What a strange weekend for our beloved bubble dwellers it was at Richmond. At Friday’s qualifying session, Mike Bliss put the No. 09 Dodge in the sixth starting position with what seemed to be a car running with the momentum from last week’s upset win at Talladega. Scott Speed also looked like his team was harnessing their momentum from the previous weekend with an eighth place qualifying run. In contrast, Robby Gordon, whose career starting average at Richmond is 30th, looked to be struggling with a 36th-place qualifying effort, while Sam Hornish Jr. looked to be back to normal with a lackluster 28th place starting spot.
But as you know, strange things happen under the lights at Richmond… so to see if our bubble teams flipped their weekends around, read on in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.
Who is this guy driving the No. 77 Penske Championship Racing Dodge, and what has he done with Hornish? After driving just a handful of races in 2007 and following that up with an awful rookie season in 2008, Hornish started out like his old self in 2009. After the first six races, his average finish was 29th and he was right there fighting to remain in the Top 35. Then, something happened at Texas, where Hornish qualified 12th and finished 17th. That momentum carried over to Phoenix, where Hornish posted his then career best finish of ninth. When the series moved to Talladega, the No. 77 qualified fourth only to get caught up in a wreck not of its making which ruined a decent finish. Now, last weekend at Richmond, Hornish posted a new career best finish with a sixth-place run, moving him up to 30th in the owner standings and giving the team a 226-point cushion over the 36th-place team.
After hovering around the top 15 for the better part of the night, a pit stop with 44 laps to go gave Sam new tires that allowed him to drive up through the field as the race stayed green, meaning those who stayed out were stuck on tires at least 12 laps older than Hornish’s. The call almost allowed him to post his first career top-five finish, as the open-wheel convert was slicing and dicing his way through the field over Richmond’s final laps. While I am sure Hornish won’t contend for the Chase this year, I am just as sure we won’t see him fighting to maintain a Top 35 spot either….
Normally, I wouldn’t consider Robby Gordon to be a lucky fellow. I was at Watkins Glen a few years back when he had the field covered, only to have a battery NASCAR put in the car for TV purposes catch fire and end his day. But Lady Luck was certainly smiling on Gordon Saturday night. And while getting the free pass on the sixth caution of the night is partially luck, you do need to have your car in the right position to overcome adversity – and that’s what happened right as the 11th caution flag flew in what turned into a huge break for his race team. As I watched Marcos Ambrose spin and slide towards the wall, Robby started screaming over his team’s radio that they had just broken a belt.
Due to the obscenities, I can’t quote exactly what Gordon said; however, since the caution came out, he was able to bring his No. 7 Toyota into the pits and fix it under caution, thus not losing any laps in the process. Then, as they were coming to take the green, the team radioed to Gordon that they weren’t able to get the belt as tight as possible due to the pace car coming around – meaning he would have to take it very easy or it would come off again. But lo and behold, as the green flag flew on lap 311 another wreck on lap 312 brought the caution out again, and Gordon returned to pit road to get the belt properly tightened. Robby also got fresh tires under that pit stop, allowing him to be able to work his way up from the back half of the 20s to a 16th-place finish. His reward for the good run was a move up one spot to 34th in the owner standings, allowing him to extend the distance back to 36th place to 69 markers.
James Finch came into Richmond riding a huge wave of momentum from his team’s Talladega win last week. But to build a winner, you have to be consistent – and the No. 09 was anything but this weekend. Not only did their winning driver from last week not drive, the team also switched manufacturers back from Chevy to Dodge. Obviously, the driver and manufacturer schedules were finalized a long time ago, but it still seems a bit odd for a switch to occur so soon after a successful weekend. This week’s driver, Bliss, did post an excellent qualifying run in the No. 09 Dodge, putting the car in the sixth starting spot. But his luck didn’t hold out long. At lap 210, Bliss slowed, dramatically complaining of brake problems, and brought his car to pit road for work. He would return to log laps, but finished 37th, 32 laps down to the winner after time spent behind the wall for repairs. Bliss’s team did move up two spots in the owner standings, and in just two weeks has moved into position to now make the race if qualifying is rained out. But this weekend clearly wasn’t the run they expected after the upset performance of the year.
An interesting note here: the last time a driver won a race and didn’t run the next week was in October of 2002. Jamie McMurray won at Lowe’s for Chip Ganassi, but didn’t race the next week at Martinsville. Who was the driver who replaced him that weekend? Bliss.
Joe Nemechek, driving for his own NEMCO Motorsports No. 87 Toyota team, came back to reality last Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway after a season’s best performance at Talladega the previous weekend. Joe did post a nice qualifying effort, starting 24th, but never really moved up in the field. Joe came in at lap 58 to try and resolve some mechanical issues with his No. 87 Toyota, and never really did as he completed just 90 of the 400 laps at Richmond. Oddly enough, both NEMCO Motorsports’ No. 87 Toyota and James Finch’s No. 09 Dodge are the biggest gainers as far as the owner standings this week despite their poor performances – Joe also moved up two spots and now sits in 40th place.
Todd Bodine in the No. 64 Gunselman Motorsports Toyota – After withdrawing from Talladega to concentrate their efforts on some upcoming races, the team missed the show at Richmond. Apparently, Richmond wasn’t one of the tracks they were concentrating on….
Scott Riggs in the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Toyota – Completed just 54 laps before electrical problems ended their night. There was no backup ignition in the No. 36 car, which killed their race once the primary ignition failed.
Dave Blaney in the No. 66 Prism Motorsports Toyota – People new to the sport please take note that Blaney is a much better caliber of driver than this year would indicate. But when your team folds in the offseason and all the decent rides are taken, you get what you can – which in Blaney’s situation is a new start up team without a lot of resources to compete.
A Look Ahead
NASCAR heads to Darlington, where the Lady in Black awaits our beloved bubble dwellers. If 2008 is any indication, this may not be too bad for our bubble teams. Four current drivers started in the top 25 and three finished in the top 20 with one driver, Blaney, posting a ninth-place run with his former Bill Davis Racing team. For ’09, though, you gotta like Hornish and the momentum not only he but his Penske Championship Racing teammates have built up. And remember, the guy who bought into this organization, Bill Davis, won twice at Darlington with former driver Ward Burton. With so much going their way, I think a top-15 finish for the No. 77 Dodge is a definite possibility.
As to who will struggle, I’m not really going to go out on a limb here… but all three bubble drivers who posted top-20 runs last year at Darlington did so with teams they are no longer with. Those drivers: Riggs, Blaney and David Gilliland, will continue to have their problems as they continue to work out the kinks with their respective teams. Barring rain, I say Gilliland and maybe Riggs qualify… but Blaney misses the show.
And that’s it for this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown. Be sure to check out the head-to-head bubble picks between Phil Allaway and myself in Friday’s Frontstretch newsletter as after getting down four to zero, I ripped off four straight wins to make a competition out of it after all. So until next Monday, so long from the bubble!
2009 Bubble Chart After Richmond:
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|31||Hall of Fame/Yates Racing||96||Bobby Labonte||893||+150|
|32||Joe Gibbs Racing||20||Joey Logano||859||+116|
|33||Yates Racing||98||Paul Menard||839||+96|
|34||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||768||+25|
|35||Front Row Motorsports||34||John Andretti||743||0|
|36||Team Red Bull||82||Scott Speed||699||-44|
|37||TRG Motorsports||71||David Gilliland||640||-103|
|38||Phoenix Racing||09||Mike Bliss/Brad Keselowski||496||-247|
|39||NEMCO Motorsports||87||Joe Nemechek||476||-267|
|40||Furniture Row Racing||78||Regan Smith||473||-270|
|41||Earnhardt Ganassi Racing||8||Aric Almirola||451||-292|
|42||Tommy Baldwin Racing||36||Scott Riggs||442||-301|
|43||Mayfield Motorsports Inc.||41||Jeremy Mayfield||416||-327|
|44||Prism Motorsports||66||Dave Blaney||408||-335|