NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2010 Bubble Preview: Nerve-Wracking 1st 5 Races for the Underdogs

Editors’ Note: Brock Beard takes over the Bubble Breakdown for 2010. Look for Mike Ravesi’s writing in a new, Thursday Fantasy Racing column – right here on Frontstretch!

With qualifying out of the way and the Gatorade Duels upon us this week, it’s just a matter of days before the 2010 season officially begins. So which teams look to be spending their first five races either fighting to say inside the Top 35 – or looking to break in? Let’s start the Bubble Breakdown with a review of some of the teams on both sides of the battle:

On the Bubble

31) No. 38 – Robert Richardson Jr.

Sponsor: Mahindra Tractors USA Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
Starts 23rd in Gatorade Duel Race 1

Firmly in the Top 35 – for now – after scoring the owner points from Hall of Fame Racing’s No. 96, Front Row Motorsports’ new third team will make its debut in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Behind the wheel this week is rookie Richardson Jr., who dodged all the chaos that was last fall’s AMP Energy 500 at Talladega to finish 18th in his Sprint Cup debut. Richardson brings with him sponsorship from Mahindra Tractors, who sponsored his Talladega effort. It’ll be a short stint for him inside this car, though, as he will run just three races overall (Talladega – April, Daytona – July). The other 33 will go to David Gilliland, who runs BAM Racing’s No. 49 this week before he switches to the No. 38 at California.

32) No. 56 – Martin Truex Jr.

Car: NAPA Auto Parts Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
Starts 17th in Gatorade Duel Race 2

One of the biggest stories of the 2009 Silly Season, Truex will make his first start for Michael Waltrip Racing in Sunday’s 500. Truex moves from Earnhardt-Ganassi to take over the ride formerly occupied by owner Michael Waltrip. Waltrip’s now-limited schedule in the new No. 51 will start next Sunday – if he can race his way into the field. Waltrip and Truex changed car numbers in separate tributes: Waltrip honors the No. 15 he raced for DEI, while Truex is running the No. 56 his father ran in the Busch North Series (now K&N Pro Series East). Though Truex was unable to defend his Daytona 500 pole on Saturday, insiders seem confident that he’ll flourish this season under the guidance of crew chief Pat Tryson.

33) No. 37 – Travis Kvapil

Car: Extenze Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
Starts 24th in Gatorade Duel Race 1

When Kevin Conway, one of only two full-time rookies this season, failed to obtain approval from NASCAR to make his Sprint Cup debut in the 500, team owner Bob Jenkins moved Kvapil from his new full-season ride in the team’s No. 34 to the No. 37. Extenze, Conway’s not-so-subtle sponsor, will remain on the car. Kvapil drove three races with this team in late 2009, but with the exception of a 37th-place finish at Homestead was relegated to start-and-park status. Unlike 2009, when Kvapil locked his Yates Racing Ford into the field on speed, Kvapil was slow in practice, but may be a sleeper on Sunday with Front Row’s acquisition of Yates power. Plus, with the Top-35 spot surrendered by Paul Menard’s No. 98 (so that Menard could claim the 24th-ranked owner points from the closed No. 44 team), Conway will be guaranteed to be able to make his first four Sprint Cup starts, beginning with Fontana. Kvapil will return to the No. 34 next week; for Daytona, it’s driven by 2009 full-timer John Andretti.

34) No. 7 – Robby Gordon

Car: Monster Energy Drink Toyota
Team: Robby Gordon Motorsports
Starts 16th in Gatorade Duel Race 2

Despite a merger with the resurrected BAM Racing team during the offseason, Gordon will be running only a partial schedule in 2010 with sponsor Monster Energy. The decision was one of both necessity (having lost longtime sponsor Jim Beam) and desire (Robby plans to focus more on his racing efforts outside of NASCAR, along with a rumored return to Indy in May). While Robby will be scaling back, word is the team will not, but whether this team will remain in the Top 35 depends entirely on who else will be running the car. Expect PJ Jones, who drove for Robby last year, to be on that list; Gilliland is also rumored, but Front Row insists he’s not going anywhere but inside their cars after Daytona.

35) No. 34 – John Andretti

Car: Window World Cares Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
Starts 21st in Gatorade Duel Race 1

After all his hard work fighting to keep FRM in the top 35, Andretti will make one more start in the team’s No. 34 before turning his focus to another run at Indy. Andretti, sponsored by Window World, will make his third straight Daytona 500 on Sunday and has the benefit of extra practice from having run Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout (in which he finished 21st after a late crash with Michael Waltrip). After Daytona, Andretti will surrender the No. 34 to Kvapil, who will run with the same Long John Silver’s sponsorship that was on Front Row’s start-and-park No. 37 in 2009.

On the Outside

36) No. 82 – Scott Speed

Car: Red Bull Toyota
Team: Team Red Bull
Starts sixth in Gatorade Duel Race 2

First outside the Top 35 but one of the three cars locked into the 500 field on speed, last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up will make his second start in the Great American Race. After a difficult freshman season in which he failed to crack the Top 35, Speed’s strong qualifying run (13th) may be a sign of the No. 82 turning the corner. Speed received added help this week from Ken Schrader, who ran his car in the Budweiser Shootout. Whether or not this momentum will carry him any further this season is anybody’s guess.

37) No. 71 – Bobby Labonte

Car: Tax Slayer Chevrolet
Team: TRG Motorsports
Starts 10th in Gatorade Duel Race 2

Labonte will start Sunday’s Daytona 500 by virtue of the past champion’s provisional. Labonte enters his first full season with Kevin Buckler’s steady single-car operation with a Budweiser Shootout start of his own (18th), but limited sponsorship. Tax Slayer will adorn his Chevrolet for the 500 and 11 other races in 2010. However, a strong showing in the 500 is not entirely out of the question: driver and team scored an impressive 10th-place finish last fall at Talladega.

38) No. 09 – Aric Almirola

Car: Chevrolet
Team: Phoenix Racing
Starts 22nd in Gatorade Duel Race 2

Less than a year after the team’s Cinderella victory at Talladega, James Finch’s venerable operation has taken the proverbial two steps back. Just days before Speedweeks, sponsor Miccosukee Resorts and Gaming terminated abruptly its eight-year relationship with the No. 09, citing a change in management. Stuck in the middle of this misfortune is the luckless Almirola, who just last year had a ride shot out from under him at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. But while things may look bleak for both driver and team, their common experiences with adversity may work to their benefit. In 2001, Finch got an unsponsored car into the 500 with Jeff Purvis behind the wheel, while Almirola himself finished a strong fifth in his Gatorade Duel last season.

39) No. 87 – Joe Nemechek

Car: Toyota
Team: NEMCO Motorsports
Starts eighth in Gatorade Duel Race 1

Unlike 2009, where Nemechek came just car lengths away from edging Scott Riggs for the final transfer spot, the veteran’s “little team that could” became one of the three teams locked-in to the field on qualifying speed. Though still without a major sponsor, Nemechek has associate sponsorship from the Waverly Property Group and a teammate – 2000 Rookie of the Year candidate Jeff Fuller – whom he may try to help get into the 500 when they compete in Race 1 of the Gatorade Duels.

40) No. 36 – Mike Bliss

Car: Wave Energy Drink Chevrolet
Team: Tommy Baldwin Racing
Starts 15th in Gatorade Duel Race 2

Returning sponsorship from Wave Energy Drink, a steadfast crew chief in Kevin Buskirk and a switch to Chevrolet and Earnhardt-Childress engines may create the perfect storm for Tommy Baldwin’s upstart organization to take their efforts to the next level. Though not locked-in on speed, driver Bliss may be the catalyst toward the No. 36 racing its way into the 500 for a second straight year. After missing the show by inches in 2007 and battling through a competitive season in the Nationwide Series last year, don’t be surprised to see Bliss make some bold moves on Thursday. Baldwin will phase in a second part-time car with driver Johnny Sauter next week at Fontana, which may help the team keep collecting valuable notes through 2010.

41) No. 66 – Dave Blaney

Car: Toyota
Team: PRISM Motorsports
Starts 24th in Gatorade Duel Race 2

The leader in last-place finishes in 2009, Blaney was nevertheless an impressive qualifier with Phil Parsons’s underfunded operation as he made 30 of the 34 races he attempted. On Thursday, however, comes the ultimate test: without the sponsorship and the past champion’s provisional the No. 66 had last year with Terry Labonte, Blaney and team must race their way into the Daytona 500. Unfortunately, Blaney will have to make this attempt on his own: new teammate Michael McDowell in the No. 55 will be competing in Race 1. However, as the year unfolds, Blaney and McDowell may be able to pool sufficient resources to take their program out of the start-and-park doldrums.

In addition, here are four new teams to keep an eye on during SpeedWeeks, all of which will be participating in Race 2 of the Gatorade Duels:

No. 26 – Boris Said
Car: Window World Cares Ford
Team: Latitude 43 Motorsports
Starts 23rd in Gatorade Duel Race 2

For the first time in his career, road-race ace Said is already locked into the Top 35 in owner points coming into the Daytona 500. New team owner Bill Jenkins purchased the equipment and owner points from Jamie McMurray’s Roush Fenway ride, forming Latitude 43 Motorsports. Externally, the Latitude 43 looks ready to go: they have sponsorship for the 500 – flying the flag for Window World along with Andretti – and Said brings with him his faithful crew chief Frankie Stoddard.

Internally, things might be problematic. The team only has two cars: one good, one not so much – and they plan to run just one engine all week. It is also unclear whether the team will last beyond the first five races – further events will be added on a “wait and see” basis, and the team may start-and-park for funding starting at California. However, Said and Stoddard are no strangers to long odds, and have been consistent Daytona darkhorses since 2006. Do not be surprised if the Said Heads have more to cheer for on Sunday.

No. 49 – David Gilliland
Car: Warner Bros./Larry the Cable Guy Toyota
Team: BAM Racing
Starts 21st in Gatorade Duel Race 2

2010 marks the return of Beth Ann Morganthau’s prolific single-car operation after a nearly two-year hiatus. The team returns with Toyota power, full-time sponsorship that promotes fan involvement, and a partnership with Gordon. Starting with Fontana, Gordon will share the ride with others through the 2010 season in another perplexing case of “ride-hopping.” Though not locked in, BAM Racing has a Daytona pedigree of its own: they made every running of the 500 from 2002 through 2006 and barely missed the show in 2007 with Bliss. Gilliland, the 2007 polesitter, may be just the right match for the team’s sixth 500 start.

No. 90 – Casey Mears
Car: Chevrolet
Team: Keyed-Up Motorsports
Starts 20th in Gatorade Duel Race 2

When Jack Daniel’s left the No. 07 and Richard Childress closed the team’s shop to give the owner points to Regan Smith, Mears landed at a new start-up organization. Known as Keyed-Up Motorsports, Raymond Key’s still-unsponsored Virginia team pays homage to longtime owner Junie Donlavey. The plain white-and-blue car even bears the famous italicized No. 90 that graced the track through 863 Sprint Cup starts. Though this is the sixth different team Mears has driven for in as many years, the California native may find some needed stability with crew chief Doug Richert – if sponsorship can be found. Like Latitude 43 Motorsports, there are no clear plans to run more than the first five races. If Mears makes his way in, though, a repeat of his strong run in the 2008 Daytona 500 – minus the late-race crash – will undoubtedly aid the sponsorship hunt.

No. 92 – Mike Wallace
Car: Dodge
Team: K-Automotive Motorsports
Starts 26th in Gatorade Duel Race 2

It will be interesting to watch Brian Keselowski’s startup team this week as the Dodge they are using has been to victory lane before – in the 2008 Coca-Cola 600. While NASCAR intended the Car of Tomorrow to be capable of running at every track on the circuit, it should be interesting to see if Wallace can actually get the No. 92 competitive. Though Wallace was relegated to start-and-park status for Larry Gunselman last year, he should, if nothing else, be able to provide interesting feedback on the experience. After all, Wallace came just short of racing his way into last year’s 500 driving the first Sprint Cup car for TRG Motorsports. He also has a “teammate” to lean on – full-time Rookie of the Year candidate Terry Cook will be running the No. 46 for closely-aligned Whitney Motorsports.

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