NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Newman, Ambrose Fighting For Their Top-35 Lives

Hello! Before we get into this week’s edition, I’ve been so wrapped up with the start of the season that I haven’t taken the time to introduce myself. The name’s Brock Beard, and I’ve always had a soft spot for NASCAR’s underdogs. Whether it’s trying to come up with a colorful nickname for Mike Bliss in my BSGN Starting Grid Videos on YouTube, keeping a watchful eye as Dave Blaney chases history at LASTCAR or saying “Scott Speed’s having a wonderful run” a la Barney Hall on RaceTalkRadio.com, the lesser-knowns of the NASCAR Cup Series have fascinated me from the very day Derrike Cope autographed my Mickey Mouse hat in 1992.

But the state of the underdog is more desperate today than ever before. With the economy as it is and NASCAR at an important crossroads, the era of the racing independent has been marred by some disturbing trends. They are trends not found in the competition on the track, but in the reaction in the stands and on couches across the country. Too often, a good portion of the 40-odd drivers who are neither Dale Earnhardt Jr. nor Tony Stewart are ignored or shunned every week. There are those who overlook their struggle, dismiss them as a rolling backdrop of lapped “also-rans” who don’t know how to get out of the way.

There’s someone I once knew who mocked their struggle by spreading false rumors, believing no one cared to know the truth. But I care. And the truth behind the battle for the Top 35 is every bit as compelling as the weekly war for victory lane. Unlike the race itself, the Top 35 is a competition with no end, but several beginnings. It is a fight with infinite rounds that requires not just a unique form of determination for some, but a deeply-rooted resolve against some of the longest odds in professional sports.

As your new writer of this segment here at Frontstretch, you will know the names of these warriors, along with their struggles, their highs, and their devastating lows. It’s all part of their fight to stay atop the “Bubble” that’s seemingly ready to burst on them at any moment.

With that said, here’s this week’s Breakdown after the 267-lap endurance match that was the Shelby American at Las Vegas. Note that the numbers in parentheses next to the driver’s incoming and current 2010 owner points rankings indicates how many points the driver is ahead of (+) or behind (-) the 35th-ranked team.

Locked-In Through Bristol

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (Michael Waltrip Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 18th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 41st (-36 behind 35th place)
Sunday’s Finish: 14th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+6 ahead of 35th)

After consecutive engine failures and a 32nd-place starting spot in Friday’s qualifying session, the Tasmanian Devil scored a much-needed top-15 finish on Sunday. Ambrose and team hit on something during Saturday’s final practice session, as the No. 47 Toyota turned in the fifth-fastest lap – finding speed he maintained through the race with a car that stayed consistent during a long green-flag run.

However, the work for the talented sophomore is far from over. He is just six points to the good in owner points and must next tackle engine-gobbling Atlanta, where he finished just 38th and 23rd in 2009. If the motor gremlins return next week, expect Ambrose to be even more aggressive at Bristol to keep his locked in spot: he finished 10th and third there last year, and would need a repeat performance to stay above water.

No. 39 – Ryan Newman (Stewart-Haas Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 9th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-18)
Sunday’s Finish: 18th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+12)

Just six points ahead of Ambrose now sits Newman, who also rejoined the Top 35 with a top-20 finish in Vegas. On Friday, Newman’s propensity for qualifying shone through under unseasonably cloudy skies. With new sponsor Tornados on the hood of a brand-new Stewart-Haas chassis, he secured the third starting spot for Sunday, halting the misery of two straight DNFs to start 2010. By Sunday, the sun was shining once more, and Newman and teammate Stewart looked like both were headed for solid top-10 runs. Unfortunately, while Stewart finished seventh, Newman’s car faded in the closing stages, dropping him to one of the last cars on the lead lap.

While Newman has traditionally fared much better in qualifying than on race day (seven of his poles came from next week’s venue in Atlanta), the Kobalt Tools 500 weekend will feature a more dramatic temperature swing. Not only is qualifying run on Friday night while the race is on Sunday morning, but thanks to NASCAR’s standardized start times, the race will be run at a different time of day from last year. Newman’s ability to remain in the Top 35 may hinge on how well he can make this transition.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 34th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+14)
Sunday’s Finish: 32nd
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+2)

Another weekend of mechanical woes has put Gordon just two points ahead of the bubble with two of the most demanding tracks still to come. Friday afternoon tweaks on his Monster Energy Toyota forced Gordon’s team to blow the five-minute clock during qualifying, forcing him to start 42nd without a timed lap. Having run no better than 36th in the weekend’s three practice sessions, the team struggled to find speed during the race, adding insult to injury by slapping the wall off turn 4 on lap 59. It was all downhill for Gordon after that; but though the resulting damage left him five laps off the pace at the checkers, the car still finished the race under power and ahead of several Top-35 rivals.

No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 35th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-12)
Sunday’s Finish: 24th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (on the bubble)

After the team’s two finishes of 30th or worse, Kvapil scored a respectable run on Sunday, moving the No. 34 back to the bubble for the first time since last year’s season finale at Homestead. Both Kvapil and teammate David Gilliland in the No. 38 finished several laps down to the leader, but kept all four fenders intact on their Fords while racing the 1.5-mile oval clean. That’s important, because it allows them to bring the same cars to Atlanta next week – helping to build a consistent notebook for their future, as both men are in their first year driving for this small but capable program. With the No. 38 team ranked 31st in owner points, a pair of similarly quiet runs at Atlanta and Bristol could allow both cars to keep their Top-35 spots.

No. 26 – Boris Said (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 22nd
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+8)
Sunday’s Finish: 40th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-28)

Despite their promising 25th-place run at Daytona, it appears the Said team’s “other car” is struggling mightily on the downforce tracks. The No. 26 got a qualifying run this week – albeit 5 mph off the next-fastest car – and the team anchored all three practice sessions. That said, the entire Latitude 43 Motorsports organization should be applauded for its endurance. Having completed 134 of the 267 laps before a rear gear failure, Said’s effort was hardly that of a “start-and-park.” With equally meager funding, each of the three cars who finished behind Said completed no more than 65 laps.

No. 37 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+17)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-7)

After a quiet run in Fontana last week, the struggles of the only rookie in Sunday’s field were on display at the beginning and end of the race. On lap 2, Conway brought out the first caution when he slipped in the marble-strewn upper groove in turn 1, scraping up the passenger-side of his Ford while bending the splitter. To his credit, Conway avoided tearing up his right-front fender when the tire went flat, an impressive feat for a freshman learning the ropes. That allowed him to finish the race under power, though not until he slapped the wall once more with 39 laps to go. Now on the outside of the Top 35 – but just barely – a good goal for Conway should be a quiet, top-25 run. However, combined with the Top-35 battle, the lingering obstacle of Bristol and its SAFER barrier-narrowed groove surely “looms large” in this rookie’s mind.

Must Qualify on Speed Through Bristol

No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 36th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 15th (+112)
Sunday’s Finish: 22nd
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 16th (+135)

Another day, another four laps led thanks to pit strategy, another top-25 finish makes the story of Formula 1 export Speed’s resurgence in 2010 that much more encouraging. After scoring the Lucky Dog on lap 89, Speed stayed out during the second “caution light” caution on lap 108 and led the field to green on lap 113. While his run at the front did not last as long as Daytona’s – he was shuffled out of the lead by turn 1 – it nevertheless kept the surprising sophomore towards the front of the pack during an ensuing 100-plus laps of green-flag racing. In the end, Speed was the first car one lap down, and hopes to keep things headed in the right direction at Atlanta with a spot in the Top 35 all but assured – for now.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 37th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 25th (+48)
Sunday’s Finish: 38th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+18)

Though he brought a new chassis to Las Vegas, Labonte’s disappointing 29th-place qualifying run ended up foreshadowing trouble to come. On Sunday, lap 41 saw his TaxSlayer.com Chevrolet suddenly fall off the pace on the backstretch with what was supposedly an oil leak. After spending a significant amount of time inside the garage, the No. 71 returned to the track but pitted on at least two other occasions, putting him over 50 laps off the pace. However, that extra effort moved him past the five cars who failed to finish, gaining him a little more breathing room inside this year’s Top 35. The veteran now hopes for better luck at Atlanta, arguably his best track since its redesign back in 1997, in order to rebuild that cushion.

No. 36 – Mike Bliss (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 41st
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (on the bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 39th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-33)

Bliss and Tommy Baldwin Racing arrived in Las Vegas with one-off sponsorship from Kim Kardashian’s perfume line and a tenuous grasp on the Top 35 after a 22nd-place finish at Fontana. Bliss started 30th for Sunday’s race, but was unable to hold that position for long. On lap 46, a cut tire slammed his Chevrolet hard into the turn 2 wall, bringing out the second caution flag of the race. However, as with Said in his No. 26, Bliss and crew fought for every last point, returning to the track for nearly 100 more laps and edging Said for 39th by a single circuit before pulling behind the wall for good. Dropping down to 39th in owner points, they’re only just 33 markers outside the Top 35 – meaning a top 25 at Atlanta with the car intact should put Bliss back on the right side of the “bubble” heading to Bristol.

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