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Bubble Breakdown: Paul Menard Spins Out Early While John Andretti Runs Dry Late

Well, it didn’t take long for the bubble teams to find trouble at Kansas. A lap 7 spin by Paul Menard collected several cars, ending the day for one backmarker while ruining it for another. Meanwhile, the head-to-head duel came down to the last few laps between John Andretti and Scott Speed, with one driver’s team miscalculating their fuel mileage and running dry with two laps to go. So to see where everyone sits after Sunday’s race and how the drama played out, read on in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

Focusing on the Bubble

I can only wonder what Speed would give to have his qualifying lap at Infineon back. Sitting comfortably in the top 10, he overdrove the second-to-last turn and went off course, resulting in the team missing the race. While there was no guarantee of a good finish back then, the car was obviously good and the team now so desperately needs those points to make the Top 35. A mere 30th-place finish is worth 73 points, for example, which would have cut the team’s deficit heading into Kansas from 124 to just 49….

Anyways, once again Speed put his No. 82 Team Red Bull machine well ahead of Andretti’s No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Chevrolet on Friday by starting a whopping 30 spots ahead of John. But the advantage was short-lived, as it is most races, when Speed began complaining of a loose car that was difficult to drive. As Speed continued to slide back, Andretti was picking up spots due to attrition. An early wreck put two cars in the garage for repairs, and then the start and park teams got to the parking part and that again helped Andretti’s cause. Eventually, Speed’s team did get the car “very drivable” for Scott, and on the team’s last pit stop they packed enough fuel in the car to allow him to finally drive hard to the finish. And drive hard he did, keeping the car just one lap down and posting a 27th-place effort.

Meanwhile, Andretti also fought a loose car, complaining about sliding the turns and not being able to get on the gas as soon as he wanted to. The team fought hard all day trying to get the car to John’s liking, while making a decision to stay out to lead a lap during pit stops and get the five bonus points for doing so. It all looked like it was going to play out well, as they sat 28th with just four laps to go, right behind Speed. However, with three laps left the engine coughed and the fuel pressure gauge fell to zero. Having to pit under green, the mistake cost them several positions, eventually causing the No. 34 to wind up in 33rd. So instead of finishing one spot behind Speed and gaining two points because of the bonus, Andretti lost 13 points for his No. 34 team as they try and hold off the No. 82. They two teams head to Fontana next week with Front Row still holding a 111-point advantage.

Around the Bubble

Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 NAPA Toyota driven by Michael Waltrip: Waltrip’s hopes of a solid points day went away early when Menard spun in turn 2 on lap 7, collecting the bubble teams of his No. 55, TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 driven by Bobby Labonte this week, and the No. 6 of David Ragan. Labonte went to the garage, never to be seen again, and Waltrip’s trip behind the wall lasted almost 80 laps in his own right. By the finish, he had knocked off just the three start-and-park spots and got ahead of Matt Kenseth, who suffered an engine problem, to post a 38th place result.

Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 Ford Fusion driven by Bill Elliott: Again, the Wood Brothers get kudos as they posted their fourth top-20 finish in nine races they have entered this season. Bill had a great qualifying effort, starting 16th, but struggled a bit in the first third of the race, falling as far back as 31st on lap 75. Still, the team stuck to their game plan, threw in a two-tire pit stop for some track position, and drove all the way back to finish in 19th.

Bubble Chatter

“Do you need us to snug you up some?” “(Very sarcastically) Uh, yeah!” – Menard to his crew chief after causing a multi-car wreck on lap 7

“When these tires get heat in them, they’re terrible; I can’t get off the corner at all.” – Speed to his crew chief on lap 23

“Damn good lap times there, you’re three tenths faster than the leader.” – Elliott’s spotter on lap 27

“They’re drivin’ ahead of ya like they want another caution.” – Robby Gordon’s spotter on lap 140

“He’s beating me by half a second a lap?”
“10-4.”
“Holy [expletive].”
– Exchange between Robby Gordon and crew chief regarding the leader Jimmie Johnson

“I am just sliding all over the [expletive] place.” – Andretti on lap 164

“Should I be saving fuel? (Long pause) Do you guys realize I just asked a question?”
“No.”
“(Very slowly and sarcastically) Should I be saving any fuel right now?”
“No, we think we’re good ’til the end.”
Exchange between Menard and his crew chief with 10 laps to go

Who’s In & Who’s Out

This is based solely on the mathematics and not the reality that no bubble team is going to win all the remaining races and also lead the most laps. With a team able to gain 161 points a race and with seven races to go, that means a team can gain 1,127 points. So assuming Andretti finishes 43rd every week for the rest of the year AND all the bubble teams ahead of them fail to qualify, everyone from 42nd-place Tommy Baldwin Racing on up still has a chance to squeeze into a “locked-in” spot. Conversely, the most points Speed can acquire is 3,176, meaning everyone from 17th in the owner standings on up can breathe a sigh of relief. They can finish dead last every race from here on out and still be in the Top 35 heading into 2010.

What to expect at Fontana

It’s basically a long, boring race… but I digress. Waltrip needs a good finish to right the ship, and Cali is where it is gonna happen. Mikey has a history of success there, posting a 15th-place finish at the track earlier this year – and he did that after starting 42nd, so look for him to do well with the long green-flag runs so common at the 2-mile oval. Labonte also likes Fontana, and posted a 20t- place run back in the spring. However, with Labonte unhappy about bouncing between his two rides, I’d say a top 25 is more likely than a top 18 or 20. A third driver to keep your eyes on is Speed. Scott qualified ninth out west earlier this year, but eventually blew an engine and finished a disappointing 41st. He’ll easily better that with a top 25 next week.

As for who’ll struggle, expect bad days from Menard and Andretti. Both historically have had problems at this track, and finished 37th and 33rd, respectively, in their last trip out to the California coast.

So, there you have it; your Bubble Breakdown for Kansas. Check back next week to see if an underdog like Joe Nemechek begins his near-impossible run to the Top 35, or if he’s eliminated from the Chase for 2010. My money is on him getting knocked out. And don’t forget to check out the newsletter on Friday to see the head-to-head spoiler picks between me and Phil Allaway!

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

2009 Bubble Chart After Dover

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Hall of Fame/Yates Racing 96 Bobby Labonte/Erik Darnell 2,506 +346
32 Yates Racing 98 Paul Menard 2,447 +287
33 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 2,398 +238
34 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 2,319 +159
35 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 2,160 0
36 Team Red Bull 82 Scott Speed 2,049 -111
37 TRG Motorsports 71 Various Drivers 1,716 -444
38 Phoenix Racing 09 Various Drivers 1,537 -623
39 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 1,334 -826
40 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,212 -948
41 Prism Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney 1,194 -966
42 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Various Drivers 1,162 -998

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