As I am sure you’ve heard by now, some big news came from one of our bubble teams just prior to the Southern 500 this past Saturday night. However, I am not about to open my column talking any more than I have to about a run of the mill driver who manages to get himself suspended for failing a drug test. Instead, I would much rather focus on the positive… like Sam Hornish Jr. starting fourth with a career-best qualifying run or Joey Logano tying his career-best finish with a ninth-place performance, following up on a career-best qualifying effort of his own – starting fifth at what is arguably NASCAR’s most difficult track.
But just like Jeremy Mayfield‘s test results, the Lady In Black wasn’t kind to everyone to tried to conquer her this weekend. While there were some great days for teams on the right side of the bubble, many of the cars outside it saw their bubble burst with wrecks or poor qualifying runs that hampered overall performance. As a result, while no one new moved into the Top 35 this week, some teams had a chance to put distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. To see which ones had the most success – and who’s still in danger – read on to see this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Home Depot machine piloted by rookie Logano is definitely headed in the right direction after a rocky start. Joey qualified in the fifth spot, but a loose handling race car caused him initially to slide back in the field. However, crew chief Greg Zipadelli made adjustments throughout the race to get the car back to where Logano could drive towards the front – combining that with two-tire pit strategy to consistently give him additional track position. Those moves paid off when the No. 20 team got the rookie off pit road in front of the field on lap 278, the first time he rose to contention at a non-restrictor plate track in the Cup Series.
Logano went on to lead 19 laps before the loose condition returned, causing him to slide back to the tail end of the top 10 once again. However, the young rookie then heeded the advice given to him by Cale Yarborough, backing up his corner entry late in the race to hang on for a second ninth-place finish in three weeks. After posting just one top 20 in the first eight races of the season, the No. 20 Home Depot team has now ripped off three in a row to move up to 30th in the owner standings – solidifying their guaranteed starting spot and moving them off the Bubble Watch for the time being.
Yates Racing’s No. 98 Ford Fusion, driven by Paul Menard, shook off not only a poor run at Richmond last week but also a bad qualifying effort at Darlington to post another top 15. Starting a disappointing 40th at the Lady In Black, Paul somehow managed to miss all of the race’s 17 cautions while taking advantage of two of them to get back on the lead lap via the Lucky Dog rule and finish in the 15th spot. Considering Paul’s previous best run at Darlington was 31st, the weekend was highly impressive and really helped extend a cushion over the the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota that sits in 36th place – a car which failed to make the race. As a result, Yates’s No. 98 team has a margin of over 230 markers over 36th place just six races after bottoming out below the top 35.
Front Row Racing’s No. 34 Chevrolet team also makes a rare appearance in the good section of the column this week. With Tony Raines subbing for John Andretti, who spent the weekend at Indy qualifying for the Indy 500, the team overcame a pair of NASCAR penalties to manage a 25th-place finish. The veteran driver was calm over his radio after the pit crew didn’t get all the lugnuts on lap 163 and even apologetic after speeding off pit road on lap 199, both of which hindered him from jumping into contention for any sort of Lucky Dog. Still, Raines kept himself out of trouble and showed he deserves a look from with someone for a full-time ride in 2010. The performance kept the No. 34 Chevy in the Top 35, albeit in 35th place – now 104 points ahead of the bubble after Scott Speed‘s second DNQ of the season gave Team Red Bull just 28 owner points for his effort.
TRG Motorsports No. 71 driven by David Gilliland – The clock has struck midnight for this Cinderella team; and when the clock struck 12, boy did this carriage turn back into a pumpkin. Of course, as everyone knows a pumpkin doesn’t have a fuel pump – and neither did Gilliland after lap 27 in what became his third straight DNF on the NASCAR circuit. The 43rd-place finish also continues a streak of seven races outside the top 25 for the No. 71, putting the car almost 160 points out of the Top 35 and likely forced to qualify on speed the rest of the year.
Phoenix Racing’s No. 09 Dodge driven by Sterling Marlin this week – The bad news for James Finch is that his team “broke” a transmission and finished 42nd after completing just 38 laps. The good news is it gave him plenty of time to watch one of his other part-time drivers in Brad Keselowski run very well and finish seventh.
Prism Motorsports No. 66 Toyota driven by Dave Blaney – Perhaps Prism Motorsports needs to find a new brake guy after retiring to the garage with “brake problems” for third time in the last four races. The start-and-park team has yet to complete more than 25% of any race they have qualified for in 2009; but on the bright side, the 41st-place run at Darlington equals their best finish this year.
Although the No. 82 car of Speed failed to qualify – putting his team further behind the eight ball in their quest to get back in the Top 35 – it’s the No. 41 Toyota of Mayfield Motorsports who sits all alone in the ugly column this week. Mayfield failed a drug test after the Richmond race, and as a result has been suspended indefinitely by NASCAR both as a team owner and driver. Of course, that immediately begs the question – unless NASCAR got the test results Saturday afternoon – why was the guy allowed to practice and attempt to qualify? It’s an answer we’d all like to hear from that powers that be before putting this problem behind us.
Meanwhile, in its description of the incident, NASCAR has stated the failed test wasn’t alcohol related – nor were the drugs considered performance enhancers. Well, I think we all know it wasn’t performance enhancers, as the No. 41 team’s performance has been horrible at best this year. In response to the suspension, Mayfield stated he believes a combination of prescription and over the counter drugs resulted in the failed test. Claiming he and his doctor were working with NASCAR to resolve the issue, the veteran was insistent that he was attempting to work things out behind the scenes to return to competition.
To be honest, this incident reminds me of former Major League Baseball player Rafael Palmeiro waving his finger at Congress, stating he had never taken any banned substances right before failing a drug test – then blaming a teammate who he thought was giving him a vitamin B injection and saying he would medically prove he had never taken steroids. Several years later, we are still awaiting that proof. In the meantime, Mayfield Motorsports now has less than a week to come up with not only a driver, but an owner – not to mention how this is going to affect future and current sponsors. A rough start for this team is about to get a whole lot rougher…
A Look Ahead
NASCAR runs its All-Star event Saturday night, which means no points racing for over two weeks. When the sport does return, it’s for their longest event, the Coca-Cola 600. And Hornish loves the Coca-Cola 600. Last year, Hornish started 20th and finished 13th, one of the best runs for the team, and used it as a springboard to put together a pair of good finishes. Look for Hornish and his improving No. 77 bunch to finish in the top 20 again in NASCAR’s marathon event.
On the flip side, struggling at Lowe’s twice last year was Robby Gordon. The owner/driver of the No. 7 car finished 43rd and 30th in the two events held there, not exactly a stellar duo of performances to hang your hat on. As for how Gordon will do in 2009? Well, it may all depend on his pit crew. If they repeat what happened at Darlington – where Robby reminded his pit crew over the radio that the day the team met to discuss pit-road practice for that week, his crew chief skipped it to have lunch with his wife – let’s just say they won’t crack the Top 35. Also, look for Blaney to qualify… but then start, run around 70 laps, and retire to the garage with his start-and-park effort in the No. 66.
And there you have it, folks – another edition of the Bubble Breakdown. Check back in two weeks to see who left Lowe’s with a guaranteed starting spot, and who still needs to race their way in on speed. So until then, so long from the bubble!
2009 Bubble Chart After Darlington
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|31||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||998||+167|
|32||Roush Fenway Racing||6||David Ragan||998||+167|
|33||Yates Racing||98||Paul Menard||957||+126|
|34||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||847||+16|
|35||Front Row Motorsports||34||Tony Raines||831||0|
|36||Team Red Bull||82||Scott Speed||727||-104|
|37||TRG Motorsports||71||David Gilliland||674||-157|
|38||Furniture Row Racing||78||Regan Smith||573||-258|
|39||NEMCO Motorsports||87||Joe Nemechek||561||-270|
|40||Phoenix Racing||09||Sterling Marlin/Mike Bliss/Brad Keselowski||533||-298|
|41||Tommy Baldwin Racing||36||Scott Riggs||488||-343|
|42||Earnhardt Ganassi Racing||8||Aric Almirola||451||-380|
|43||Prism Motorsports||66||Dave Blaney||448||-383|
|44||Mayfield Motorsports Inc.||41||Jeremy Mayfield (suspended)||447||-384|