Talladega. The name itself sends chills down the spines of many NASCAR fans, as the track is remembered as much for its horrific wrecks as its exciting finishes. Whether it be Ken Schrader’s barrel roll in 1995’s Diehard 500, or 1993 which featured not only Neil Bonnett’s airborne adventure into the catchfence, but maybe the most memorable of all Talladega wrecks, Rusty Wallace’s flipping barrel roll across the start finish line.
Whatever memory ‘Dega conjures for the fans, it’s certain that while Halloween was on Saturday, the scariest part of the weekend for NASCAR’s 43 drivers was Sunday afternoon. For the teams outside the Top 35, the race poses a tricky mix of having to get a good finish to maintain a chance to race their way into a guaranteed starting spot with driving a smart enough race to actually finish. And of course, a good deal of luck is needed also. So read on to see which of our bubble drivers had lady luck smiling down on them last Sunday and which ones were not so lucky, becoming victims of Talladega’s legendary Big One.
Focusing on the Bubble
John Andretti did exactly what he had to do, almost. The Front Row Motorsports team ran a very smart race, hanging around the back of the field to avoid any possible carnage that generally occurs around mid-pack at the big restrictor-plate events. They played the strategy game perfectly by staying out to lead a lap under green during pit stops and pick up five bonus points while watching Scott Speed race in harm’s way trying to get every position he could as he attempts to catch the No. 34 team. And while running in the back, they were able to drive through the five-car wreck that happened with just a few laps to go and were running in the top 10 on the final restart.
It was perfect, except for the fact they didn’t have enough gas to get to the end. Coming to the green, Andretti’s No. 34 Chevrolet sputtered and he pulled high and out of line to let the field go by as his gas tank ran dry. He did manage to get the car around and finish on the lead lap, albeit in the 23rd position. It was made even better when coming to the checkered flag, the No. 82 Red Bull Racing Toyota driven by Speed was involved in a wreck, relegating that team to the 27th spot. The result was Andretti extending his lead over Speed to 135 points with just three races to go.
Around the Bubble
Yates Racing No. 98 Ford Fusion driven by Paul Menard/NEMCO Motorsports No. 87 Toyota driven by Joe Nemechek: So much for my prediction from last week. After proclaiming strong runs from these two teams, they managed to get tangled up just four laps into the race, ending their days in 42nd and 43rd positions.
TRG Motorsports No. 71 Chevrolet driven by Bobby Labonte: What a nice run for this team. With the possibility of teams folding, perhaps they can yet find themselves in the Top 35 when Daytona rolls around in February. Labonte never led, but did get as high as second several times in the first third of the race. The veteran driver then faded a bit as the racing got dicey, but made his move back to the front late and was able to avoid the two late wrecks on the way to his first top-10 finish with TRG Motorsports.
“They’re gonna wreck here in a minute so hang on.” – No. 34 team spotter
“Hey tell Marcos he has damage to the rear of his car and if he lets me by the two of us could probably go faster.” – Michael Waltrip
“This is gonna put us in our window so be sure and pack her full of fuel. And we’re gonna come in with one to go to top off. No wait, we’ll just come in with one to go that way we don’t get nothing tore up in the pits.” – No. 34 crew chief Steven Lane
“Uh, look out, big crash ahead of ya.” – No. 55 team spotter
“I think we’re out guys, yeah we’re out.” – No. 34 team spotter on lap 189
“Yeah guys I am fine but they gotta get me outta here I gotta (explicative) like a race horse.” – Ryan Newman sitting upside down in his race car. I know he’s not a bubble driver but I found it amusing and with spotters dominating the radio during the race the chatter is a little thin this week.
Who’s In and Who’s Out
Despite the 10th-place finish posted by Labonte, TRG has been eliminated from Top 35 contention this year. This means the only driver able to still race their way in is the No. 82 of Speed. Locking themselves into the Top 35 last Sunday were the Nos. 26, 19, 12, 77, 43 and 6. The No. 26 team will be shut down to comply with NASCAR’s four-team cap, thus those owner points will be available to the highest bidder pending NASCAR approval.
What to Expect at Texas
NASCAR moves from one big fast track to another when they head to Texas Motor speedway next week. Menard is looking very forward to it and so is Andretti. Menard had one of his best weekends at Texas last time around as the No. 98 Ford Fusion qualified in the top five and posted a 13th-place finish. Andretti likes it for two reasons. One is his No. 34 FRM team ran a solid race and came home in the 26th spot in the spring. The other is that Speed, the driver chasing him for the 35th position in the owner standings, didn’t make the race back in April. In his only other race at Texas, Speed posted just a 33rd-place finish, meaning the team is now going to really need to pull the rabbit out of the hat if they are going to catch Andretti this year.
So there you have it, another Bubble Breakdown. Tune in next Monday to see if Andretti can not only pretty much seal the deal with the Top 35, but also make up the now just 50 points he’s behind Robby Gordon for the 34th spot. And don’t forget to check out Friday’s newsletter and the head-to-head bubble picks. So until next Monday, so long from the bubble!