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Bubble Breakdown: Robby Gordon Clinches Spot in Top 35 as Speed, Andretti Stumble

To say it was a good news/bad news week for some of our bubble teams is an understatement. On the plus side, TRG Motorsports got a huge early Christmas present in the form of a signed contract from Bobby Labonte to drive for that team full-time in 2010. Labonte brings creditability along with a past champion’s provisional meaning that unlike 2009, this team will compete in the Daytona 500. But news wasn’t so chipper at Robby Gordon Motorsports, who announced they only have enough sponsorship for eight races in 2010. The departure of longtime sponsor Jim Beam has left a huge hole in the financing that RGM needs full-time, and Robby insists he will not turn into a start-and-park team. And if that wasn’t enough news for you, we still have a race to get into the Top 35 in the owner standings which remains unsettled. So read on to see if John Andretti and Robby Gordon could hang on to the last two spots in the top 35, or if Speed could close the gap and give himself a reasonable shot next week at Miami.

Focusing on the Bubble

With both Andretti and Speed posting better finishes over the last six races, one would have expected a similar trend to continue from these two drivers at Phoenix. Yet not only did Speed and Andretti start 37th and 42nd, respectively, but they also finished 33rd and 34th in a difficult weekend for both. Neither got off to fast starts, and both were caught up in wrecks that weren’t their faults. After a multi-car pileup made mincemeat out of his Chevrolet, Andretti spent a lot of time trying to get his car somewhat drivable – if you want to call it that. Once he was able to get back out, he was many laps down with a car he couldn’t do anything with. But despite finishing over 40 laps behind, by being able to continue he picked up five valuable spots in the race.

Speed didn’t fare much better. He also was involved in a wreck of someone else’s doing, and drove around all afternoon with stuff hanging off his car – not an ideal scenario when you’re trying to get into the Top 35 with just two races left. As a result, Scott wound up nine laps down and ahead of Andretti by just one position. So another golden opportunity for Speed to take advantage of Andretti’s bad luck officially fell by the wayside. John now leads by 114 points with one race to go, and you can pretty much start chilling the champagne at Front Row Motorsports.

Around the Bubble

TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 Chevrolet driven by Bobby Labonte: Well, the enthusiasm of the good news regarding signing Labonte for the full-time ride in 2010 was carried onto the track for a little while anyways. Running near the top 20 all race long, Labonte’s Taxslayer.com Chevrolet got caught up in a wreck when Dale Earnhardt Jr. got loose and spun, collecting a number of cars. The No. 71 suffered heavy front end damage, ending their day in 39th place.

Robby Gordon Motorsports’ No. 7 driven by Robby Gordon: While not a gem of a run, Gordon gave longtime sponsor Jim Beam a decent sendoff, recovering nicely from an early mishap to finish in the 22nd position. Robby got caught up on a restart chain-reaction wreck, like most of our bubble contenders, and had to head to pit road for repairs to the car. The team also fought track bar issues for the duration of the race; but unlike others who suffered more damage, he was able to persevere for a good finish. With Andretti and Speed both struggling at Phoenix, Gordon took full advantage by extending his point cushion and guaranteeing himself a spot in the Top 35 for 2010.

Bubble Chatter

“Well, we are the only car 41 laps down at the moment.” – No. 34 team spotter

“GO HIGH, GO HIGH! Ah they got us. Oh we’re done, yeah we’re done, Bobby just try and drive it to the hauler.” – No. 71 team spotter

“If we could work on just one thing, I’d like it to be the center of the corner off.” – Erik Darnell, driver No. 96

“This car is easier to drive without the front end.” – Michael Waltrip, driver No. 55

“How many laps we got left? 66. Why? Oh, I really gotta take a leak.” – John Andretti, driver No. 34

“This thing is like riding a pogo stick into turn 1.” – John Andretti, driver No. 34

“Forward bite is really, really bad today, we had a much better car yesterday.” – Robby Gordon, driver No. 7

Who’s In and Who’s Out

Gordon has clinched a spot in the Top 35 in the owner standings with his 22nd place finish at Phoenix. With a 114-point lead heading to Miami, Andretti’s No. 34 team needs only to finish 27th or better to clinch a spot on the grid for the first five races of 2010. A second scenario to clinch would be if Andretti were to finish 28th or 30th, as long as he leads a lap. And that’s if Speed wins the race and leads the most laps. It doesn’t look good for Team Red Bull.

What to Expect at Miami

Basically, you can expect Andretti and Gordon to run conservative races and Speed to go like hell. And of all tracks to have to do that at, this is the one that gives Speed a chance; it’s a slim one, but it is a chance. Last year in his first run at Miami, Speed qualified second and finished 16th. Scott needs another run like that and a little luck to have a chance to get into the Top 35 by race’s end. As far as our other bubble drivers, Waltrip will end his full-time driving career next week at Miami. One would think this team will put in a little extra effort to send Mikey out on a good note, so look for a top 15 from this team.

Alright, there you have it: your Bubble Breakdown for Phoenix. Check back next week for one last time in 2009 to see who gets into the top 35 and who’s left out and having to qualify on time for the first five races of 2010. Also check out Friday’s newsletter and our head to head picks one last time in 2009. Phil has won the competition this year, so at this point I’m just looking to go out on a good note.

Until next week, so long from the bubble!

2009 Bubble Chart After Phoenix

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Hall of Fame/Yates Racing 96 Erik Darnell 2,980 +313
32 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 2,955 +288
33 Yates Racing 98 Paul Menard 2,894 +227
34 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 2,744 +77
35 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 2,667 0
36 Team Red Bull 82 Scott Speed 2,553 -114
37 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 2,145 -522
38 Phoenix Racing 09 Various Drivers 1,899 -768
39 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 1,577 -1,090
40 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Various Drivers 1,465 -1,202

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