Well pull up a chair kids, we had a major case of musical seats amongst some of our bubble teams that isn’t even over yet and I’m gonna try and explain it all to you. It started when Bobby Labonte who drives for Hall of Fame Racing was taken out of his ride by HoF’s “partner” Yates Racing and replaced with young Erik Darnell for seven of the last 11 races. Needless to say Labonte was none too happy. When this news broke, TRG Motorsports offered their seat to Labonte for the seven races he’d be available starting at Atlanta Sunday night. This meant their regular driver David Gilliland was out for those seven races, including Atlanta, until Bill Elliott cracked some ribs in a dirt bike accident. The Wood Brothers then tabbed Gilliland to drive their car for the weekend. Gilliland then also landed a ride next weekend driving the No. 7 Toyota for Robby Gordon Motorsports while Robby Gordon is away at an off-road event. This opens up the No. 71 ride next weekend and it will be filled by Mike Bliss, who drove the No. 09 Dodge this weekend, which next weekend will be the No. 09 Chevy driven by Brad Keselowski.
If this wasn’t confusing enough, Joe Gibbs Racing has a contractual obligation to Farm Bureau to put the No. 02 Toyota on the track with Farm Bureau as a primary sponsor. And who is gonna drive it? Gilliland. This puts David in an odd position as he’s scheduled to drive both the No. 71 and the No. 02 at Charlotte. Oh, and by the way, Labonte is still gonna drive his old No. 96 in four more races. So there it is, clear as mud. With all this you must be asking yourself how all of the drivers did in their new rides. Well to find out read on in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.
Focusing on the Bubble
Once again, Scott Speed beat John Andretti like a drum. From qualifying where Speed started 32nd and Andretti 40th, to the finishing order with Speed producing a respectable 24th-place lead-lap finish compared to Andretti’s plodding 31st, two laps down effort. While I wouldn’t call the race for the Top 35 spandex tight, the gap has been cut to less than 100 points for the first time in months. With 11 races to go, Speed is in a position where he needs to gain only nine points, about three positions a race to lock up a starting spot for the first five races of 2010. And here’s a scary thought for Andretti, in the five tracks where NASCAR has run twice this year, Speed has improved his finish in all of them. Of the 11 races remaining in 2009, nine of them are return trips to tracks they have already run in 2009.
Around the Bubble
TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 Chevrolet driven by Labonte: In less than a 24-hour span, TRG went from an also-ran team to a team with a past champion with something to prove in their driver’s seat. And Labonte did show he’s not done yet, stepping in and posting a lead lap 18th-place finish at Atlanta last Sunday night. Bobby struggled with a loose handling car as did most other drivers for the majority of the race. But adding to his problems was a push in the center of the corners that made the loose in and off condition extremely difficult to handle. But handle it he did, giving the team their best finish since February, and possibly jumpstarting a late season run for the team. While it will be difficult, they sit 356 points out of 35th, meaning they need to knock off around 33 points a week. With Andretti running about 35th every week and Labonte in the seat for at least seven races, it isn’t impossible.
Yates Racing’s No. 98 Ford driven by Paul Menard: When you’re sitting on pit road before the green flag flies to start the race, it’s usually a sign of bad things to come. However that was not the case for Menard. The problem, an unhooked sway bar, was eventually discovered and fixed before the race began and Paul spent the night moving steadily through the field. By lap 160 Menard was into the mid-20s before cracking the top 20 late in the race. The team made some final adjustments with 15 laps to go to get them up into the 15th position, their best finish since the Southern 500 14 races ago.
Penske Championship Racing’s No. 12 Dodge driven by David Stremme: Perhaps Roger Penske should have replaced Stremme several months ago. Since the story broke that Keselowski would replace Stremme next year in the No. 12 Penske Dodge, David has posted a 20th-place run at Bristol and followed it up with a very good weekend in Atlanta. After qualifying ninth, the team fell back a little bit but stayed in the top 20 all night before finally getting the handling right late allowing their driver to climb back up to the 14th spot. Their performance moves them ahead of the No. 96 Ford, which struggles with new driver Darnell into the 30th place in the owner standings.
“I got no rear grip now! Son of a Bitch what’s the deal?” – John Andretti, lap 18
“It’s getting a little crazy ahead of ya there so watch it.” – spotter to Bobby Labonte, lap 20
“Man I’m just in the way out here. What do you want me to do?”
“Just bring it to the garage and when Nemechek takes off his wing we’ll quit.”
“They’re just waiting for us to come in so they can come back out. It’s just a game being played.”
“What’s Nemechek doin’?”
“He’s sittin in his car waiting for us to come in! He’s done this before.” – conversation between Mike Bliss and his crew chief on lap 34-35
“Aw man one more lap and I had him.” – Robby Gordon on not being the lucky dog when the caution came out lap 60
“Damn it what the hell!” – Robby Gordon after once again being right behind the lucky dog spot when caution flag flies lap 81
“This is a pretty cool race here at nighttime.” Robby Gordon lap 105
“This thing is going to (explicative), loose in tight in the middle and loose off.” – Bobby Labonte on lap 162
“This is the best the car has been balanced yet.” – Scott Speed, lap 195
“What do you need us to do to the car to go like hell for the last 15 laps.” – Paul Menard’s crew chief on lap 310
“We’re a random tear down so don’t drive it directly to our hauler.” – Robby Gordon’s crew chief after the checkered flag flew
What to look for at Richmond
This is the portion of the column where I play weatherman and make several vague predictions and am only right about 30% of the time. With that in mind I feel that we’ve been friends long enough that I can be totally honest with you and say I have no idea what’s gonna happen with our bubble teams next week at Richmond. Last time out, Gordon posted a 16th-place run but he won’t be there. Gilliland, who finished 39th earlier at Richmond is going to drive his car. Everybody else on the bubble finished 30th or worse. Labonte is coming off a strong Atlanta performance, but it’s hard to say he has momentum as he goes back to his “other” ride, which didn’t do so well last week and fell to 31st in the owner’s standings. So kind of going by my gut feeling here it goes. Stremme and Speed are running well the last few weeks so let’s look for both of them to post top-25 finishes. Keselowski steps into the No. 09 Chevy and has run well in that car so we can also expect a top 20 from him. Labonte will have a rather uninspired 30th-place effort and Andretti will again come home around 31st–33rd.
So that’s it for another edition of the Bubble Breakdown. Tune in next week to see if Speed can continue to make up ground on Andretti and see who wound up driving whose cars at Richmond. And don’t forget to check out Friday’s newsletter to keep up on the head to head picks between Phil Allaway and myself. So until next Monday, so long from the bubble.