Only two weeks remain until the Top-35 battle kicks into high gear at Bristol and after all the wildness in Atlanta, the points margin on either side of the bubble are every bit as close as the racing promises to be in Thunder Valley. Who are the ones to watch when the sheetmetal flies in Tennessee? Read on to find out!
LOCKED-IN AT BRISTOL
No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 28th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+33 ahead of 35th in points)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+49 ahead of 35th in points)
The first of two Penske cars suddenly thrust into the “Battle for the Bubble” is that of Hornish Jr. Ironically, Hornish joins today’s list after what began as a promising race. Despite a 36th-place qualifying run, Hornish wasted no time fighting his way toward the top 10, where he threw block after block on Greg Biffle on lap 22. With 138 laps to go, it was Hornish, not Biffle, in the top 10, and he ran as high as fourth when green-flag stops followed 20 laps later. With teammates Kurt Busch battling for the lead and Brad Keselowski seeking a top five, it seemed all but certain that the Penske trio were all headed for top-10 runs.
Unfortunately, the runs of Hornish and Keselowski were both derailed by sudden misfortune late in the race. For Hornish, the final 96 laps of the race saw him slide out of the top 20 as the Mobil 1 Dodge ran flat with a failing battery. While Hornish managed to finish under power and gained 15 points on the bubble, the spots he lost those final laps dropped him three positions in the points behind Marcos Ambrose (who finished 11th), Ryan Newman (17th) and Bobby Labonte (22nd). With one race left until the 2010 points set in and Labonte just three points ahead, setting sights on that No. 71 at Bristol may be the best goal toward a conservative run and ensuring that 49-point cushion remains intact.
No. 38 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 31st
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+15)
Sunday’s Finish: 26th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+42)
Another promising run gone wrong was that of Gilliland, who started 37th. As the car unfortunate enough to pit in front of Jimmie Johnson, it was not long before the No. 38 team was forced into a deal to stay out an extra lap under each caution so that Johnson could best exit his pit stall. Under the fifth caution on lap 115, this worked to Gilliland’s benefit by giving him the lead on lap 117 and the five valuable bonus points that went with it.
Ironically, despite the handicap of having to constantly surrender track position, Gilliland moved into the top 20 and only once received the Lucky Dog during the eighth caution on lap 288. The Taco Bell Ford sat 19th with 76 to go, then was up to 16th with just 27 laps remaining. However, the Cinderella run ended during the massive turn four pileup that aborted NASCAR’s first attempt at a green-white-checkered. Unable to avoid the wreck on the apron, Gilliland ended up with a caved-in right-front fender and a middle-of-the-pack finish. Still, with 27 more points of cushion on the bubble, things are looking better for the No. 38 to not only make the Top 35, but lead the Front Row contingent.
No. 12 – Brad Keselowski (Penske Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 30th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+27)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+19)
I’m sure that by the time you’re reading this article that there is not much more I can add to discussing the spectacular wreck that marked Keselowski’s exit from Sunday’s race. What I will do is add emphasis to the strong performance that preceded it.
Like Hornish, Keselowski was mired back in the pack thanks to an ill-handling car in qualifying that was good enough for just the 28th starting spot. After suffering some slight cosmetic damage to the nose of his Dodge in the now-prophetic lap 40 wreck with Carl Edwards and bouncing off the wall some laps later, Keselowski was a man on a mission. He joined Hornish in the top 10 by the halfway mark, but unlike Hornish, remained at or around the sixth spot all the way until inside the final 10 laps. In fact, it was not until four laps to go, just after AJ Allmendinger wrestled the 5th spot away from him, that Edwards made that fateful right-hand turn in the quad-oval.
Fortunately for all parties involved, there is an off-weekend between now and Bristol, where tempers flare and Edwards has historically excelled. However, if that proves to be not enough time for this new rivalry to simmer down, Keselowski could potentially jeopardize his tenuous grasp on the Top 35.
No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 35th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+10)
Though he began Sunday’s race by gaining 13 spots, the most of anyone else during the opening 10 laps from a 40th-place starting spot, Kvapil all but disappeared from view during the remainder of the race. He completed the event two laps down to winner Busch and finds himself with a 10-point cushion on the bubble headed to Bristol.
While the situation is not nearly as desperate as 2009, when his No. 28 Yates Racing ride folded up after Kvapil missed the Top 35, the points are still close enough that a strong performance at Bristol may singlehandedly keep the No. 34 from being stuck to 35th as much as it was last year.
No. 37 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-7)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-0; Tied For Bubble)
Now tied for the Bubble with Mike Bliss, but still 36th in owner points by virtue of his finishes in 2010, Conway, the only rookie to start any Cup races so far in 2010 will be one of the drivers to watch at Bristol. After starting 41st, Conway finished seven laps down on Sunday, though this time from poor handling rather than any incidents on the track. While Bristol may prove Conway’s most daunting challenge yet, competing at an entirely different type of track may be a welcome change of pace to the young No. 37 team. A reasonable goal would be to compete for his first lead-lap finish.
No. 26 – Boris Said (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 22nd
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-28)
Sunday’s Finish: 32nd
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-24)
Said and Latitude 43 Motorsports were unable to make a fan out of Kyle Busch on Saturday when, while Said was practicing for his first-ever Atlanta start, his No. 26 made contact with Busch while running a lower line on the backstretch. Busch’s subsequent remarks did nothing to help the team’s efforts. For the third straight race, Said’s car started 42nd in the next-to-last row and were unable to find speed in qualifying. Said finished eight laps down, one lap behind Conway.
Despite their performances, the No. 26 is still just 24 points outside the Bubble going into Bristol, where cars owned by PRISM Motorsports and Larry Gunselman turned in fantastic qualifying runs for last year’s Food City 500. A similar qualifying run at Bristol for Said may give Latitude 43 an outside chance at breaking back into the Top 35, particularly since the team has completed more laps than other underfunded teams and Bristol typically has a greater number of cars failing to finish.
No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 34th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+2)
Sunday’s Finish: 43rd
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-27)
The bubble burst for Gordon in Atlanta when a bad weekend went worse. On Friday, Robby’s team was unable to get the No. 7 to the track until 3 a.m. on Friday, adding to the frustrations of a challenging 2010. Robby qualified 39th for the race, but was already off the pace just four laps into the event. Entering turn 1, the cap of his left-rear tire broke away, sending his Toyota slamming driver’s-side first into the outside wall. While Robby walked away, his chances at the Top 35 took a serious hit. He was credited with a last-place finish (the ninth of his career) and is 27 points in arrears.
However, there are two positive angles to his upcoming performance at Bristol: the Warner Music sponsorship from BAM Racing will be on his car one more time and Robby may give us more bang for our buck as the ever-aggressive Californian fights for his Top-35 life.
NOT LOCKED-IN AT BRISTOL
No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 36th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 16th (+135)
Sunday’s Finish: 10th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 12th (+206)
With his first top-10 finish of 2010, Speed has vaulted himself from the edge of the Top-35 battle and into early Chase contention, tying Jeff Gordon’s points total with a 12th spot in owner points. Although he did not lead a lap, nor did he try any bizarre pit strategy as from Daytona or Fontana to do so, Speed remained on the lead lap and avoided all the late-race carnage. Though the No. 82 team knows they are officially locked-in to the field at Martinsville, they have one more “Knock-Out Qualifying Session” to go before they set their sights on defending their improbable Chase berth.
No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 37th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+18)
Sunday’s Finish: 22nd
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+52)
Like Speed, Labonte is sleeping a little easier tonight after turning in a solid top-25 finish free of mechanical gremlins. Having scored the Lucky Dog under the fifth caution, Labonte held onto the lead lap and gained 34 points on the bubble. The effort was a quiet, but perfect confluence of Labonte’s Atlanta prowess and sponsor TaxSlayer’s commitment last Tuesday to add Sunday’s race to their list of events as primary sponsor of the No. 71. Hopefully, the performance will encourage Tax Slayer to further extend its 15-race sponsorship deal past Bristol as the team looks to pad its cushion in the Top 35.
No. 36 – Mike Bliss (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 41st
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-33)
Sunday’s Finish: 24th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Our new Man on the Bubble is Bliss, author of another top-25 in Sunday’s race that snagged him 33 valuable owner points. Though Bliss is still tied with Conway for the bubble and it is uncertain whether sponsor Wave Energy Drink will be able to provide full-season funding, the radical new paint job on No. 36 seems to show the folks at Wave are shoring up their commitment to the team, which Bliss rewarded by leading lap 160 during the sixth caution of the race. Another top 25 at Bristol should be more than enough to lock the Tommy Baldwin Racing’s team into the Top 35 for the first time in the team’s existence.