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A Season on the Brink: 1 Final Look at the 4-Team Battle to Finish in the Top 35

Welcome, one and all, to the final bubble column of 2009, the Bubble Review. Here we’ll take a stroll down Memory Lane to reflect on the teams right around the bubble in 2009, and take a quick look ahead to 2010 and see what their future may hold.

So, without further ado, here’s this season’s bubble review:

Reviewing the Bubble

Robby Gordon Motorsports No. 7 Toyota driven by Robby Gordon: Robby Gordon‘s a great off-road racer, a good open-wheel driver… but the fact of the matter is, since becoming a NASCAR owner he’s finished just 28th, 31st and 34th twice in the owner standings. In that four years, he’s posted only three top fives and just nine top 10s, with almost all of those good runs coming at either the road courses or the restrictor plate tracks. 2009 was again a struggle, often right from the drop of the green flag, as Robby started 30th or worse in 21 of the 36 races. Poor starts led to poor finishes, as he only had five top 20s; heck, even his season best third place run at the Coca-Cola 600 could be pinned on luck, due in part to a pit-road call to stay out as the rain started. Throw in the running feud with Michael Waltrip – one which prompted Robby to say in an on-camera interview how much all the drivers were looking forward to a new driver in the No. 55 car in 2010 – and 2009 was one big headache for this race team.

One of Robby’s biggest problems was the performance of his pit crew. Listening in to his radio, I would say his crew cost him 3-5 positions in at least a dozen races through pit-road mishaps, not counting their inability to get the car tuned to Robby’s liking. Late in 2009, they replaced their crew chief with Doug Richert, an upgrade who has 25 years of NASCAR experience and 15 wins as a head wrench. But the pit box upgrade may be a moot point now, as Robby has funding for only eight races in 2010. Gordon says he will not become a start-and-park team and instead may be taking a lot of weekends off. Hopefully, he secures enough funding to run a full schedule, as despite his struggles with mediocrity the last thing NASCAR needs is another full-time team folding and being replaced with more start-and-parkers.

Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Chevrolet driven by John Andretti: Well the little team that could actually did it, beating out Team Red Bull and its massive budget with their underfunded, single-car operation to secure a spot in the top 35. A 19th place run in the season-opening Daytona 500 got the team off and running on the right foot and they plugged along from that point on, taking the season five races at a time despite Red Bull Racing breathing down their neck for the last three quarters of the year. Like Gordon, John Andretti was miserable in qualifying, starting 35th or worse in 28 of his 34 attempts this year – and starting in the hole was a major contributing factor to posting just three top-20 finishes. But what Andretti did do was take care of his equipment, finishing all but two of the races he started with a program that couldn’t afford to tear up racecars every week. In the process, he also put together enough mid-to-high 20th-place finishes to land the team in the Top 35 for 2009, which warrants a great deal of respect considering what the team had to work with.

2010 still has several question marks for FRM, though. Team owner Bob Jenkins has said the team will likely change manufacturers from Chevy, but hasn’t said to which make. They also want to add a second full-time team and have talked to Travis Kvapil, Tony Raines and David Stremme as possible drivers. Andretti isn’t under contract for 2010 and hasn’t been re-signed, but Jenkins said you won’t see across the board changes and is happy with John – so who knows? Basically, the only sure thing you will see in 2010 is the No. 34 FRM car in the first five races. But that’s still a great starting point they can build on during a critical offseason for their future.

Team Red Bull No. 82 Toyota driven by Scott Speed: One can only wonder what FRM could have accomplished with the roughly $20 million Red Bull threw at the No. 82 team. Even with all that cash, the car missed three races and finished outside the Top 35, meaning they are going to have to rely on qualifying or buying up owner points to get into the Daytona 500.

Contrary to our first two reviewed drivers, Scott Speed qualified very well, posting 14 top-20 starts – including a pair of seconds and a third. But it was the finishing that Speed couldn’t get his arms around. With the exception of a fifth at Talladega, the team struggled to complete good runs and had a number of outright horrible efforts, as eight times they failed to even finish the race.

The good news is that Speed did improve his finishes at most of the tracks with two race dates the second time around. Plus, he is still young, and has a team with minimal changes planned heading into 2010. Considering the money and talent that’s there, perhaps all he’s missing is race day patience – something that’s usually achieved through more miles of on-track experience. Considering the year Sam Hornish Jr. had in 2009, I am not about to write off TRB’s young driver as remember, Hornish struggled in his first full year before blossoming into someone with serious potential. Time will tell if Speed follows that same path – but all the key pieces are in place to do so heading to Daytona in 2010.

TRG Motorsports No. 71 Chevrolet driven by Bobby Labonte: A word to Red Bank Outfitters, Window World, Mahindra Tractors, All Sport, D3 Outfitters, Blu Frog Energy Drink, Quality Concrete and any other sponsors who threw just enough money at the start-and-park teams to get them through 20% of a race and then quit: get all yourselves together and look to put your money with this team. While TRG did finish outside the Top 35, Bobby Labonte’s guaranteed starting spot via his past champion’s provisional will get them into the first five races, and the No. 71 crew have shown that with money, the team can put together solid performances. After Mike Wallace missed the Daytona 500, David Gilliland took over the seat and drove the team into the Top 35 temporarily, making them one of the big Cinderella stories early in 2009. However, when the car fell out, the one- and two-race sponsorship deals disappeared, and team owner Kevin Buckler admittedly had to run a dozen start-and-park efforts, dooming them long before Labonte came on board late in the year.

But with the 2000 Sprint Cup champ came hope for the future, and the team posted a best ever 10th-place finish at Talladega along with several other top-25 runs. The car also ran well at Phoenix until getting caught up in someone else’s wreck while running in the top 20. Heck, when given money to race, even road-course ringer Andy Lally qualified the car 15th at Watkins Glen and was running well before getting caught up in the nasty wreck with Jeff Gordon and Hornish Jr.

Like several other teams, TRG is in negotiations with different manufacturers, so they don’t know what they will be running. All they do know at this point is that TaxSlayer.com has signed on for a 12-race primary sponsorship deal. But with a quality driver like Labonte, crew chief like Slugger Labbe and an up-and-coming owner like Kevin Buckler, TRG will in all likelihood leave the bubble behind and run in the top 25 consistently in 2010.

A Look to 2010

With at least two if not three teams folding, owner points will be up for grabs to the highest bidder, meaning several teams outside the Top 35 may be “locked in” to the Daytona 500 in February after all. And with 12 teams outside the Top 35 now announcing plans to run a full schedule, including Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 driven by Regan Smith and Germain Racing’s No. 13 with Max Papis at the helm, the competition will be fierce to break in all the way through the Bristol race in March.

So, race fans, that’s the Bubble Review for this season. Enjoy your winter of football and hockey; and come February, we’ll be back with the Bubble Preview, updating all the changes between now and then heading into Speedweeks in Daytona.

For the final time in 2009, so long from the bubble!