NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Conway on the Hot Seat While Gordon Gets Burned

Bristol is in the books and as the 2010 owner points set the stage for the first time this year, the magic number is two. That’s right; on Sunday, we had two teams make their 2010 debut, two teams close within 12 points of the bubble, two teams make driver changes, a driver break a two-way tie for the last guaranteed starting spot and – most importantly – two new teams lock themselves into the field for Martinsville!

Let’s check out how NASCAR’s version of March Madness unfolded in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

LOCKED IN AT MARTINSVILLE

No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 36th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 12th (+206 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 18th (+197 points ahead of 35th)

After a tremendous start to the 2010 season, Speed decided to be cautious while locking up Team Red Bull’s spot in the Top 35. It was evident from Friday qualifying just how careful the driver of the No. 82 was going to be: although he had started 11th and third in both of last year’s Bristol events, Speed turned in just the 29th-fastest time in order to avoid a costly DNQ. He then followed through with a solid, though uneventful mid-20s performance on Sunday until slapping the wall with 22 laps to go. That hard hit forced an unscheduled stop, while a second one with just three laps to go left him a full 20 laps off the pace in 31st, though still under power once the checkered flag fell. Despite that turn of bad luck, Speed only lost nine points on the bubble going into Martinsville – the scene of his Cup debut in 2008 – and he’s a career-high 197 above the cut line, locking his team in at least through the race in Phoenix April 10th.

No. 39 – Ryan Newman (Stewart-Haas Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 9th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+61)
Sunday’s Finish: 16th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 26th (+97)

An 18th, a 17th and now a 16th-place finish in the last three races has allowed the Rocket Man to inch another 36 points ahead of the bubble, giving his SHR Chevy a little extra breathing room going into the war zone that is Martinsville. At Bristol, Newman qualified 21st and gradually worked his way into the top 15. He lost a lap towards the tail end of the day, but got the Lucky Dog during the 10th and final caution with 18 laps to go. Although the No. 39 fell short of its first top 10 of the season (ending his hope for another 6-for-6 top 10 performance on short tracks), Newman and team are laying a steady foundation of consistency that should get them back on track – if they don’t have any problems with the rear spoiler.

No. 6 – David Ragan (Roush Fenway Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 27th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 27th (+84)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 27th (+81)

Wrong place, wrong time once again for Ragan. This time, he was in the middle groove of turns 3 and 4, having slowed his car to avoid involvement in the massive lap 341 crash. Unfortunately, the wreck soon found him when a spinning Kevin Harvick clobbered the nose of his Ford, sending the No. 6 behind the wall for repairs. Ragan finished 17 laps down, although by completing the race the car lost only three points of its 90-point cushion on 36th.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 21st
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 26th (+97)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+73)

After a 14th-place finish at Atlanta, the Furniture Row team was cautiously optimistic going into Bristol. Smith qualified 20th and scored the Lucky Dog under the fourth caution on lap 127; but from there, he became a black-and-red pinball between Bristol’s unforgiving walls. With just under 200 laps to go, Bobby Labonte crossed Smith’s nose on the backstretch, stuffing the No. 78 into the wall and creasing his left-front fender. A few laps later, Elliott Sadler pulled the same move on the frontstretch, which damaged his car further. While neither incident brought out a caution, Smith himself did on lap 323 when his right-front finally went down in turn 2, damaging his right-front suspension enough to end his day.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 37th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+52)
Sunday’s Finish: 21st
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+73)

Aside from his involvement in the wreck with Smith, Labonte avoided the rest of the carnage, scored the Lucky Dog when the big wreck came on lap 341, and wound up the last car on the lead lap. Now, with 21 points gained on the bubble, Labonte and TRG Motorsports join Speed’s No. 82 as the two teams who have officially joined the Top 35 that weren’t locked-in for the first five races this season.

No. 12 – Brad Keselowski (Penske Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 30th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+19)
Sunday’s Finish: 13th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+69)

Two weeks after his flip at Atlanta and a day after following teammate Justin Allgaier to the checkered flag in the Nationwide Series event, Keselowski finally got the solid Cup Series finish that has eluded him in 2010. Not only did he finish 13th, but the No. 12 car led twice for 26 laps, thanks in small part to great pit strategy by crew chief Jay Guy. From the moment Keselowski stayed out during the first caution on lap 44, he was a fixture in the top 10 and only late in the race did he ever fall outside of it. The competitive ride also included several laps of running a full lane away from Carl Edwards on lap 337 as the two raced for position. It is anybody’s guess, however, as to whether the duo will be so generous when the groove gets narrower at Martinsville….

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (Michael Waltrip Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 18th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+73)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd, 52 laps down
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+58)

Sorry for jinxing you, Marcos. The Tasmanian driver qualified ninth at Bristol and, despite two pit-road speeding penalties, his No. 47 refused to stay far from the top 10. He ran ninth by lap 170, then after the second penalty was back up to 11th on lap 311. However, his car was not fast enough to avoid the tremendous crash that unfolded on lap 341. Stuck behind a slowing Jeff Gordon when Mark Martin’s damaged car crossed Gordon’s nose, Ambrose jammed on the brakes and was sideswiped by Juan Pablo Montoya, whose car ripped to shreds on the driver’s side sheetmetal on Ambrose’s No. 47. After more than 50 laps of repairs behind the wall, Ambrose returned to the track with much of the bodywork removed, leaving him 33rd at the finish, 52 laps down.

No. 38 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 31st
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+42)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+57)

Although his performance was not as strong as the near-top 20 he authored at Atlanta, Gilliland still led the Front Row Motorsports team with a 23rd-place finish as the second car one lap down. Like most of the bubble drivers in Sunday’s race, Gilliland steered clear of faster traffic and remained in contention by securing the Lucky Dog under the sixth caution on lap 263. Except for some scrapes while running near the outside wall and a loose quarterpanel, he was also rewarded with a 15-point gain on the bubble and finished with his Taco Bell Ford in one piece. And the start to the weekend wasn’t half bad, either: Gilliland turned in an outstanding 16th-place qualifying run, showcasing a skill that will certainly come in handy just in case his No. 38 ever falls out of the Top 35.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 28th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+49)
Sunday’s Finish: 32nd, 23 laps down
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+37)

Like Ragan, it was deja vu all over again for Hornish Jr. The third-year driver gouged the bumper of his Dodge in fighting up from the 22nd starting spot, but once again seemed just as capable of running in the top 15 as teammates Kurt Busch and Keselowski. Unfortunately, just like Atlanta, the run went south with just 48 laps remaining when he dropped a cylinder and slowed abruptly on the apron. Hornish was running 12th at the time. Repairs took 23 laps to complete and, with a 32nd-place finish, his No. 77 team lost 12 points to the Bubble headed to one of their most difficult tracks – Martinsville.

No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 35th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+10)
Sunday’s Finish: 25th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+19)

In the closing stages of the Food City 500, Kvapil was working his way toward a lead-lap finish. He’d claimed the first Lucky Dog of the day when the yellow fell on lap 41, but did not need it for the rest of the afternoon. That is, until lap 261, when a tire problem forced him to make an unscheduled green-flag stop. Unfortunately, the caution came out two laps too late for Kvapil; Kyle Busch’s wreck on lap 263 gave teammate Gilliland his own lap back. Kvapil finished two laps down.

No. 37 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-0, Tied For Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

When the 35th-ranked Mike Bliss and his No. 36 were sent home after Friday’s qualifying session, rookie Conway breathed a sigh of relief. His Ford sat at the bottom of all three practice sessions, and he clocked in more than six mph off Joey Logano’s pole-winning speed. However, by starting the race, Conway had only to keep his eyes on Robby Gordon’s No. 7 and David Stremme’s No. 26 to lock himself into the show at Martinsville. On Sunday, the No. 37 was the first car to be lapped on lap 20 and, from there, was often riding the outside wall trying to avoid the leaders. He finished the race eight laps down, six spots behind Robby and four behind Stremme, but just edged them both to hang onto the bubble – for now.

MUST QUALIFY ON SPEED AT MARTINSVILLE

Note: ## Indicates a driver who fell out of the Top 35 after being locked-in for the first five races of 2010.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports) ##
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 34th
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-27 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 22nd
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-9 points behind 35th)

After a four-race stretch of crashes and mechanical failures, Gordon had a refreshingly solid run in his final race – for now – with BAM’s Warner Nashville sponsorship. Gordon started 32nd and only had to dodge a slowing Logano who clipped his nose in a dive toward pit road. The damage from the incident was negligible and, with a Lucky Dog under the second caution on lap 56, Gordon finished as first car one lap down, thus cutting 18 points off his bubble deficit. However, Martinsville has been a persistent challenge to the California native; it will take an above-average finish at the paperclip for him to inch back onto the bubble.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports) ##
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 22nd
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-24)
Sunday’s Finish: 24th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-12)

In an ironic move to close the narrow 24-point gap the team had on the bubble, Latitude 43 Motorsports brought in a “short-course ringer” – Stremme – as Boris Said had never raced at Bristol. This seemed a strange decision as Said, who is no stranger to close racing, finished a respectable 32nd in his Atlanta debut two weeks ago. Curiously, the team also chose this race as the one to put new colors on the car, having given complimentary “sponsorship” to the Air National Guard. Regardless, Stremme did perform as desired, keeping his nose clean and cutting the No. 26’s bubble deficit in half as the first car two laps down. Said will return to the team next week at Martinsville, where the road racer hopes to close the gap even more.

No. 36 – Mike Bliss (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: 41st
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-48)

The Bristol weekend was all too short for Bliss, who picked up owner Tommy Baldwin’s first DNQ since last October at Charlotte. Bliss, who came into Bristol tied with Conway’s No. 37 for the bubble, lost 48 owner points and three positions as a result. The final margin wasn’t much: Bliss fell just short of Michael Waltrip’s 15.848-second lap with a 15.930 and now must seek redemption next week at Martinsville, where the lap times are every bit as close.

No. 55 – Michael Waltrip (PRISM Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: N/A
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 41st (-101)
Sunday’s Finish: 41st
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 40th (-140)

The No. 55 returns to this week’s article on the heels of what I found to be a rather questionable decision. Though Michael McDowell had qualified for all four races in 2010, including when he raced his way into the Daytona 500, Waltrip muscled himself into the driver’s seat at Bristol. Waltrip, who provides cars to PRISM Motorsports, decided to drive the car in order to have a chance to work with the team before Talladega, where Waltrip will run the car and sponsor Aaron’s will foot the bill.

I had several problems with this decision. First of all, no sponsorship dollars accompanied Waltrip to Bristol, meaning there would be little time for him to gel with the team as they would have to – and, in fact, did – park early. Second, the experience of running 40 laps at Bristol in what was the final race with the rear wing has very little to do with preparing for a full race at Talladega, where the rear spoiler would be used instead. Third, Waltrip’s cars were already present at Talladega’s rear-spoiler test just last week; it seems strange that an opportunity for Waltrip to work with PRISM could not have been worked out then.

Worst of all, I felt the decision was disruptive to McDowell and his efforts with the No. 55. Waltrip slapped the wall in qualifying, nearly handing the team its first DNQ, and without sponsorship, that damage was a costly step backward for the team. While Waltrip’s Talladega run may give the No. 55 valuable owner points and the team is not, as yet, able to complete races on a regular basis, both Blaney and McDowell’s successes in qualifying have shown that PRISM’s future depends on giving their regular drivers as much seat time as their limited funding allows.

No. 90 – Casey Mears (Keyed-Up Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: N/A
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 44th (-155)
Sunday’s Finish:30th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 44th (-161)

As I had hoped while writing last week’s article, Bristol marked the first start of 2010 for Mears and the No. 90 team. Friday’s 34th-place qualifying run came a day after sponsor Juice Air Fresheners (aka “www.smellmycar.com”) announced a financial extension with the team, citing a spike in their website traffic after Mears’s engine failure during practice at Atlanta. Although the team struggled near the bottom of Saturday’s practice charts and finished 17 laps down in the race, the Earnhardt-Childress engine under the hood held fast and Mears finished under power with the car intact for Martinsville.

No. 46 – Terry Cook (Whitney Motorsports)
2009 Owner Points Ranking: N/A
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 47th (-176)
Sunday’s Finish: 37th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 46th (-203)

Cook and Whitney Motorsports joined Mears in post-qualifying celebration when the unsponsored Dodge team secured the 40th spot on Friday. The veteran short tracker fared slightly better than Mears in practice (34th, 36th and 34th in the three sessions), but was forced to start in the back on Sunday after Cook missed driver introductions. The race saw the No. 46 pit off-sequence as early as lap 51, then go behind the wall for around 30 laps as the team struggled with brake problems. Still, they returned to the track and logged nearly 300 valuable laps before the brake issue forced them out for good during the seventh caution on lap 323.

2010 Bubble Chart After Bristol

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 JTG Daugherty Racing 47 Marcos Ambrose 413 +58
32 Front Row Motorsports 38 David Gilliland 412 +57
33 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 394 +39
34 Front Row Motorsports 34 Travis Kvapil 374 +19
35 Front Row Motorsports 37 Kevin Conway 355 0
36 BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 346 -9
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme/Boris Said 343 -12
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Mike Bliss 307 -48
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 275 -80
40 Prism Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell/Michael Waltrip 215 -140
41 Prism Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney 211 -144
42 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 205 -150
43 Wood Brothers 21 Bill Elliott 202 -153
44 Keyed-Up Motorsports 90 Casey Mears 194 -161
45 Phoenix Racing 09 Aric Almirola 161 -194
46 Whitney Motorsports 46 Terry Cook 152 -203

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch