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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Part-Timer Wins at Talladega While Top-30 Teams Turn in Top 15s

Talladega Superspeedway was the setting this week for the running of the Aaron’s 499. Bubble teams kicked up a little pre-race news as Sam Hornish Jr. posted a career-best qualifying run, starting fourth before suddenly getting sick with the flu – forcing the team to fly in Travis Kvapil as a standby driver in case Hornish wasn’t able to finish the race. Also making some noise was Robby Gordon in his self-owned No. 7 car. Robby was the fastest in the field during the first practice, but after sliding down the timing sheets in the second one, he had a 38th-place qualifying run thrown out because his car didn’t make NASCAR’s minimum height requirement – as did Reed Sorenson – sending both drivers to the back of the field for the start.

But Hornish and Gordon weren’t the only bubble stories by the time the checkered flag flew in the Aaron’s 499. With both restrictor-plate wrecks and engines evening the playing field, six cars outside the top 30 in the owner standings wound up in the top 15 at the finish. Were Hornish and Gordon among the lucky group that broke through? You’ll just have to read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown:

The Good

I am not sure if you’d exactly consider James Finch’s No. 09 Chevrolet a bubble team, as they only run a limited schedule, but I’ve never gotten to talk about a race winner… so I am going to here. Driver Brad Keselowski, whose previous best finish in a Sprint Cup event was 19th last year in Texas, started ninth, spent the afternoon following everybody around, then used a last lap move to get by Carl Edwards – whom he had pushed to the front in the first place. On the final lap, Edwards left a little opening down low and Brad got his nose in there before Carl could get back down in front of him coming off turn 4. But unlike Regan Smith – who last year went below the yellow line on the last lap to cost himself a win – Brad held his spot on the bottom of the track. That meant when Carl did try to get back down to block him, he came across Brad’s nose, resulting in a spin that sent Edwards’s car airborne, then into Ryan Newman’s machine before winding up in the catchfence and then finally returning to earth.

But while Edwards may have come back down… it’ll be a long time before Keselowski does the same. The win comes in just his fifth career start, and may well draw some much-needed sponsorship dollars, resulting in more races being added to Brad’s Cup schedule in the near future.

Two other bubble drivers also posted career-best finishes at Talladega, as the rookie duo of Scott Speed and Joey Logano finished fifth and ninth, respectively. Speed qualified eighth and stayed out of the big messes en route to a strong finish, one that significantly closed the gap to just 18 points between him and the 35th-place team in the owner standings. Logano didn’t qualify quite as well, starting 22nd, but crew chief Greg Zipadelli used a variety of pit strategies, sometimes taking four tires, sometimes two to stay up towards the front and also stay ahead of the big wreck towards the end of the race. Logano remained 33rd in the owner standings as a result, but opened up his lead over the 36th-place team to a comfortable 118 points.

Finally, we need to tip our hats to Joe Nemechek. Nemechek, driving for his own team, put his No. 87 Toyota into the field on time with a 17th-place qualifying effort. Joe then went from the front to the back and back towards the front again, finally finishing 14th to notch his best run since the AMP Energy 500 at Talladega last fall. And while this finish really won’t help them much as far as getting into the Top 35, as Joe’s previous high finish this year was 39th, it will put a much needed and well-deserved smile on the faces of everyone over at NEMCO Motorsports.

The Bad

Robby Gordon was caught up in the second Big One with less than 10 laps to go, making a tremendous impact against the SAFER barrier on the backstretch. It looked like the No. 11 FedEx Toyota got into the No. 42 Dodge of Juan Pablo Montoya to start the melee, leaving Gordon an innocent victim with simply nowhere to go. Gordon’s No. 7 Toyota got clipped in the accident, sliding all the way across the track before slamming headfirst into the inside wall. Despite the wreck, he remains in the 35th spot in the owner standings, earning a guaranteed starting spot for at least one more week. But the bad news for Robby is he walked away with a 29th-place finish in a race where four bubble teams finished in the top 15. At least he walked away unhurt from what was a very scary hit. Some will say this wreck was just racing at Talladega – but I think Jimmie Johnson and Edwards summed it up best. Johnson, who was in the same wreck as Gordon, said after his incident, “This really sucks racing here.” A few minutes later, Edwards added, “We’ll race like this until we kill somebody, then they will change it.”

If being sick all weekend wasn’t enough, Hornish Jr. was caught up in someone else’s mess and turned what would have been a decent run into a miserable 34th-place finish, eight laps down with a virtually destroyed racecar. Sam posted a career-best fourth-place qualifying run and drove a smart race, working well with his teammates for parts of the event while just trying to make it to the end and get a respectable finish. The team even used some creative pit strategy to get to the front of the field with a gas only stop in the middle of the race. But the second Big One with a handful of laps remaining crippled his chances of a solid finish. Sam remained in the 31st spot in the owner standings after Talladega… but an opportunity to move up significantly fell by the wayside.

The Ugly

This week, the ugly stick beat upon Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 Toyota driven by Scott Riggs and TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 Chevrolet driven by David Gilliland. TBR Racing came in with the expectation of a good run, as they posted a 17th-place qualifying effort and 25th-place finish at the only other restrictor-plate race of the year at Daytona. Meanwhile, TRG Motorsports came in looking for some redemption, as Daytona is the only race at which they’ve failed to qualify.

Neither got what they were looking for.

Both drivers were caught up in a big wreck less than 10 laps into the race, winding up with wadded up race cars and finishing spots of 39th and 40th instead. This was particularly devastating to The No. 71 team, as they sat just 26 points out of 35th when the green flag flew.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR races under the lights Saturday night in Richmond, Virginia at the 3/4-mile Richmond International Raceway. Looking back to 2008, many of our bubble teams never got their cars right for qualifying or for the race. Sorenson managed a fifth place start that he converted into a 12th-place finish last spring, while Gilliland had a 26th-place start/18th-place finish in the fall – but that’s about it. And since neither driver is with the same team in 2009, there’s question as to whether those results will translate over.

So, who do you bet on and who do you bet against this weekend? After a horrific beginning to start the year, the No. 98 Ford Fusion out of the Yates Racing stable is making great strides as a team and putting together some good runs. I expect that to continue with a top-30 qualifying effort and a top-25 finish for Paul Menard.

As far as struggling teams to watch, Robby Gordon has a career short-track start/finish record of 30/31. Throw in the fact that luck isn’t on Robby’s side right now – as well as his last trip to RIR resulting in a 35th-place start and a 42nd-place finish – and it’s not looking good. Expect Robby to struggle again, starting and finishing outside the top 30.

That’s it for this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown. Check back next week to see who’s moving up and who’s dropping down in the back end of the owner standings. And make sure to check out my head-to-head picks with Phil in Friday’s newsletter as we were tied at four wins apiece heading into ‘Dega. So until next Monday, so long from the bubble!

2009 Bubble Chart After Talladega

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 775 +122
32 Yates Racing 98 Paul Menard 766 +113
33 Joe Gibbs Racing 20 Joey Logano 753 +100
34 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 676 +23
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 653 0
36 Team Red Bull 82 Scott Speed 635 -18
37 TRG Motorsports 71 David Gilliland 594 -59
38 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 473 -180
39 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing 8 Aric Almirola 451 -202
40 Phoenix Racing 09 Brad Keselowski 444 -209
41 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 433 -220
42 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Scott Riggs 405 -248
43 Prism Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney 374 -279
44 Mayfield Motorsports Inc. 41 Jeremy Mayfield 358 -295

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