Well, it’s that time of year where we look back at the first half of 2009 and grade our bubble teams. Keep in mind this report card is aimed at a specific subset inside the Cup garage – those in and around the cutoff for the 35 “locked-in” spots the series gives out each week – and not the entire 43-car field. With that in mind, read on to see which of these struggling teams are actually overachieving with limited resources, as well as which ones are falling short of expectations as we take a closer look at the cars on the bubble 19 races into the season.
31st: Roush-Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford Fusion driven by David Ragan. Talk about a big surprise to start things off. After finishing a career-high 13th in points last season, Ragan was expected to compete for the Chase in 2009, not cling to a guaranteed starting spot in the back half of the standings. He has just two top-10 qualifying runs so far this year, and his lone top-10 finish came in the season-opening Daytona 500. Instead, he’s suffered through a series of disastrous runs, starting outside the top 30 nine times and collecting five finishes worse than 33rd. For a team with the resources, teammates, and expectations like this one has, the year has turned into nothing short of a disaster.
2009 first-half grade: D
32nd: Penske Championship Racing’s No. 12 Dodge driven by David Stremme. Stremme is a lot like Paul Menard without the family-owned sponsorship backing. He has these spurts during the year where he looks good and you keep him around… only to watch the guy fall apart in the long run. In the season’s first eight races, Stremme had no top 10s but only one finish worse than 23rd. Not too shabby. But in the last 11 races, he has just two top 25s, seven finishes of 30th or worse, and a number of torn-up racecars. That is very shabby. With the improvement of the other two Penske cars in 2009, it seems the organization isn’t the problem here. Maybe with time, Stremme will improve the way teammate Sam Hornish Jr. has over at the No. 77; but for now, we’re grading the present.
2009 first-half grade: C-
33rd: Yates Racing’s No. 98 Ford Fusion driven by Menard. Menard began 2009 with a guaranteed starting spot, lost it, and then was able to drive his way back into the Top 35 until stalling out in 33rd position. A five-race stint midway through the first half where he posted four top-25 finishes has been the high point for a team that expected much more. Instead, they’ve underachieved as Menard has yet to even score a top 10 in his first year with this organization. How bad has it gotten over at Ford’s former powerhouse? The legendary Yates horsepower hasn’t even been working for Team Menard in ’09, as they have qualified 19th and 24th at the first two restrictor-plate tracks, places where Doug Yates is used to seeing his cars on the front row even in the worst of times. The slump is so bad, there are rumors Yates is even going to clean house at both its teams and add a new stable of drivers in 2010. That’s a giant step backward from 2008 and definitely not what the team envisioned when they rolled into Daytona with millions in new sponsorship money back in February.
2009 first-half grade: C
34th: Robby Gordon Motorsports’ No. 7 Toyota driven by Robby Gordon. This is another team that hasn’t been able to run like they expected to. The difference here from everyone else is that, as driver/owner, the blame falls squarely on Gordon’s shoulders for the car’s failure to compete. Unable to duplicate their 2008 success at the restrictor-plate tracks as well as struggling at the road course at Infineon – where the No. 7 usually excels – has sentenced this team to the back of the standings. RGM’s top qualifying run is a 12th place effort, and they have posted just two top-15 finishes to date. Now, it’s true that Robby has had some good runs ruined by a pit crew that at times resembles the three stooges. But as the owner, Gordon himself has the power to change that and hasn’t. Listening to his radio has revealed to me, though, this man is a better driver than a lot of people think, and as a driver, he gets a B grade for the first half of 2009. But as an owner who hasn’t made the necessary changes on pit road needed to reach the team’s full potential… he gets an F.
35th: Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 Chevrolet driven by John Andretti and Tony Raines. If you told me back in February that this team would be in the Top 35 at this point, I would have thought you were nuts. But with several teams folding, Andretti has been able to keep this underdog organization in the Top 35 despite struggling to run anywhere close to the front. The team has just one top-20 start and three top-25 finishes, with one of those by substitute driver Raines. However, the key to their success has been running at the finish of all but one race, enabling them to post results in the 27th- to 32nd-place range while maintaining the 35th position in the owner standings. Based on the fact that this is a small budget team which has managed to stay in the Top 35, I am giving them a B- for the first half of 2009.
36th: Team Red Bull Racing’s No. 82 Toyota driven by Scott Speed. There’s way too much inconsistency for this team out of the Red Bull Racing stable. They looked good in their seven top-20 qualifying runs; but in a roller-coaster season, they have also qualified outside the top 30 several times and missed three races. How up-and-down has it been for this group persevering through Speed’s rookie season? They sandwiched a fifth-place finish between a 34th and a 33rd, followed a 21st with a 35th and an 18th with a 37th. Considering FRM has proven incapable of running anywhere close to the front, there is no reason a multi-car team with Toyota money and support should have one of their entries outside the Top 35. It isn’t too late to make a move… but they have to make it now.
2009 first-half grade: D
37th: TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 Chevrolet driven by David Gilliland. This team has gone from a feel good story at the beginning of the year to an “oh, by the way” team for the last dozen races. After missing the Daytona 500, Gilliland slid behind the cockpit and drove the car into the Top 35, even holding down that spot for a few weeks. But when the wheels fell off, they really fell off, even relegating the car to a few start and park runs when there was no sponsor money for some races. Through it all, Gilliland has soldiered through without complaining and made the most of the opportunity he has been given. In fact, for such a sterling effort rumor has it Joe Gibbs is trying to put together a four-race opportunity for him in a fourth car at the end of the season. Because this is a new, one-car team with few resources that has been able to get into every race but one, we’ll give them a C- for the first half of 2009.
38th: Phoenix Racing’s No. 09 Dodge/Chevrolet driven by Mike Bliss, Sterling Marlin, Ron Fellows and Brad Keselowski. I honestly have no idea what’s going on with this team. The best finish Bliss or Marlin have managed is 37th, while Fellows, in his one start behind the wheel, posted a 27th place at Sonoma. However, when Keselowski’s been in the car, he’s wheeled a Hendrick-made chassis to two top 10s in three starts – including his impressive upset win at Talladega. Keselowski is scheduled to run five more races and Fellows is slated to pilot the car at Watkins Glen, so a run at the Top 35 isn’t out of the question if they can avoid the start-and-park scenario on weeks Bliss or Marlin take turns behind the wheel. It’s almost impossible to give one grade to a team with such a driver merry-go-round, but by virtue of the win at ‘Dega and sitting in 38th despite missing the first three races and four overall, I’m going to give them a C-.
39th: Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 driven by Regan Smith. A part-time team that’s getting big-time results as one of the feel-good stories of 2009. By picking and choosing their races, Furniture Row Racing has posted six top-25 finishes in the 10 races they’ve attempted – all of which they have qualified for on time. Not only that, but Regan has finished each of those events, with the team completing all but 10 laps in the races they have chosen to run. By being so well-prepared and running competitively every time they’re at the track, this group earns an A for the first half of their 2009 season.
What to expect at Indy
Getting into the Brickyard 400 is going to be tough, as there will be a higher than average number of entrants due to the large purse available. Furniture Row Racing and the Wood Brothers both are scheduled to attempt to qualify, as well as the part-time No. 13 team driven by Max Papis. Also, John Carter’s No. 08 will attempt a limited schedule of at least six races beginning at Indy. No entry list is available yet, but Terry Labonte was announced to drive the car, which would give them the benefit of a champion’s provisional if needed.
So, who among the bubble drivers will succeed during the latest trip to Indianapolis? Based on this year’s results, expect both Bill Elliott and Smith to make the race and run well with their respective teams. Meanwhile, Ragan posted a 14th-place run at the Brickyard last year, and Gordon has a pair of top 10s here to go along with a career average finish of 24th. Historically, Menard has struggled here (Average Finish: 30.5) and expect him to do so again. Meanwhile, among the start-and-park crowd don’t expect Tommy Baldwin Racing and Prism Motorsports to see any on-track action after failing to qualify. Instead, look for Finch Racing’s No. 09 (without Keselowski) along with NEMCO and TRG to round out the back end of the field.
So, there’s your bubble review for the first half of 2009. Check back next week to see if Andretti’s No. 34 Front Row team can maintain their spot, or if someone finally steps up and begins to mount a serious challenge to unseat them inside the top 35. And don’t forget to check out Friday’s newsletter for the head-to-head spoiler picks to see which bubble drivers fellow writer Phil Allaway and I will pick to be the cream of the crop for Sunday’s race.
Until next Monday… so long from the bubble!
2009 Bubble Chart After Chicagoland
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|31||Roush Fenway Racing||6||David Ragan||1,708||+300|
|32||Penske Racing||12||David Stremme||1,584||+176|
|33||Yates Racing||98||Paul Menard||1,562||+154|
|34||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||1,529||+121|
|35||Front Row Motorsports||34||John Andretti||1,408||0|
|36||Team Red Bull||82||Scott Speed||1,218||-190|
|37||TRG Motorsports||71||David Gilliland||1,089||-319|
|38||Phoenix Racing||09||Brad Keselowski||1,062||-346|
|39||Furniture Row Racing||78||Regan Smith||943||-465|
|40||NEMCO Motorsports||87||Joe Nemechek||922||-486|
|41||Prism Motorsports||66||Dave Blaney||806||-602|
|42||Tommy Baldwin Racing||36||Mike Skinner||786||-622|