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Bubble Breakdown: What Big Teams Are In Top-35 Danger?

For many in the Sprint Cup garage this weekend, 500 laps at Bristol will be a nail-biting experience, with one wreck making the difference between locking them into the 43-car field for Martinsville and beyond… or kicking them out. So while NASCAR’s top divisions enjoy their week off, let’s take a look at 12 other full-time teams who currently sit just outside the “Battle for the Bubble,” review their seasons to date, and evaluate their chances of ending up fighting for a spot in the Top 35 with the 2010 changeover just one week away.

24TH-29TH: BIG NAMES ON A SLIPPERY SLOPE

The six teams who currently sit 24th through 29th in owner points are all within just 110 points of the bubble, currently held by the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing team and driver Mike Bliss. While all six are locked into the field for Sunday’s race at Bristol, will the 31 races after see their points cushions evaporate?

No. 56 – Martin Truex Jr. (Michael Waltrip Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (claimed points from No. 55)
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 24th (+110 points ahead of 35th)
First Four Finishes: 6th, 39th, 20th, 27th

Truex began the 2010 season as one of the Daytona 500’s biggest surprises. After he held fast to the top 10 for much of the day, he nearly made the winning pass on Kevin Harvick in the closing laps with a pair of aggressive blocks. While coming up short, the sixth-place finish he gained that night gave Michael Waltrip’s old team new momentum, but a freak timing chain problem the next week at Fontana sent the No. 56 tumbling down the points standings. In the two races since, Truex has finished no better than 20th, nor has he added to the three laps he led at Daytona. These lackluster performances at the downforce tracks should be quite troubling for him, especially considering he claimed the pole at Atlanta last September. And if things do turn around for the No. 56, history has shown they may not for a couple more weeks: in his young career, Truex has averaged mid-20 finishes at both Bristol and Martinsville.

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 26th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 25th (+104)
First Four Finishes: 24th, 24th, 27th, 19th

Sadler was another strong performer at Daytona, but late-race misfortune in the form of a wreck with Ryan Newman dropped him from contention. While the fenders have remained intact on the No. 19 since then – already an improvement from his disastrous 2009 campaign – the finishes have told a different story. As teammates Kasey Kahne and AJ Allmendinger have turned around their own wreck-strewn starts to 2010, while Paul Menard continues to impress by holding down ninth in points, the staff at Richard Petty Motorsports should try and figure out what the other three teams have that Sadler’s doesn’t. Bristol, the scene of his inaugural victory in 2001, may hold the key to a future resurgence, though.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 21st (claimed points from No. 07)
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 26th (+97)
First Four Finishes: 39th, 19th, 21st, 14th

The owner points from Richard Childress’s closed No. 07 team and the technical alliance that came with it put a spring in the step of Smith as Furniture Row Racing returned to full-time competition in the Cup Series. However, it took just nine laps into the Daytona 500 for the No. 78 to go into rebuilding mode. A multi-car melee in turn 1 annihilated Smith’s Chevrolet, but hard work by the crew prevented the young driver from scoring his first Cup last-place finish. This same work ethic pulled Smith and team back into contention the next week at Fontana, where a surprising top-10 run in the late stages just barely faded into a 19th-place finish. Two more finishes in the top half of the field has given the team steadier footing in the Top 35, but the wreck-filled short-track season will put Furniture Row’s spirit to the ultimate test.

No. 6 – David Ragan (Roush Fenway Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 27th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 27th (+84)
First Four Finishes: 16th, 23rd, 23rd, 37th

After a terrible 2009 season, Ragan and the UPS crew have found themselves in frustratingly-familiar territory just four races into 2010. Three midpack finishes seemed to restore a foundation of consistency upon which the No. 6 could build itself back to 2008 status, but an early tire failure last week at his home track has edged them closer to the Bubble. More than ever, the team now needs a performance like their last two showings at Bristol’s night race; equaling those finishes of 10th and 14th would give them their best run of 2010.

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (Michael Waltrip Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 18th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+73)
First Four Finishes: 41st, 35th, 14th, 11th

Like Smith, another driver that has shown dramatic improvement from Daytona misfortune is Ambrose. After two straight engine failures at Daytona and Fontana dropped the No. 47 all the way to 41st in owner points, two straight top-15s at Las Vegas and Atlanta have put the team back on track. Still, with just 73 points separating the team from the Top-35 fray, Ambrose must take advantage of Bristol to give himself more breathing room in the standings. As mentioned in previous articles, he scored two impressive finishes of 10th and third in last year’s two Cup races at the concrete half-mile. What’s more impressive is that the 10th-place finish, which came last spring, occurred despite his car dropping a cylinder in the closing stages – certainly a note of discomfort given the No. 47’s early mechanical gremlins.

No. 39 – Ryan Newman (Stewart-Haas Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 9th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+61)
First Four Finishes: 34th, 36th, 18th, 17th

Just about the only 2009 Chase driver even close to the Top-35 battle, Newman has also shown improvement the last two races. The aforementioned crash with Elliott Sadler at Daytona, combined with a sudden engine failure at Fontana, made him follow Ambrose down to the 38th spot in owner points. However, while the two races since have seen the No. 39 move up the leaderboard, a strange glass ceiling has seemed to keep them from finishing inside the top 15. On the plus side, his qualifying prowess appears very much intact, starting no worse than 17th (Daytona) before jumping to seventh and third the last two weeks (though a last-minute engine change dropped him to the back at Atlanta). Still, for Newman to have any hope of breaking into the Chase once again, he must find that elusive way of transferring success on Friday into results on Sunday.

41ST-47TH: THE UNSPONSORED CHALLENGERS

These six teams ranked 41st through 47th in owner points are within 176 points of the bubble. Personally, I find this incredible as all six teams are without full-time sponsorship, and two have yet to qualify for a single race this season. Since all that separates these drivers from 38th-place Robby Gordon (-27 points behind 35th) are part-time drivers Max Papis (39th, -29) and Bill Elliott (40th, -74), could the regular season see the next bubble challenger rise from these six? Roll your eyes if you wish, “start-and-park” haters; there’s potential in this group.

No. 55 – Michael McDowell (PRISM Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: N/A
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 41st (-101 points behind 35th)
First Four Finishes: 33rd, 42nd, 42nd, 42nd

The highest-ranked member of this group of underdogs is Phil Parsons’s new second team. Piloted by McDowell, a driver who, like the team’s cars, has its origins with Michael Waltrip Racing, the No. 55 not only raced its way into the Daytona 500, but did so well ahead of Papis and Todd Bodine’s battle for the final transfer spot. An 11th-hour sponsorship deal from Fireflyvodka.com allowed McDowell to experience his first 500 in full before the driveshaft let go in the final stages, but the sponsor’s departure has since relegated the team to start-and-park status. Despite this shift, McDowell has still acquired teammate Dave Blaney’s 2009 consistency in qualifying as he has made every race so far in 2010.

Good news in the Top-35 battle may arrive in the form of part-owner Michael Waltrip himself. As the season progresses, Aaron’s will serve as primary sponsor on the No. 55 (as it had for Blaney’s No. 66 last year at Charlotte) for the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega with Waltrip himself at the controls. If McDowell can keep up his solid qualifying runs and Waltrip makes the show, even a repeat of Waltrip’s 18th-place at Daytona can bring McDowell 109 points closer to the Top 35.

No. 66 – Dave Blaney (PRISM Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 42nd
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 42nd (-102)
First Four Finishes: DNQ, 41st, 29th, 41st

Though a poor showing in the Gatorade Duels prevented him from joining McDowell in the Daytona 500, 2009 “LASTCAR Champion” Blaney and his No. 66 have already shown signs of life in 2010. Driving another Michael Waltrip Toyota under the PRISM Motorsports banner, Blaney rocketed to a stunning fifth-place qualifying run at Fontana. Although the run did not attract the attention of any prospective sponsors, forcing the team to park while leading during the end of their first fuel window, it did draw the attention of NASCAR inspectors, who selected the No. 66 as their random selection for post-race inspection. The lengthy process forced the team to resort to its backup car – the only backup one available to both Blaney and McDowell – though NASCAR accommodated the fledgling operation by giving the car priority in pre-race inspection. Again, even in a backup, Blaney surprised everyone at Vegas; and not only did he make the show after securing the 36th spot, but brought his unsponsored Toyota home under power for the first time since Aaron’s sponsored his Toyota in last year’s Coca-Cola 600. Even with another abbreviated run at Atlanta, it appears that there is more to PRISM Motorsports than many have thought.

No. 87 – Joe Nemechek (NEMCO Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 39th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 43rd (-105)
First Four Finishes: 43rd, 40th, 41st, 38th

Unlike 2009, where he came just one position short of racing his way into the Daytona 500, Nemechek came into Race 1 of February’s Gatorade Duels as one of the three cars locked into the field on speed. Unfortunately, the weekend ended on Sunday with a last-place finish and his restrictor-plate car in a mangled heap on the apron of turn three. The loss of this car will almost certainly be a significant hurdle for the veteran at Talladega, where he finished an outstanding 14th last spring. Still, like McDowell, Nemechek and his blue and gold Toyotas have been reliable in qualifying; he even started an impressive 15th at Las Vegas. Hopefully, the sponsors who have yet to visit FrontRowJoe.com will hear the story of England’s Stove Works, who sponsored Nemechek’s Daytona effort and generated plenty of extra dollars financially. In the days following the race, the site traffic at England’s was so high, the site nearly crashed.

No. 90 – Casey Mears (Keyed-Up Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: N/A
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 44th (-155)
First Four Finishes: DNQ, DNQ, DNQ, DNQ

For Mears, his sixth consecutive year of driving for a different team has without doubt been the most difficult. He was tabbed as driver of Keyed-Up Motorsports, a start-up team based in Virginia that combined the efforts of Key Motorsports from the Nationwide Series and one Raymond Key. During the Duels back at Daytona, Mears and his two-year-old former DEI car were locked in a tight mid-pack battle with Scott Speed, Bobby Labonte and Bliss for the final transfer spot. Unfortunately, he narrowly missed the show after a three-wide pass in the closing stages trapped him in traffic. In the three races since, Mears has still yet to make one, although he was the fastest DNQ at both Fontana and Las Vegas.

Ironically, even as Key Motorsports’ Nationwide Series operation withdrew its support of the No. 90 after Atlanta, the news for Mears fans has been more optimistic. Full-time associate sponsorship has been acquired from 75000000.com, a fan site that funded Mears’s strong Daytona run. Mears will also be running Earnhardt-Childress engines, starting this weekend at Bristol, certainly a relief for a team that lost an engine during the opening practice in Atlanta. As the end of Mears’s original six-race commitment to the team draws near, Bristol may prove to be the No. 90’s salvation: it was there that AJ Allmendinger made his own first Cup race after he, too, missed the first four races of 2007 while driving for a new team.

No. 09 – Aric Almirola (Phoenix Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 38th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 45th (-161)
First Four Finishes: DNQ, 43rd, 43rd, DNQ

Ignore the finishes Phoenix Racing and its suddenly-sponsorless Chevrolet have acquired thus far in 2010, and you’ll remember that Almirola has been one of the most determined drivers in qualifying. Following in the tire tracks of Blaney and his impressive lap, Almirola dug deep at Fontana after a sluggish first attempt caused by a caved-in hood, to speed well into the field with a 24th-place run. The next week in Las Vegas, he dug even deeper on his second lap and smacked the turn 2 wall, but still edged Mears for the final spot in the field. Though he fell short of knocking McDowell out, pulling a 29.479 second lap to McDowell’s 29.371, Almirola continues to fight to make a name for himself in the Cup Series.

Though he crashed out during his qualifying lap at Bristol last summer, one may just as easily remember Almirola’s strong eighth-place finish in the 2008 Food City 500 during his time driving for DEI. If his performances in the Truck Series continue to turn heads, I fail to see why the No. 09 cannot again claim sponsorship – economy be damned – particularly as the team nears the one-year anniversary of its inaugural Cup win.

No. 46 – Terry Cook (Whitney Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: N/A
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 47th (-176)
First Four Finishes: N/A

If not for an incident not of his making during the First Gatorade Duel, there would likely have been much more for me to say about Truck Series veteran Cook and his inspiring effort to break into the Cup Series. As it is, contact between Papis and Clint Bowyer spun Cook out of a transfer spot halfway through the splitter, causing considerable damage to his splitter when he hit the grass. Also like Mears and Keyed-Up Motorsports, Cook and Dusty Whitney’s start-up team are 0-for-4 as their black-and-red downforce car has struggled to find grip during its timed laps. Like Mears, Cook may have a better shot of squeezing into the Bristol field for his first Cup race, though unlike Mears, it is unclear how long Cook’s No. 46 will be able to remain on the track with a blank hood and quarterpanels. Either way, there is always a chance the short track season could fall into Cook’s hands, particularly at Martinsville where he has two top fives and six top 10s in Truck Series competition.

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