NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Truex Terrific, Speed Surprising & Front Row Flops

The Great American Race is in the history books, but the battle for the bubble is just beginning. Already, the No. 66 of Dave Blaney (PRISM Motorsports) and the No. 09 of Aric Almirola (Phoenix Racing) have some ground to make up in 2010 after they both failed to make the big show, but what of the surprises and disappointments of the Great American Race itself? Today, we take another look at some of the full-time bubble drivers in the order of their finish in Sunday’s race.

No. 56 – Martin Truex Jr.
Car: NAPA Auto Parts Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd
Daytona 500 Finish: 6th

Despite a relatively quiet Speedweeks, Truex’s first points race for Michael Waltrip Racing was one of the biggest surprises of Sunday’s 500. Truex started 14th (alongside eventual winner Jamie McMurray) and was a fixture in the top 10 for practically the entire 500 miles. He finally took the lead for the first time with 53 laps remaining, becoming the record-setting 19th different leader of the race, and kept the car near or in front from that point on. Pushed back to the lead during the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, he pulled a hair-raising block on Kevin Harvick, narrowly averting a crash when both cars got loose. Truex fell to sixth for the second and final attempt, where he remained as the field went two- and three-wide around him, but hung on for the team’s best finish since a second at New Hampshire in June 2008.

No. 82 – Scott Speed
Car: Red Bull Toyota
Team: Team Red Bull
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th
Daytona 500 Finish: 19th

A week ago Saturday, Speed locked himself into the 500 field as one of the three fastest cars in qualifying (joining Bill Elliott and Joe Nemechek). In the second Gatorade Duel, he started sixth, and for the next 60 laps was locked in a tight battle with Mike Bliss, Casey Mears and Bobby Labonte for the final transfer spot. Despite a questionable pass below the yellow line, the sophomore thrilled his Toyota backers, as it was his ability to hold off Mears at the finish that secured Michael Waltrip the 43rd and final spot in Sunday’s field. In the race itself, Speed languished at the back of the pack until crew chief Jimmy Elledge made a gutsy late-race call. After the sixth caution, which then became the second red flag to repair the track, Speed was the only car to stay out. The move gave him the lead with 32 laps to go, although it looked unlikely he would stay there, much less have enough fuel to make it the rest of the way. However, Speed fell back no further than second until 17 laps left, when he slipped back through the field in the middle groove. Though wedged in the middle of the pack from that point on, he managed to avoid all four of the remaining wrecks to lock up a top-20 finish after having led 12 laps.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte
Car: Tax Slayer Chevrolet
Team: TRG Motorsports
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th
Daytona 500 Finish: 21st

After wadding up a car in the Budweiser Shootout and narrowly missing the inside wall when he spun in Saturday’s final practice session, Labonte hoped to keep his No. 71 intact in owner Kevin Buckler’s first Daytona 500 start. Labonte started 42nd, having fallen back on his qualifying time after battling Speed and the others in the second Duel, but was behind the wheel of the 11th-fastest car in the very practice session in which he spun. Labonte went on to keep his nose clean through the entire race – until it was crunched in on the final lap when a spinning Jeff Gordon bounced off him in the high lane. Still, 21st is a solid beginning for a team hoping to repeat its Top-35 performance in the first five races of last year.

No. 26 – Boris Said
Car: Window World Cares Ford
Team: Latitude 43 Motorsports
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 22nd
Daytona 500 Finish: 25th

Armed with added sponsorship from Sacred Power, which manifested the day after the Duels, Said and Stoddard’s “one engine for Speedweeks” plan paid off surprisingly well, rewarding the team with a finish just outside the top 20. It was a nice recovery from an awkward beginning, as the team parked their car just three laps into the second Gatorade Duel, resulting in the No. 26 being the only car to fall out of the race. That left Said with the poor track position of a 38th starting spot, putting Said smack in the middle of the lap 9 wreck caused by Brad Keselowski’s blown tire (the car suffered right-front damage that cost them a lap under green.) Said received the Lucky Dog when the next caution fell on lap 66, and he remained on the lead lap for the remainder of the event, leading lap 120 during an exchange of pit stops. Though the car suffered further damage when he rear-ended Joey Logano during the eighth caution on lap 198, the car held together for the remaining 10 laps and finished under power. However, with sponsorship questionable for Fontana and beyond, it is unclear how much farther this momentum may take them.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon
Car: Monster Energy Drink Toyota
Team: Robby Gordon Motorsports
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th
Daytona 500 Finish: 28th

The first car to make timed laps in last Saturday’s pole qualifying session, Robby could only start 34th in Sunday’s race and, despite some strong runs at Daytona in 2009, never contended for the lead. While he was able to lead lap 51 during a round of green-flag stops, the nose of his Toyota was crunched in the same final-lap fracas that claimed Labonte.

No. 37 – Travis Kvapil
Car: Extenze Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd
Daytona 500 Finish: 29th

With Jimmy “How ‘Bout Them Cowboys?!” Johnson on hand as his honorary crew chief, Kvapil and his Ford rolled off 35th between his FRM teammates John Andretti and Robert Richardson Jr. Unfortunately, besides leading lap 119, that was practically all the television showed of the Extenze machine until seven laps to go, when he lost control in the wet backstretch grass while trying to avoid a wrecking Ryan Newman and ended up backing himself into the outside wall.

No. 38 – Robert Richardson Jr.
Car: Mahindra Tractors USA Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st
Daytona 500 Finish: 31st

Like Kvapil, teammate Richardson Jr. was not in the spotlight during the 500 until he suffered some late misfortune. After starting in the 37th spot, Richardson was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Kasey Kahne lost control off turn 2 during the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. Lost in the smoke, Richardson had nowhere to go when Kahne crossed his nose, bashing in the right front of his Ford and ending his second Sprint Cup start.

No. 55 – Michael McDowell
Car: Firefly.com Vodka Toyota
Team: PRISM Motorsports
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: N/A
Daytona 500 Finish: 33rd

One of the biggest surprises in Thursday’s First Gatorade Duel, McDowell and his second PRISM Motorsports Toyota was only the 50th-fastest car in qualifying, leaving him a longshot to make the race. But where teammate Blaney failed in the second Duel, McDowell succeeded as he secured the 29th starting spot on Sunday – racing his way into the 500 with a burst of speed during the white-flag lap. His unsponsored Toyota then received eleventh-hour funding from Firefly.com Vodka, giving him the opportunity to run the entire distance in his first-ever 500 start. Unfortunately, while the team – which usually starts-and-parks – attempted to run the distance, he was hardly a factor in the race itself. Involved in the first wreck of the day on lap 8, the car limped around with damage for most of the first 250 miles. He gained back all three laps he lost on the track during a “hole-filled” second half, but still lost the lead draft immediately until a drive shaft failure forced him to pull behind the wall after completing 195 laps.

No. 34 – John Andretti
Car: Window World Cares Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th
Daytona 500 Finish: 38th

In his third consecutive Daytona 500 start for FRM, Andretti suffered a similar fate to his teammates in the Nos. 37 and 38 from his 33rd-place starting spot. As an encore to his late wreck in the Budweiser Shootout, it was Andretti who cut down a right-front tire and slapped the turn two wall on lap 118, ultimately drawing NASCAR’s attention to the now-infamous pothole in that corner. The wreck knocked Andretti out of the race, though it is not entirely clear as of this writing whether the pothole was behind it.

No. 36 – Mike Bliss
Car: Wave Energy Drink Toyota
Team: Tommy Baldwin Racing
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 40th
Daytona 500 Finish: 42nd

Another Cinderella story of Speedweeks, Bliss was not far behind Waltrip as the second-fastest car not locked in on speed during Saturday’s qualifying session. Though Bliss and owner Tommy Baldwin seemed confident their car could race their way into the 500, both faced a setback in Wednesday’s second practice session when Bliss lost control coming off turn four and collided with Logano. The wreck forced Bliss to run the same chassis that Scott Riggs raced into last year’s 500; but lo and behold, it was plenty fast enough again as Bliss managed to use it to race his way in once again and earn the 28th starting spot.

Unfortunately, though, Bliss’s luck failed him in the 500. After receiving a shunt in the rear from either Max Papis or Said during the first caution on lap 9, twisting the rear bumper of his Chevrolet, his car was finished off on lap 78 with a spin off turn 2 that sent him nose-first into the inside wall.

No. 87 – Joe Nemechek
Car: England Stove Toyota
Team: NEMCO Motorsports
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th
Daytona 500 Finish: 43rd

Another of the three cars locked into the 500 on speed, Nemechek played it safe in the First Gatorade Duel, claiming the 41st starting spot and parking teammate Jeff Fuller’s No. 97 just four laps into that same race. Nemechek was 18th fastest in the final practice session, third among the “go-or-go-homers” behind Labonte and Waltrip, and his No. 87 gained last-minute sponsorship from England Stove for the 500. The race itself, however, did not go so smoothly. On lap 66, his car broke loose in turns 3 and 4 and slammed nose-first into the outside SAFER barrier, leaving his Toyota in a smoking heap on the apron. Though Nemechek initially blamed the accident on the lapped machine of Sam Hornish Jr., who was drafting him at the time, replays confirmed that his car lost control on its own.

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