NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: 2-Tire Pit Stop Has Sam Hornish Jr. Driving Away From Top 35

News from the bubble this week primarily dealt with Robby Gordon’s rear end and whether NASCAR’s method of handing out penalties is fair or not. Gordon was docked 50 owner and driver points and crew chief Kirk Almquist was fined $50,000 this week after post-race inspection at Lowe’s found their rear axle housing exceeded the maximum specified toe of plus or minus one degree. Neither the driver nor crew chief was suspended as a result of the inspection, however, while in the previous week, driver Carl Long was given a 12-race suspension, got docked 200 owner/driver points, and his crew chief was fined $200,000 for an engine at a non-points race that exceeded NASCAR’s 358-cubic inch requirement by just .17 inches. Seems to me one guy got off a little easy while another one got bent right over the woodpile….

To see if Robby could make up the penalty at Dover or if the drivers outside the Top 35 would make up some ground on him, read on in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

The Good

We’ll start off this week with a team that isn’t really on the bubble – their team has run just seven races – but deserves an “atta boy” because they had a great run, and their driver is from the next town over from where I live. After a miserable 2008, Furniture Row Racing cut back to a partial schedule and brought on driver Regan Smith in the offseason for their Chevrolet racing team; ever since, things seem to have turned around with some very good results. At Dover, Regan spent the first half of the race in the top 20 and on the lead lap before slipping a bit and winding up a lap down in the 22nd position. Still, the team has now finished in the top 22 in five of the seven races they have run; more importantly, they have actually finished every race they’ve attempted. In three of those events, they were on the lead lap, while in three others they were only one lap down. The team moved up one spot to 38th in the owner standings – ahead of several teams who have attempted all 13 races – as a result of Regan’s consistent driving.

Sam Hornish Jr. took an average race, screwed it up, and then got a good call from atop his pit box that made all the difference. In an effort to be the first car a lap down, Hornish was caught speeding out of the pits on lap 333. The penalty was a restart at the tail end of the longest line, leaving Hornish far out of contention for the Lucky Dog. But on the next caution, crew chief Travis Geisler came over the radio and said, “What the hell, nothing has worked for us today so let’s gamble.” Taking on two tires on the next pit stop moved Hornish into the Lucky Dog position and, lo and behold, the caution waved shortly thereafter – putting the No. 77 back on the lead lap with 30 laps to go. Hornish quickly came to pit road to get four fresh tires, and was able to drive from his 19th restarting position up to 13th when the checkered flag flew. Team Penske’s Mobil 1 Dodge now sits as comfortably as it ever has with Hornish at the helm, 349 points ahead of the teams that must qualify on time while moving up to 26th in owner points.

Finally, we have a new arrival to the bubble, Roush-Fenway Racing’s No. 6 UPS Ford driven by David Ragan. David hasn’t been horrible in 2009, with four top-20 finishes – including a sixth at Daytona. But when he has been bad, he’s been very bad. The No. 6 team really wasn’t good or bad on Sunday – just steady in a ho-hum race at Dover. The team started in 26th, had a push in the middle of the corners that they never got fixed, and finished in 24th place. Not stellar by any means, but it’s enough to move them up one spot to 31st in the owner standings heading to Pocono next week.

The Bad

Another new driver who has dropped like a rock to the bubble is driver/owner Michael Waltrip. Mikey opened up 2009 with an impressive seventh place run in the Daytona 500 but has just two top 15s since. It didn’t get any better Sunday, as Waltrip brought his NAPA Toyota to pit road on lap 250 with black smoke coming out of his tailpipe. He wouldn’t return, finishing 150 laps down and in the 35th spot with a faulty engine. The team fell to 32nd in points as a result, but still maintains a comfortable 265 points ahead of having to qualify on time.

While it is no secret I am not a Gordon fan, after listening to his in car radio the last month I am beginning to feel sorry for him. This guy’s pit crew flat out sucks. Having a car that gained over a dozen positions before the competition caution flew, the crew had a horrible stop, again, that cost Robby a bunch of positions on the track. Then, Gordon got caught off the lead lap by a caution during green-flag pit stops before mercifully getting wrecked by David Stremme three quarters of the way through the race. Over the last month, Gordon has been telling his crew chief the stops are horrible, and Kirk Almquist says every time that, “I know, hang in there, we’ll get ’em next time.” Due mainly to poor track position, Gordon was running in the lap-down line on a restart and when Stremme got loose, he hit Gordon on the right side, knocking him into the inside wall while taking Paul Menard with him. Robby’s top-15 car wound up in the 33rd position, another rough finish in what’s been a frustrating year. The team remains well ahead of the cutoff, though – 153 points ahead of Red Bull Racing in 36th.

Finally, joining the bad column this week is the previously mentioned Menard. Yates Racing’s No. 98 Ford Fusion was a victim of circumstance when, on lap 286, Stremme got loose off turn 2, knocking both Menard and the aforementioned Gordon out of contention. Menard had spent most of the day in the top 15-20 after starting 36th, and was looking for a good run to continue to get his team’s season turned around. Obviously, that didn’t happen, with the No. 98 logging a 32nd-place finish after the wreck. Menard remained in 33rd position in the owner standings, albeit with a relatively nice 212-point cushion over 36th.

The Ugly

This is becoming a cut and paste for the start and park teams featured weekly in this section:

Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 Toyota driven by Mike Skinner – Ran 51 laps before retiring with “engine” issues. The team finished 41st.

Prism Motorsports’ No. 66 Toyota driven by Dave Blaney – Ran 66 laps before the “transmission” quit. Blaney Finished 39th.

NEMCO Motorsports’ No. 87 Toyota driven by Joe Nemechek – Ran 67 laps – imagine that – one more than Blaney before the “driveshaft” broke. Joe finished 38th.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR heads to the beautiful Pocono Mountains for the first of two very long summer races in 2009. Looking back at recent history, it’s tough to predict how our bubble teams will do as most of them have different drivers than last year. Blaney posted a 22nd-place run last summer, but you know the team he drives for now won’t go 50 laps before they park it. David Gilliland had a 15th-place run and a third-place qualifying effort, but both were with a much higher-caliber team than the No. 71 of TRG Motorsports.

With so little to count on, we’re going to put our money on Ragan. Ragan averaged a 23rd-place start and a 15th-place average finish at the Pennsylvania track last year, leaving him a prime candidate to succeed in the No. 6. I am also going to go with Gordon to post a top 20. He ran terribly last year at Pocono, but has had fast cars the last month, meaning the law of averages says that eventually his crew will have a good day. On the flip side, look for Waltrip to falter, as he did no better than 35th last year at the big triangular speedway in the woods. Finally, Menard will struggle as he’s lost the momentum he had going from the past few weeks; and the last time he left Pocono, Menard had just finished 42nd.

Well, that’s your bubble wrap-up for Dover. Check back next week to see if Scott Speed can finally crack the Top 35 and which start and park team runs that extra lap to gain the two positions in the final race results. And don’t forget to check out the Frontstretch newsletter on Friday to see the head-to-head bubble picks. This weekend, I managed to steal one last week from our own Phil Allaway despite one of my cars not making the race.

So, until next Monday, so long from the bubble!

2009 Bubble Chart After Dover

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Roush Fenway Racing 6 David Ragan 1,180 +242
32 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 1,153 +215
33 Yates Racing 98 Paul Menard 1,100 +162
34 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,031 +93
35 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 938 0
36 Team Red Bull 82 Scott Speed 888 -50
37 TRG Motorsports 71 David Gilliland 795 -143
38 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 670 -268
39 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 662 -276
40 Phoenix Racing 09 Mike Bliss 610 -328
41 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Mike Skinner 582 -356
42 Prism Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney 578 -360

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