Ever wonder how race teams get great rental car rates? Now you can, too! Find out more.
Enterprise and National: Here to serve your company's needs

NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Ambrose’s Antics, Gilliland Great Despite Front Row-tation

The electrifying finish at Martinsville was but one source of drama from the Goody’s Fast Relief 500. As the current owner points set the field for Monday’s Martinsville melee, Robby Gordon and David Stremme threw everything they had at catching the trio of Front Row Motorsports cars in front of them.

But FRM had a few tricks of their own up their sleeve, pulling off a driver switch designed to keep their cars parked well inside that Top 35 cutoff. With the changes, were things able to stay the same for the three members of Bob Jenkins’s roundtable? Read on to find out!

LOCKED IN AT PHOENIX

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (Michael Waltrip Racing)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+58 points ahead of 35th)
Monday’s Finish: 11th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+82 points ahead of 35th)

After he put up the third-fastest time in Friday’s opening practice session, Ambrose’s Toyota became a sleeper pick for a top-five run at Martinsville. Instead, the Little Debbie machine found itself a formidable bumper car on Monday as he fought his way up from the 31st starting spot. The first black donut appeared on the No. 47 when Paul Menard knocked Ambrose into Juan Pablo Montoya, followed by some contact with Sam Hornish Jr. on lap 102.

Who could have guessed the fireworks had only begun.

Not long after, Ambrose sparked the third caution on lap 163 when he spun Greg Biffle in turn 3. Then, with 188 laps to go, Ambrose was himself turned by David Ragan as he entered the third corner. The Ragan incident caused Ambrose’s left-rear tire to let go the following lap, sending him in another spin that brought out caution number nine. But still, even after he turned Kevin Conway on lap 422, Ambrose somehow fought back to grab the Lucky Dog, charging back to the lead lap and holding fast to a top-20 finish. That perseverance was rewarded in the final stages when he climbed to 11th during the last two double-file restarts, adding 24 points to his cushion on the bubble.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+37)
Monday’s Finish: 13th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+55)

Another driver who gained valuable owner points at the half-mile was Hornish Jr. Though Hornish suffered from food poisoning on race day, causing No. 09 driver Aric Almirola to stand by in relief as early as lap 92, Hornish knew he had a good car underneath him and decided to finish the race himself. The three occasions he lost a lap were matched by three Lucky Dogs during the cautions on laps 235, 305 and 491, allowing Hornish to finally fulfill the promise his No. 77 showed at Atlanta and Bristol – where engine woes vanquished two top-20 performances. Hornish’s 13th-place finish gained him 18 points in the standings and surely gave him a boost of confidence headed to Phoenix, where he has logged many laps in open-wheel competition.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+73)
Monday’s Finish: 29th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+43)

Though he no longer needed to rely on the past champion’s provisional and, as a result, was able to line up 29th when the rains came on Friday, Labonte finished the race nine laps down, having never contended for a Lucky Dog. Involved in a multi-car wreck on lap 172 (part of a chain-reaction crash started by Paul Menard) he slipped 30 points closer to the bubble as a result of a battered and bruised racecar.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+73)
Monday’s Finish: 32nd
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+34)

One of the many drivers who struggled with melting tire beads on Monday was Smith. The first, which came on lap 234, sent Smith hurtling toward the turn 4 wall just before fellow bubble driver Robby Gordon lost his own right front on the frontstretch. The twin tire failures, which prevented either driver from reaching pit road, brought out the seventh caution the following lap. However, Smith was not so fortunate when he lost the right front in the exact same spot on lap 300 and was unable to bring out a yellow. In the end, Smith’s tire troubles cost him 12 laps and 39 points, putting him the closest he’s been to the bubble since after Fontana.

No. 38 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+57)
Monday’s Finish: 31st
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+21)

In what appears to be a conveyor-belt approach toward keeping all three of its cars in the Top 35, Front Row Motorsports made Conway and teammate David Gilliland trade racecars (and owner points) in a move designed to give the rookie some breathing room to improve. But despite being armed with Gilliland’s solid 57-point cushion on the bubble, the rookie Conway continued to struggle in practice as he ran 46th, 42nd and 42nd in the three sessions. As with his run at Bristol, Conway steered clear of traffic during the race to gain valuable experience; he just finished many laps down to the leader (this time, 10 laps compared to Bristol’s eight). Although the 31st-place run cost him 36 points on the bubble, the rookie’s defensive driving skills seem to be improving: he kept his Ford out of the wall when Ambrose hooked him in turn 4 on lap 422.

No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Monday’s Finish: 19th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+5)

With Conway’s No. 37 putting him back on the bubble and 2009 Coke Zero 400 sponsor Gander Mountain on his Ford, Gilliland finally picked up his first top 20 of the 2010 season as the next-to-last car on the lead lap. Not only that, but the five bonus points he scored when he stayed out to lead lap 45 during the first caution bumped his other teammate, Travis Kvapil, back to the bubble. Gilliland shared honors with Hornish as Martinsville’s “Luckiest Dog:” he got back on the lead lap on three occasions during the cautions on laps 129, 366 and 422. The solid run seems to confirm that Gilliland has assumed the role of FRM’s blue-chip driver.

No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+19)
Monday’s Finish: 27th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

A sign of the increased competition between this year’s Bubble drivers from last year, Kvapil’s 27th-place finish, five bonus points for leading and pair of Lucky Dogs on laps 163 and 313 were not enough to keep him from losing all of his 19-point cushion on 35th in owner points. Like teammate Conway, who also lost ground to the bubble, Kvapil had a quiet run except for a single incident that could have been much worse. For Kvapil, that incident took place in Friday’s practice, when Tony Stewart rammed his Ford coming off turn 2, twisting the sheetmetal on his left-rear quarterpanel in frustration. In the race, Kvapil finished two laps down to the leader while carrying the A&W paint scheme last seen on John Andretti’s No. 34 last fall at Martinsville.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT PHOENIX

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-9 points behind 35th)
Monday’s Finish: 34th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-54 points behind 35th)

When a deal competing in a Monster Jam rally fell through, Gordon brought the team’s best car to Martinsville in an attempt to close a tantalizingly close nine-point gap on the bubble. The goal of making up that ground was paramount; with continued support from BAM Racing, Gordon announced his part-time schedule would extend up to May, at which point a rumored return to Indianapolis could potentially occur. However, a spectacular engine failure in Happy Hour dropped the No. 7 from his points-assigned 38th spot to the rear, which foreshadowed a pair of right-front tire failures on laps 129 and 234 that brought out two caution flags. Worse still, the damage he suffered from dragging his wounded Toyota to the pits dropped him 28 laps off the pace by race’s end. That leaves the No. 7 team in a deeper hole, one that won’t be easy to dig out of at Phoenix the week after next.

No. 36 – Mike Bliss (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-48)
Monday’s Finish: 25th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-66)

After he narrowly missed the show at Bristol, Bliss and the No. 36 team were probably one of the few thankful that qualifying was washed out, which secured them the 39th starting spot in Bliss’s 100th Cup race. His day on Monday almost ended early, however, when Bubble combatant David Stremme lost control of his Ford while racing Bliss into turn 3 on lap 65. Bliss made slight contact with the outside wall in the incident, but though he lost two laps before the race ended, the Stremme scuffle appeared to be his only close call. However, like Kvapil, Bliss’s mid-20s finish still cost him owner points (18), meaning that TBR must strive for top-20 finishes to close the gap.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-12)
Monday’s Finish: 37th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-66)

Encouraged by Stremme’s 24th-place finish at Bristol and applauded for its sponsorship donation to the Air National Guard, Latitude 43 Motorsports decided to bring both back at Martinsville and close their own 12-point deficit to the Top 35. However, the 508 laps of Monday’s race saw the No. 26 become a frequent victim of short track misfortune. After the aforementioned spin with Bliss, which came just after Stremme got the Lucky Dog on lap 43, the No. 26 was crushed in a chain-reaction accident on lap 172, sending a huge geyser of water shooting several feet in the air above his ruptured radiator. Repairs required more than 64 laps, after which Stremme returned to the track before he fell out with rear gear problems after 307 laps. There is no word as of yet whether full-time driver Boris Said will return at Phoenix, nor what the car’s sponsor will be.

No. 13 – Max Papis (Germain Racing)
Incoming 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-80)
Monday’s Finish: 40th
Current 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-143)

Although I like to focus on teams slated to run the full schedule in 2010, I have added Papis’s No. 13 to this week’s article as Germain Racing may be adopting a change of strategy. Before a spin during qualifying at Bristol caused them to miss their first race of the season, Papis had finishes of 40th, 28th, 33rd and 34th, including an inspiring rally into February’s Daytona 500. With the exception of a few dented fenders, the No. 13 has followed FRM’s model in keeping the car intact. However, it is unclear whether or not the brake problems that forced Papis out of the race after 52 laps were the result of Germain Racing adopting a start-and-park approach to stretch its part-time funding into a full-time effort. Neither Bristol, nor Martinsville, nor the upcoming race at Phoenix were on the No. 13’s 20-race schedule for 2010.

2010 Bubble Chart After Martinsville

PosOwnerCar #DriverPointsPoints +/- of 35th Place
31TRG Motorsports71Bobby Labonte504+43
32Furniture Row Racing78Regan Smith495+34
33Front Row Motorsports38Kevin Conway482+21
34Front Row Motorsports37David Gilliland466+5
35Front Row Motorsports34Travis Kvapil4610
36BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports7Robby Gordon407-54
37Tommy Baldwin Racing36Mike Bliss395-66
38Latitude 43 Motorsports26David Stremme/Boris Said395-66
39Germain Racing13Max Papis318-143
40NEMCO Motorsports87Joe Nemechek251-210
41PRISM Motorsports55Michael McDowell/Michael Waltrip249-212
42PRISM Motorsports66Dave Blaney248-213
43Keyed-Up Motorsports90Casey Mears225-236
44Wood Brothers21Bill Elliott202-259
45Phoenix Racing09Aric Almirola201-260
46Whitney Motorsports46Terry Cook180-281