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Bubble Breakdown: Fuel Mileage Plays Into the Hands of a Trio of Bubble Teams

Fuel mileage was again the name of the game for the second week in a row this past Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. As some of the top-15 teams dried up late and faded, three of our bubble teams were able to surge ahead as they went into conservation mode soon enough to stretch their gas tanks to the checkered flag. Which trio was able to ride it out to the finish? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

The Good

David Ragan once again got the big run he needed at Michigan. Ragan, whose worst career finish at the track is 21st, played the fuel-mileage game a little better than his teammate Greg Biffle and came home in the 15th position. Ragan qualified his Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion in the 23rd spot and ran right around mid-pack most of the day. But with about 15 laps to go, crew chief Jimmy Fennig started preaching that fuel mileage was going to be the name of the game, and if Ragan could save him some gas they could manage to get a good finish. His big break came within the last two laps as several drivers ran out of gas, allowing Ragan to pick up several positions for just his third top 15 of the year.

How good is it to see Bill Elliott and the Wood Brothers finishing in the 16th position?! Elliott followed up his 15th-place run in the Coca-Cola 600 with another strong finish in last Sunday’s Lifelock 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Perhaps the start-and-park teams should take a page out of the Wood Brothers playbook, as running a limited schedule has produced finishes of 23rd or better in three of the team’s five events. Awesome Bill from Dawsonville started in the 15th spot and like Ragan ran mid-pack all day, picking up several spots late as other drivers’ fuel tanks ran dry. While the team won’t make a run at getting into the Top 35, their second straight strong run is definitely worth noting.

Immediately upon exiting pit road after the team’s final pit stop, Robby Gordon came over the radio and starting talking fuel conservation. Crew chief Kirk Almquist radioed back that they should have enough, but it may be a good idea to save some. That idea allowed Gordon to pick up several positions as drivers ran out of gas – without his own team being one of them. Gordon already had his No. 7 Toyota running solidly in the 20th spot with just a handful of laps left, and moved up three more positions as several frontrunners’ gas tanks ran dry. The run breaks a two-race streak where he finished 31st and 33rd, and should provide momentum heading to one of Robby’s strongest races – the road course at Sonoma.

The Bad

Just between us, I expected Roger Penske’s No. 12 Dodge to be back on the bubble much sooner than now. But after seven straight races without a finish better than 22nd, David Stremme has finally fallen to the back of the standings. On lap 147, Stremme’s car broke loose and slid towards pit road, hitting the water barrels that protect drivers from the outside pit wall. The damage was substantial and sent Stremme to the garage for major repairs, relegating him to a 38th-place finish. Stremme’s team falls to 31st in the owner standings but is in no danger of falling out of the Top 35 as they’re more than 300 points up on 36th.

Team Red Bull Racing’s No. 82 Toyota driven by Scott Speed again performed poorly and shows no signs of being able to break into the Top 35. Scott spent time in the garage after coming in on lap 126 and was able to return… but was never competitive. The team finished 37th, 26 laps down, and remains in the 36th position in the owner standings. With the poor finish, the gap to 35th grew from 41 to 53 points.

Paul Menard had been looking forward to Michigan, having run well there historically. But things went wrong right away in Michigan, as Menard was only able to qualify the Yates No. 98 Ford Fusion 38th on Friday and never really got better throughout the weekend. The team fought the handling on Menard’s car all race long and never got it right in one of their worst runs all year. Paul eventually finished in the 34th position, three laps down to race winner Mark Martin.

The Ugly

Perhaps I should call this section The Shameful. Once again, the start and park cars take up the last few positions as James Finch’s No. 09 Dodge, NEMCO Motorsports’ No. 87 Toyota, and the No. 37 Chevrolet of Front Row Motorsports swept the 41st through 43rd positions. Hopefully, rain doesn’t wash out qualifying next week at Sonoma and there are actually 43 cars who intend to run the whole race.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR heads out west to the road course in Sonoma, Calif. next weekend which is not good news for the bubble teams. With the road-course events come the road-course “ringers,” drivers who undoubtedly will take up some of the starting spots that are available to those who qualify based on speed. Looking into my crystal ball, though, I find one owner/driver in particular you have to root for. Of course, you have to like Robby Gordon at the road courses, as he has finished in the top five in nine of his 21 career starts – including sweeping both road course races in 2003. As far as who is going to struggle, Menard has never finished in the top 10, and his career average finish at the races where you have to turn both directions is 28th. Also, look for Speed to have a tough time, as he has never even driven at a road course in a NASCAR Sprint Cup event.

So, that’s your Bubble Breakdown for the Lifelock 400 from Michigan. Be sure to check in next week to see if the road-course specialists wreak havoc upon our bubble teams, or if the bubble dwellers step up and make a good showing in California’s wine country. Also, don’t forget to look for my head-to-head bubble picks with Phil Allaway in Friday’s Frontstretch newsletter, where we go at it to predict the best bets to break through each weekend out of the teams listed towards the back end of the Top 35 in owner points.

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

2009 Bubble Chart After Michigan

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Richard Petty Motorsports 44 AJ Allmendinger 1,321 +261
32 Penske Racing 12 David Stremme 1,316 +256
33 Yates Racing 98 Paul Menard 1,237 +177
34 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,216 +156
35 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 1,060 0
36 Team Red Bull 82 Scott Speed 1,007 -53
37 TRG Motorsports 71 David Gilliland 999 -143
38 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 739 -276
39 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 734 -326
40 Phoenix Racing 09 Mike Bliss 696 -364
41 Prism Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney 664 -396
42 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Mike Skinner 647 -413

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