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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Battered John Andretti Somehow Comes Out Swinging in Bubble Battle

NASCAR returned to its short-track roots last Sunday with the running of the TUMS Fast Relief 500 in Martinsville, Va. The return to the sport’s oldest speedway was good news for some veteran drivers like Bobby Labonte, who posted a top-20 finish in this latest go-round at the paperclip. But it was bad news for others like Michael Waltrip, who demonstrated during the week he has trouble making U-turns without hitting a guy on a motorcycle before crashing out on his own during the weekend. So, by all means, read on to see if John Andretti would start putting nails in Team Red Bull’s coffin, or if Scott Speed would come through with a good run and chop into his team’s 98-point deficit in this latest edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

Focusing on the Bubble

What an up and down day for our two drivers battling for the last spot in the Top 35. Speed, with time running out in the 2009 season, desperately needed a good finish to cut into Andretti’s lead, and looked like he was going to do just that. Speed spent most of the day running in the mid-to-high 20s, fighting a tight condition on his Red Bull Racing No. 82 Toyota. But the key move came during a cycle of green-flag pit stops with less than 100 laps remaining. When a caution flew for none other than Andretti’s spin in turn 2 (more on that in a minute), the No. 82 team was the only one who hadn’t yet made their stop, putting them in seventh place on the lead lap when the yellow flew. The team then dialed the car in, falling back to change tires under that caution but still sitting 17th with as few as 25 laps remaining. It looked like the run the team needed… until Speed then attempted what looked like a banzai move going into turn 1 and lost the car, slamming hard into the wall and doing heavy damage to the back end of his racing machine. Ending his day five laps early, Speed’s top-20 car regressed to the 31st position by the checkered flag.

Andretti and his Front Row Racing No. 34 Chevrolet didn’t have much better luck, either. John also struggled with his handling, spending much of his day off the lead lap and running between 26th and 35th. Then, the field decided to start punting Andretti around Martinsville’s half-mile racetrack. Kasey Kahne got into Andretti and Sterling Marlin on lap 275, bringing out the caution although Andretti was able to stay on the lead lap. That’s when things got a little better temporarily, as Steven Lane used pit strategy to get Andretti up to fifth on a restart on lap 306. But Andretti slid back through the field to 20th and eventually was clipped by Elliott Sadler, spinning the No. 34 Chevrolet around. No damage was done. Andretti was able to continue one lap down; however, he was again wrecked on the final lap by fellow Bubble contender Paul Menard. That left Andretti with a 26th-place finish, two laps down, but more importantly added 20 points to his lead to extend it to 118 with just four races to go. If Andretti survives at Talladega next week, a top-25 finish could all but finish off Speed in the race for the Top 35.

Around the Bubble

Hall of Fame Racing’s No. 96 Ford Fusion driven by Bobby Labonte: Labonte drove like the true champion he is, finishing 13th in his final race of the season for HoF Racing. Instead of packing it in after being replaced by a younger driver who brings a sponsor with him, Labonte posted a great run for the team as they were sliding back in the standings recently. Labonte, whose career average finish at Martinsville is 17th, hung around the top 15 most of the day and stayed out of trouble for the team’s best run since a 12th-place finish in May’s Coca-Cola 600.

Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 NAPA Toyota driven by Michael Waltrip: Not a good week for Waltrip. It started after an alcohol-related traffic accident, when Waltrip pulled in front of a motorcycle and was struck in the driver’s side door. The driver admitted having two beers before the incident, and Mikey blew a .06 to fall just below North Carolina’s legal limit of .08. Then, on Friday, the team struggled in qualifying, starting way back in the 36th position at a track where they ran 13th in the spring. But Sunday was the final kick in the pants, as Mikey blew a tire just 43 laps into the event and things just got worse from there. The No. 55 team never got the front end of the car right and slogged around to finish 30th, four laps down to the leader.

Who’s In and Who’s Out

You need a minimum of 1,772 in order to be mathematically able to catch Andretti at this point, thus eliminating the James Finch No. 09 Chevrolet/Dodge entry. That’s quite a disappointment, since this team has won a race and has a pair of top 10s. On the flip side, locking themselves into the Top 35 are the Nos. 88, 44 and 1 cars, meaning everyone in the top 24 is now locked in. The No. 26 teams of Jack Roush – whose owner points may be sold off in the offseason – just needs to finish 42nd or better at Talladega (or have the No. 82 not win and lead the most laps) to lock themselves into the Top 35.

Bubble Chatter

“It’s real hard to pass here, I know you already know this but it’s real hard to pass.” – Robby Gordon to new crew chief Doug Richert

“This thing will not turn.” – Sterling Marlin

“That change didn’t really do much, still pretty tight all the way through.” – Scott Speed

“I’m gonna tell you a lot of conflicting stuff today. If I tell you to take it easy, I want you to go like hell. If I say nice and smooth, I want you to lay the bumper to somebody.”
“Oh, so it’s kind of like being married.”
“10-4, You’ve been nice to everybody all year, and this would be a good race to root a mother [expletive] outta your way who got you earlier this year.”
exchange between No. 34 team and driver Andretti

“Ah (explicative) we have a big hole in the oil tank, we’re done.” – Doug Richert, Robby Gordon’s crew chief

“Tell me you didn’t just take a spring rubber out under green.” – Michael Waltrip to his crew chief

“It’s been one of them days, boys. But it isn’t because of bad luck, it’s because the car sucks.” – Michael Waltrip

“Hell, that just saved our ass.” – Andretti’s crew chief regarding Speed’s late wreck

What to Look For at Talladega

Look for a lot of success from the bubble teams next weekend at the final restrictor-plate race of 2009. Seven of our bubble teams posted top-21 finishes earlier this season at ‘Dega, and they claimed 10 top 25s at NASCAR’s biggest track in 2008. So, who do we put our money on next week? I never in a million years thought I would say this, but mine is on Paul Menard and Joe Nemechek. I’ll give you a minute to stop laughing before I explain. For Menard, the last three trips have resulted in finishes of 13th, 14th and a second-place run. He has also qualified well with starts of 24th, 22nd and a fifth. I say a top 10 should be in the cards for Menard. As for Nemechek, in 2008 he qualified on the pole for one of the two races there and had a seventh in the other. In 2009 he started 17th, ran the whole race, and came home in the 14th position. Look for another top 20 for Nemechek next weekend.

As for the stragglers, Labonte seems to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time at Talladega. His last two trips have produced finishes of 28th and 34th with a lot of wrecked sheetmetal to go with it.

So, there you have it, your Bubble Breakdown for Martinsville. Check back next week to see if the bubble dwellers can again litter the top 20 with strong runs, including whether Speed can put a dent into Andretti’s lead with just a handful or races to go. And don’t forget to check out the newsletter for the weekend’s head-to-head picks. So until next Monday, so long from the bubble!

2009 Bubble Chart After Martinsville

PosOwnerCar #DriverPointsPoints +/- of 35th Place
31Hall of Fame/Yates Racing96Bobby Labonte/Erik Darnell2,785+369
32Yates Racing98Paul Menard2,705+289
33Michael Waltrip Racing55Michael Waltrip2,655+239
34Robby Gordon Motorsports7Robby Gordon2,493+77
35Front Row Motorsports34John Andretti2,4160
36Team Red Bull82Scott Speed2,298-118
37TRG Motorsports71Various Drivers1,895-521
38Phoenix Racing09Various Drivers1,657-759
39NEMCO Motorsports87Joe Nemechek1,463-953
40Prism Motorsports66Dave Blaney1,302-1,114
41Furniture Row Racing78Regan Smith1,291-1,125
42Tommy Baldwin Racing36Various Drivers1,276-1,140
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