NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Lucky Breaks & Perfect Pit Strategy Boost Andretti, Hurt Speed

In an effort to draw a bigger crowd, NASCAR moved Fontana’s date from the hot August Labor Day holiday weekend, when people may have other things to do, to a much cooler holiday-free one in October (unless you still get Columbus Day off) AND made it the fourth race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup. But while I never saw a blimp shot of the crowd, I did see a lot of empty seats at the end of the frontstretch, proving the old adage that if you put a dress on a pig… you still have a pig.

Yet when the checkered flag flew, John Andretti was as happy as a pig in mud, as he posted his first top 10 since the rain-shortened event at New Hampshire back in early summer. To see why he extended his lead over Scott Speed and how some of our other bubble dwellers fared, read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

Focusing on the Bubble

The battle between David and Goliath for the 35th spot in the owner standings is drawing to a close, with Andretti and Front Row Motorsports holding off Team Red Bull and its megabucks multi-car racing operation. Don’t let the Taco Bell paint scheme fool you, it’s only on there because team owner Bob Jenkins owns several of the stores, not because the Bell is throwing any pesos at the team. The battle at Fontana went back and forth, with John ahead of Scott 27th to 31st by lap 75. The next 75 laps continued with a flip-flopping battle, with the drivers sitting 22nd for Speed and 31st, a lap down, for Andretti heading into the race’s second half.

But it was a late call by FRM crew chief Steven Lane that gave John the win for the week. Lane called for Andretti to stay out as long as possible during a long green-flag run, hoping for a caution to pit under yellow. They stayed out so long that when a caution flag finally waved, the team thought they were going to run out of gas. Yet not only did their fuel tank hold up, they had risen to eighth place at the time of the caution and actually got an extended TV mention by the ESPN crew. The move also put the No. 34 back on the lead lap, allowing the team to gain several spots by avoiding wrecks late and post a very nice 19th-place finish, keeping a 122-point cushion over Speed.

But it wouldn’t be the dagger through the heart of TRB. Scott Speed held on to a loose car all afternoon and also dodged the late race wrecks. The trouble was he couldn’t get himself into the Lucky Dog position when the cautions flew, thus keeping him within sight of Andretti but never able to pass him. Speed and his TRB team also posted a good run, coming home in 21st, but it’s another battle lost in a war that’s quickly winding down.

Around the Bubble

Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 driven by Michael Waltrip: Mikey’s team showed some signs of life out west last Sunday, driving from his 34th-place starting spot up to the 17th position. It wasn’t easy for Team NAPA, as they had all sorts of issues from no front grip in the car to faulty gauges. But Waltrip gutted it out, drove through the center of a big wreck at the end, and got the team’s best finish since the June race at Pocono.

Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 Chevrolet driven by Regan Smith: This race was a late addition to FRR’s schedule. Since the team has announced it intends to run a full schedule next year, it decided to add this track… and for good reason. It’s one of the first five races in 2010, and the team obviously wants to be inside the Top 35 in points when the locked in drivers switched to the 2010 owner standings after Bristol in March. So call it an unofficial test session if you will … but I am not really sure how good their notes will be as the team ran around in the 30s most of the race. Like our other mentioned bubble drivers, though, Smith dodged the wrecks and picked up several spots late to finish 28th, albeit three laps down.

Who’s in and 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 six races to go and a maximum of 161 points to be gained a race, that means a team could make up 966 points by the end of the year. So, a team has to have a minimum of 1,305 points to be able to catch FRM. Eliminated this week is the No. 36 Toyota of Tommy Baldwin Racing, the No. 66 Toyota of PRISM Motorsports and the part-time FRR No. 78 team. Conversely, Speed could compile a total of 3,115 owner points; thus, the Richard Childress Racing Nos. 31 and 07 are now guaranteed to finish in the Top 35 in the owner standings this year.

Bubble Chatter

“Ya got a pretty good car, and I think we can get ourselves a top 25 out of this today.” – No. 34 crew chief to John Andretti on lap 61

“I’m showing no oil pressure.”
“Do you have it when you rev it?”
“I said I have NO oil pressure.”
“Hit the gauge reset.”
“I did. Three times! Either the engine is blowed up or we got a bad gauge.”
– Exchange between Michael Waltrip and his crew chief on lap 82 in the pits

“That’s Gilligan in the 18 car, just so you know.” – Michael Waltrip’s crew chief on lap 93

“Maybe we could try a thunder special.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s when you are gonna start last, so you lag behind then hit it so that when you hit the line, you are already at full speed.”
– Exchange between John Andretti and his crew chief on lap 195

“Are we on the lead lap?”
“Yeah, we’re in eighth, but you’re gonna run out of gas any second now.” – Exchange between Andretti and crew chief on lap 235

“I’m over here on the backstretch! I finally missed one.” – Michael Waltrip to spotter after spotter couldn’t find Mikey after big wreck on lap 244

What to expect at Lowe’s

It’s a little tough to make predictions based on NASCAR’s last trip to Lowe’s Motor Speedway, because back in May the race was called just past the halfway point because of rain. While that was great news for Robby Gordon who was sitting in third, it wasn’t such good news for Paul Menard, who was running 29th. So next week, barring any weather interference, I think we can count on Waltrip and Speed both posting top-25 finishes based on their career averages at that track. Also look for Bill Elliott to post a top 20, as they have run well in the races they have run and Charlotte is one of Awesome Bill’s favorite tracks.

On the flip side, Menard has historically struggled at next week’s venue and Andretti hasn’t run there in a year (Remember, Tony Raines sat in for him as he participated in the Indianapolis 500 run earlier that day). Both will be hard-pressed to crack the top 30 based on my crystal ball.

So there you have it, another Bubble Breakdown. Check back next week to see if Speed makes a final push to get into the Top 35 or if Andretti can tighten his grip on the 35th place in the owner standings. And don’t forget to check out the head-to-head picks in the Frontstretch Newsletter as I have pulled to within two points of Phil. So, until next Monday, so long from the bubble!

2009 Bubble Chart After California

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Hall of Fame/Yates Racing 96 Bobby Labonte/Erik Darnell 2,591 +320
32 Yates Racing 98 Paul Menard 2,529 +258
33 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 2,510 +239
34 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 2,368 +97
35 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 2,271 0
36 Team Red Bull 82 Scott Speed 2,149 -122
37 TRG Motorsports 71 Various Drivers 1,753 -518
38 Phoenix Racing 09 Various Drivers 1,571 -700
39 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 1,380 -891
40 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,291 -980
41 Prism Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney 1,234 -1,037
42 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Various Drivers 1,205 -1,066

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