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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Michael Waltrip Bounces Back With Strong 17th to Solidify Spot in Top 35

If you make the long and winding drive down Long Pond Drive you’ll come upon the Speedway in the woods known as Pocono Raceway. In 2008, this track was nothing short of disaster for the bubble teams and 2009 wasn’t much kinder to them. It started Friday when qualifying was rained out, meaning that the teams would have to start from the rear of the field. Add in the fact that passing is so difficult in these cars and it’s a long grueling race anyway and you have a long afternoon for the teams hovering around the Top 35. The end result was only Michael Waltrip posting a top-25 finish among our drivers and that included a pair of spins. So to see how badly the bubble teams struggled on Sunday, read on in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

The Good

Waltrip takes the gold medal this week as the top-finishing bubble driver. Waltrip was able to overcome a pair of spins on and entering pit road by stretching his fuel to the end to post the team’s best finish since a 13th at Martinsville. Waltrip struggled a bit early but was the recipient of the lucky dog pass on lap 159 and managed to stay on the lead lap for the remainder of the race. His 17th-place run extended his team’s cushion over 36th to a very comfortable 310 points and in all probability they won’t have a problem remaining in the Top 35 for the rest of 2009.

Unlike his Roush Fenway Racing teammates, David Ragan really didn’t have much success at Pocono on Sunday. Ragan spent most of the race battling with Robby Gordon for the lucky dog spot until late when he was able to grab a few positions as some drivers pitted for gas or ran out of fuel. The late charge enabled Ragan to move his UPS Racing No. 6 Ford Fusion up to 26th spot as the checkered flag flew. Not a great run but definitely enough to maintain a healthy cushion ahead of the bubble. And to be quite honest, there aren’t any drivers outside the Top 35 that look like a real threat to get into a guaranteed starting spot anyway.

Like Ragan, Paul Menard really didn’t have much of a run going until late when some drivers fell out of contention with fuel issues. Between that and the fact that the leaders were running pace lap times, Menard was able to race his way back on to the lead lap at the very end of the race and post a 29th-place finish. Not great, but he did bring home the Yates Racing No. 98 Ford Fusion in one piece and maintain his 33rd spot in the owner standings.

The Bad

Gordon’s crew chief showed he had a very good grip on NASCAR’s new restart rule, getting a lap back by staying out and pitting under green to get one of the team’s two laps back just prior to the halfway point in the race. What he didn’t have a good grip on was the left front of his driver’s No. 7 Toyota. Gordon made multiple trips to the pits during a stint just past the midway point, changing everything from tires to you name it in an attempt to figure out the problem. Finally Kirk Almquist told Robby “something must be broke, you’re gonna just have to deal with it.” Robby dealt with it to the tune of a 31st-place finish. While not a great finish, he does maintain his 34th place in the owner standings.

Despite the fact that Front Row Racing has not posted a single run better than 25th since the season opening Daytona 500, the No. 82 Team Red Bull Racing Toyota driven by Scott Speed hasn’t been able to crack the Top 35. Speed and crew chief Jimmy Elledge again failed to get the car to Speed’s liking, resulting in another finish outside the top 30. While he did beat John Andretti in the finishing order 32–35, it wasn’t enough to get a guaranteed starting spot when the field goes to Michigan next week. Speed shaved nine points off of their deficit and is still 41 points out of the Top 35.

I really thought Phoenix Racing would attempt to make a serious charge at making the Top 35 after the team won at Talladega. I was wrong. No team that finishes 140 laps down to Dexter Bean is going to make a serious run at anything. The team’s No. 09 Dodge driven by Sterling Marlin this past Sunday finished just 63 laps before retiring with a fuel-pump issue and was credited with a 39th-place finish.

The Ugly

Dave Blaney in the No. 66 Prism Motorsports Toyota won the leapfrog battle amongst the start-and-park teams last Sunday. Blaney and the NEMCO Motorsports No. 87 Toyota driven by Joe Nemechek both parked and came back out with Blaney completing one more lap then Nemechek. David Gilliland had a heartbreaking run as his ignition quit while clinging to the 42nd position with just 166 laps left and Patrick Carpentier brought up the rear in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 Toyota.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR heads out to Michigan next week and that is just music to the ears of Ragan. In two events at the Michigan International Speedway Ragan had a June run consisting of a 13th-place starting spot and an eighth-place finish, and followed it up in August with a 16th-place qualifying effort and a third-place finish. Also looking forward to next weekend would be Menard. While qualifying was a bit sketchy he managed to put up a finishing average of 18th. And of course the start-and-park crew will fill up the 40th-place spots, Gilliland and Speed will be 36th to 39th, and Andretti will wind up in 35th and manage to hang onto the last guaranteed starting spot for another week.

So there you have it, your bubble breakdown for the Pocono 500. Check back next week to see how your favorite bubble dwellers fared at Michigan and don’t forget to check out the newsletter on Friday to see the head to head picks between Philip Allaway and myself. Until next Monday, so long from the bubble.