With the second race of the season complete, a rough picture of the 2010 bubble is starting to take shape. Teams have just three more weeks to get their act together, which is why Sunday’s 500-miler at California was such an important step in the process. The cookie-cutter oval has very similar characteristics to the next two tracks on the schedule, Las Vegas and Atlanta, meaning teams that struggled in the Golden State will have their work cut out for them to climb out of their early hole before it’s too late.
So which big team is in the most trouble early of falling outside the Top 35? Read on to find out in the latest edition of the Bubble Breakdown:
No. 82 – Scott Speed (Finished 11th)
Car: Team Red Bull Toyota
Team: Team Red Bull
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 18th; OUT: 15th)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 36th (must Qualify On Speed Through Bristol)
This week, Speed finished best among the drivers on either side of the bubble, thanks in part to another solid qualifying run (13th). Speed remained tops among the “go-or-go home” drivers in both of Saturday’s practice sessions, too, including a 10th-fastest time in Happy Hour.
In the race, Speed was at or near the top 15 for much of the day, then made a move toward the front when threatening skies turned a 41-lap run between cautions into a go-for-broke fuel mileage race. When rain brought out the fifth yellow with 56 laps to go, Speed inherited the lead from Denny Hamlin, who was unable to stretch his fuel any further than the moment of caution. For four agonizing laps, Speed inched around the apron, struggling to keep up with the pace car while nursing his fuel. When the one lap to go signal came with 52 laps remaining, he finally dashed down pit road, losing track position but gaining fresher tires that allowed the Red Bull Toyota to work its way back up into contention. By the finish, Speed had even passed teammate (slash intermediate track ace) Brian Vickers en route to 11th in the final rundown.
It was a second straight week of excellent pit strategy by Elledge, whose off sequence pitting left Speed with an outside chance to win at Daytona. Now, if this duo can find similar magic on the next two intermediate tracks and survive Bristol, a Top-35 spot – if not a top 20 – is a very real possibility.
No. 36 – Mike Bliss (Finished 22nd)
Car: Wave Energy Drink Chevrolet
Team: Tommy Baldwin Racing
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 42nd; OUT: 35th)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 41st (Must Qualify On Speed Through Bristol)
One week after a costly pair of wrecks at Daytona, Bliss turning in the fastest speed among the “go-or-go-homers” in Friday’s opening practice was a welcome change of pace for Tommy Baldwin Racing. After a 17th-place qualifying run, a quiet lead-lap finish on Sunday was also a helpful bit of momentum with three races remaining in the Top-35 cutoff. Next week – fingers crossed – the team hopes to carry this momentum into Las Vegas, where they will carry a one-race sponsorship deal from Kim Kardashian. The fact that the Kardashian brand has selected Baldwin’s operation among all the other small teams for sponsorship is an encouraging sign, giving the team further valuable exposure in 2010 as they look to ramp up their program.
No. 38 – David Gilliland (Finished 26th)
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 32nd; OUT: 29th)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 31st (locked in through Bristol)
No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Finished 30th)
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 38th; OUT: 37th)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (locked in through Bristol)
No. 37 – Kevin Conway (Finished 31st)
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 29th; OUT: 31st)
Team: Front Row Motorsports
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (locked in through Bristol)
Similar to TBR, FRM was fortunate enough to leave Fontana with its racecars intact after a costly series of wrecks at Daytona. Unlike TBR, however, none of the three cars were particularly fast in practice, and not one finished on the lead lap. But that’s the strange thing about FRM so far in 2010: the three cars seem peculiarly prone to succeeding or failing as one. I wonder if owner Bob Jenkins holds his Monday morning meetings at a roundtable….
Given the driver switches on all three cars, however, it should be applauded that the weekend went as well as it did. While Kvapil returned to the No. 34, Conway kept the No. 37 clean in his first Sprint Cup start while Gilliland, 2010’s journeyman driver, kept the fenders straight on No. 38 one week after wrecking in the Duels while driving for BAM Racing. With more days like Fontana and less like Daytona, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep all three cars in the Top 35. But I still can’t help but wonder which one of these teams will emerge as the No. 1 program someday, breaking out and striking success before the others.
No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Finished 33rd)
Car: Warner Music Nashville/Whitney Duncan Toyota
Team: Robby Gordon Motorsports
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 27th; OUT: 32nd)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 34th (locked in through Bristol)
After a rough showing at Daytona, BAM Racing decided to expand on a technical alliance with Gordon by bringing their Warner Music sponsorship to Robby’s No. 7 for three races. Sunday was Robby’s first week with this sponsor (the other two will be at Atlanta and Bristol), with the plan being to give BAM’s sponsors guaranteed exposure during three of the season’s opening five races. Unfortunately, a late overheating problem – sending Robby coasting onto pit road with seven laps to go – did provide the exposure either party had intended.
No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (Finished 35th)
Car: Armor All Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 41st; OUT: 41st)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 18th (locked in through Bristol)
The first of two “what are they doing here?!” faces on today’s list, Ambrose arrives to the bubble on the heels of two consecutive engine failures – three, if you count the hand-grenade that let loose on him after he led early last year at Homestead. The deficit with which our Tasmanian friend finds himself is not by any means insurmountable – Mark Martin had similar struggles two races into 2009 only to recover and make the Chase. That said, when coupled with Martin Truex Jr.’s mysterious mechanical gremlins just 64 laps into Sunday’s race, I certainly hope MWR is putting some of that “NAPA Know How” to good use in straightening out their engine department. Time is of the essence right now, as Las Vegas and Atlanta are just as notorious for taking a toll on motors.
No. 39 – Ryan Newman (Finished 36th)
Car: Haas Automation Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 34th; OUT: 38th)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: Ninth (locked in through Bristol)
Just like 2009, Newman is in a rut of his own after two races. However, while last year’s early-season struggles seemed more like growing pains for the then-new Stewart-Haas organization, 2010’s have been two weeks of just plain awful luck. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Newman was contending when both of his DNFs took place: he was in the lead pack at Daytona when Elliott Sadler turned him into the wall, and he was leading the inside line on Sunday when he missed that costly shift. So, while Newman has historically been feast-or-famine at Las Vegas, I feel that even an uneventful top-20 finish will be just what the doctor ordered to get the team on track. With the way he was running when misfortune struck these last two races, I am confident he is capable of more – but let’s take baby steps here.
No. 26 – Boris Said (Finished 38th)
Car: Sacred Power/Southern Pride Trucking Ford
Team: Latitude 43 Motorsports
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 25th; OUT: 33rd)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 22nd (locked in through Bristol)
Despite their 38th-place finish, 2010’s “Little Team That Could” made the most out of a very difficult situation at Fontana. With a pair of lesser-known sponsors its only decoration, Said’s white Ford was on the bottom of Friday’s opening practice sheet – seven mph slower than the next car (Terry Cook’s No. 46) – before suddenly losing power during its qualifying lap on Friday, forcing Said to start 42nd. Still three mph off the pace in Saturday’s first practice, the No. 26 spent Happy Hour in the garage in preparation for Sunday. By lap 15, Said was a lap down and looked destined for his first last-place finish when he pulled behind the wall on lap 37. However, Frank Stoddard and crew got the car back on the track 25 laps down and ran a handful more laps, moving them up five more valuable spots before going behind the wall for good with mechanical failure.
No. 87 – Joe Nemechek (Finished 40th)
Car: FrontRowJoe.com Toyota
Team: NEMCO Motorsports
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 43rd; OUT: 43rd)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 39th (must Qualify On Speed Through Bristol)
Still sponsor hunting, Nemechek could not avoid the start-and-park route at Fontana; but interestingly enough, he took more than one try at it. After starting 32nd on Sunday, I was already about to write a LASTCAR entry on lap 27 when his Toyota pulled behind the wall. However, like Said, Nemechek came back onto the track around ten laps later, climbing up to 40th before falling out once more with a rear gear failure.
No. 66 – Dave Blaney (Finished 41st)
Team: PRISM Motorsports
Owner Points Ranking: (IN: 50th; OUT: 45th)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 42nd (must Qualify On Speed Through Bristol)
Certainly, my favorite story from the Fontana weekend was that of Blaney and PRISM Motorsports. With crewman Scott Creque attending to his wife and newborn child, dropping Blaney’s crew to just three people, they bounced back from a DNQ in the Daytona 500 to rack up a stunning fifth-place qualifying run late in Friday’s session. Teammate Michael McDowell also made the show in 30th spot, giving team owner Phil Parsons two cars in a Sprint Cup field in only his second attempt. On Sunday, Blaney surrendered his starting spot one lap before the green flag and fell to the rear, with the plan for both he and McDowell to park just before the first round of pit stops. Because of that, Blaney stayed out as long as his fuel load would carry him, putting the No. 66 in the lead for laps 40-42 as green-flag stops cycled through. Having received some valuable TV time and some kind words from the FOX broadcasters before Jimmie Johnson retook the lead on lap 43, Blaney only then pulled behind the wall to join McDowell in the garage area. The optimist in me is holding out hope that sponsors will find their way to Blaney before Bristol, where he qualified eighth and fourth in last year’s Sprint Cup races.