Prism Motorsports66Dave Blaney343-234
42Yates Racing28Travis Kvapil323-254
43NEMCO Motorsports87Joe Nemechek307-270
44Mayfield Motorsports Inc.41Jeremy Mayfield286-291
45Phoenix Racing09Mike Bliss254-323
46Gunselman Motorsports64Todd & Geoffrey Bodine230-347
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