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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Despite Early Off-Road Adventure, AJ Allmendinger Posts Top-10 Finish

Had you watched qualifying on Friday, you may have been asking yourself, “why did Scott Speed have to qualify on time while John Andretti had a guaranteed spot? NASCAR’s website has Speed in the 35th spot in points and Andretti in 36th.”

The answer is simple; you were looking at the wrong standings. The Top-35 rule is based on owner points and not driver points. When Andretti sat out two races to go to Indy for the 500, Front Row Motorsports put Tony Raines in the car. Despite the fact that Speed was able to surpass Andretti in driver points, it was Raines’s efforts that kept the team ahead of Team Red Bull in the owner standings. And even though Speed raced at Infineon on Sunday, Team Red Bull didn’t accumulate those owner points – NEMCO Motorsports benefitted from his 37th-place finish.

Without further ado, here’s your Bubble Breakdown for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

The Good

The Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 44 Dodge driven by AJ Allmendinger posted a career-best road-course finish, albeit an adventurous one, by overcoming several incidents to finish in the seventh position. Allmendinger got TV time early on by going off-track on lap 10. His drive through the sand required a pit stop for tires and body damage repairs. Later, just after getting his lap back, a nudge from race leader Denny Hamlin sent him spinning again. Allmendinger gathered it up and managed to stay out of trouble for the remainder of the race. His seventh place finish gave the team a much needed boost – they had fallen all the way to 31st in the owner standings.

Michael Waltrip Racing makes a showing in this week’s ‘good’ section thanks to fill in driver Patrick Carpentier. Team owner Michael Waltrip made the decision to give his seat to the talented road-course racer for the weekend… and it paid off big. Despite a little incident on lap 106 in which Carpentier booted Casey Mears, he ran a relatively clean, steady race and ended the day with an 11th-place finish. The run was also the best for the No. 55 team since a seventh-place run at Daytona.

Rounding out the ‘Good’ section is the No. 13 GEICO-sponsored team owned by Germain Racing and led by driver Max Papis. Papis, a road-course specialist, was outstanding on Sunday, coming from the 33rd starting position all the way up to 12th place when the checkered flag flew. Papis and crew chief Peter Suspenzo worked all day to get more forward bite in the car and finally got it to his liking late in the event. The run boosts the team from 46th to 43rd in the owner standings despite running only seven races.

The Bad

Once again Robby Gordon’s finish isn’t indicative of how well he was running. His pit stop on lap 54 put him in position to run with Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne on their cycle and be there at the end with a car that was capable of winning the race. However, contrary to some of the TV commentary, Gordon had to stay out a few laps longer than Stewart – Gordon only got 3.8 miles per gallon on their first run and 3.6 mpg on the second run as opposed to the 4.0 mpg the other teams were getting. The caution flag flew right before Gordon’s intended green-flag pit stop, ending any real chance he had of winning. Restarting from the rear of the field, a dejected Gordon keyed his radio telling the crew, “Doesn’t matter we ain’t winning this thing. Don’t talk to me anymore.” If that wasn’t enough, he then got caught up in two more incidents, including the final one on lap 113 along with Mark Martin and Jeff Burton.

David Gilliland just had a bad weekend. But I will give him this; he manned up and took responsibility for the practice wreck involving Andretti that sent his primary car to the hauler. If you missed it, Gilliland ran into the back of Andretti coming off pit road and mushed the front of his car. In the post incident interview, Gilliland said he was turning on some of his blower switches and wasn’t looking where he was going. TRG Motorsports got a car from Martin Truex Jr.‘s team… and thanked them by driving into Truex halfway through the race. Gilliland was later caught up in a lap 83 incident with Sam Hornish Jr. and Boris Said that pretty much finished off any competitive racing he would do for the day. The news wasn’t all bad for TRG, as Speed failed to make the race, allowing TRG to pick up 67 points on Team Red Bull and close to within 41 points of 36th place.

Maybe Joe Nemechek is on to something. More often than not this year, the predominately start-and-park team has raced until the first caution, or less, and then quit. This strategy has netted the team an average finish this season of 38th place. Before this weekend’s race at Infineon, NEMCO Motorsports made a deal with TRB to put their driver, Speed, in the No. 87 Toyota and their pit crew behind the wall. The result was Speed driving around all afternoon and finishing 37th – one position higher than Nemechek’s average. Speed managed to lead the race for a short stint by staying out when most other teams pitted on lap 77. He then had to pit on lap 81 after contact with the No. 20 car and spun on lap 108, ending his day. On the bright side, a start-and-park on Sunday would have netted the team a 41st-place finish.

The Ugly

Team Red Bull’s No. 82 Toyota driven by Speed had a great qualifying run going… right up until turn 10. Speed overdrove the corner and went into the dirt, causing the Pitcommand tracker that had been bouncing from seventh to ninth place to go all the way back to 41st. He did manage to grab two positions in the last corner but it wasn’t enough. The team failed to qualify for Sunday’s race. This is especially devastating as the team sits in the 36th position in the owner standings.

Tommy Baldwin Racing had a “ringer” in the No. 36 Toyota for the weekend and picked up a sponsor that the team said would allow them to run the whole race. Unfortunately they didn’t have an engine able to get through qualifying. Brian Simo had the power plant let go heading into turn 11, in almost the same spot where Marcos Ambrose’s engine blew during practice. These incidents add fuel to the speculation as to whether or not Toyotas engine department is up to par.

And this wouldn’t be an ugly section if we didn’t mention how long one of the start-and-park teams didn’t last in the race. Prism Motorsports No. 66 Toyota driven by Dave Blaney finished in the 42nd position, completing just three laps of the event. After the drop if the green flag, Blaney fell immediately to 43rd place and drove directly to the garage without a word after just six miles. Officially, the rear end gave out.

A Look Ahead

The series moves to Loudon, N.H. next week and no one is happier than Michael Waltrip. Last year in this event, not only did the team post a season’s best second place finish, they also won the USG Improving the Finish award, EA Sports Move of the Race award, and the Dow Automotive Strategic Call of the Race award. Waltrip’s team stayed out on the track and was in the right spot when the rains came. His other appearance at Loudon in 2008 resulted in a 25th-place run. Loudon, however, isn’t good news for the rest of the bubble drivers: Allmendinger finished 43rd due to a broken oil line; Paul Menard was 29th; Robby Gordon finished 26th and Gilliland 28th. Waltrip is likely to post another top-25 finish but probably no higher than 20th. Allmendinger and Gordon will probably both be in the top 25 also as both have shown improvement in some of their 2009 runs. Assuming Gilliland’s team has enough money to run the whole race, I look for them to post a top-30 finish.

So that’s it for your Bubble Breakdown for Infineon Raceway. Check back next week to see if Speed can get his own car into the field at Loudon and cut into the margin between himself and Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 Chevrolet. And don’t forget to check out the Newsletter during the week, as Phil and I are in a tight head to head battle for our spoiler picks. So until next Monday, so long from the bubble!