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Bubble Breakdown: Robby’s Top 15 Bursts Kvapil’s Bubble Inside Top 35

Robby Gordon picked up a well-deserved 14th-place finish in Saturday’s Subway Fresh Fit 600 at Phoenix. But was that enough to get him inside the Top 35? Meanwhile, David Stremme’s No. 26 and Mike Bliss’s No. 36 both failed to make the race, meaning their 37th and 38th-ranked teams both lost nearly 40 points on the bubble. How have their promising starts fizzled into a handful of DNQs?

For a complete weekend recap on the Top-35 race and the latest news on NASCAR’s underdogs, read on in this week’s newly-reformatted edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

BUBBLE NEWS COMING INTO PHOENIX

No. 90 – On March 30, Scott Riggs was tabbed as Keyed-Up Motorsports’ new driver for both Phoenix and Texas. Riggs stepped in for Casey Mears, who had been picked as Denny Hamlin’s relief driver for those same two events. Mears left the team on good terms, despite scoring his fifth DNQ in six races with the team at Martinsville; in fact, he’s been invited to run the No. 90 later this season. But at Phoenix, attention would turn to whether Riggs could make his first Cup race since he left Tommy Baldwin’s operation after last year’s Coca-Cola 600, whether the No. 90 could climb out of a 236-point deficit on the bubble, and if the team could gain additional sponsorship to expand their schedule beyond the end of May. More on that in a bit.

No. 7 – On April 8, Gordon picked up a new crew chief, Miles Stanley. Stanley replaced Iain Watt, who was crew chief for the No. 7 in the first six races of 2010. In those six races, Gordon and Watt fell out of the Top 35 after an early crash at Atlanta, then saw a nine-point deficit on the bubble after Bristol grow to 54 during a forgettable afternoon in Martinsville. With the short-track season behind him, Gordon’s Top-35 prospects were looking bleak entering the weekend. Not only was he 36th in owner points but he sat just 12 points ahead of both the No. 36 for Tommy Baldwin Racing and the No. 26 of Latitude 43 Motorsports, both in a position to make a move on him at Phoenix.

No. 71 – Although Phoenix marked the first of 20 races where TaxSlayer.com would not adorn their Chevrolet in 2010, Bobby Labonte and TRG Motorsports scored two more sponsorship deals. On April 6th, Governor Rick Perry of Texas announced his campaign would serve as primary sponsor on the No. 71 in next week’s Samsung Mobile 500. Three days later, Victory Lane Wealth Solutions, impressed with results from their two-race deal with TRG in 2009, also signed on as an associate sponsor for the rest of 2010. Still, without primary sponsorship at Phoenix and a slim 43-point cushion on the bubble, the challenge for Labonte was to turn in a solid performance in hopes of attracting more sponsorship.

No. 55, No. 66 – Teammates Dave Blaney and Michael McDowell switched rides at Phoenix: Blaney moved to the No. 55 and McDowell to the No. 66. As with Michael Waltrip’s substitution of McDowell at Bristol last month, PRISM Motorsports’ reason behind the switch was to prepare for Waltrip’s turn in the No. 55 at Talladega. However, unlike at Bristol (where Waltrip himself ran the car), Blaney was selected to run the No. 55 as he had historically qualified better and run more laps than McDowell. However, both teams still ultimately intend to start and park until the cash infusion from Waltrip the end of the month.

QUALIFYING

Friday was a day of surprises for the underdogs of the Cup Series. All four of Friday’s top qualifiers had yet to win a Cup race, including Sam Hornish Jr., whose No. 77 qualified third. 30th in owner points, just 55 ahead of the Bubble, Hornish was riding off the momentum of a 13th-place finish at Martinsville into one of his favorite tracks. Phoenix had been the scene of Hornish’s first Cup start, his first top 10 and, as of Friday, his best qualifying run of the 2010 season.

Equally impressive was McDowell, whose No. 66 backed up a stunning second-fastest time in the first practice session with a 12th-place run. Ironically, teammate Blaney, author of two top-five qualifying efforts in 2010, could only manage 31st in Waltrip’s No. 55. A subsequent reconfirmation that McDowell’s No. 66 was not prepared to run the entire race raised questions about how many laps – or how few – Blaney and McDowell would run.

Just like at Bristol, both Keyed-Up Motorsports and Whitney Motorsports made the show at the same time: Riggs’s No. 90 timed in 35th while Terry Cook secured the 43rd and final starting spot in the No. 46. Though sponsorship still eluded Riggs, Cook had gained “backing” from Autism Speaks in what was a Latitude 43 Motorsports-inspired “sponsor donation.”

As the desert sun scorched the 1-mile oval, however, several bubble drivers struggled to find the right line around the track. In his first timed qualifying lap as a locked-in driver of the No. 71, Labonte pulled an early draw in qualifying and could only manage a 40th-place run. The three Front Row Motorsports cars, each within 21 points of the bubble, qualified no better than David Gilliland’s No. 37 in 36th – in fact, teammates No. 34 Travis Kvapil and No. 38 Kevin Conway would both start Saturday’s race in Row 21. Gordon’s No. 7 also struggled, posting the 33rd-fastest time with a car so loose that he slapped the frontstretch wall on his second lap.

But in a touch of irony, Gordon’s bad day came packaged with good news – dual misfortunes for each his two rivals for the Bubble. Although Stremme’s No. 26 did not sustain serious damage when he scraped the wall in Happy Hour, he was edged by Cook for the final spot in the field by a mere three-hundredths of a second. Those three hundredths brought about Latitude 43 Motorsports’ first DNQ of the 2010 season, just two races after losing their Top-35 immunity. Also unhappy was Bliss, whose No. 36 missed its second race of the year in just seven attempts. Bliss came to the track with only partial sponsorship from Wave Energy Drink, his Chevrolet’s colorful blue paint job noticeably absent. Although Bliss was unable to find enough speed, his part-time teammate Johnny Sauter in the No. 35 managed to make his 2010 debut from the 37th spot, allowing Tommy Baldwin’s young operation to continue gathering valuable notes on race day. Still, by missing the show, Stremme and Bliss’s two teams have fallen to 102 and 106 points, respectively, behind the bubble. Why the slippage? Both their teams have a limited degree of notes to draw upon, and they’re also adjusting to new driver combinations: Stremme and Bliss are in their third and seventh race, respectively, with those programs, still riding the roller coaster that is establishing a solid chemistry with the crew.

Two other drivers missed the show: Aric Almirola’s No. 09 for Phoenix Racing, which fell from 260 to 299 points behind the bubble after his third DNQ of 2010, and west coast part-timer Brandon Ash in his family-owned No. 02.

RACE DAY

The bubble burst for Kvapil on Saturday when his No. 34 Long John Silver’s Ford, already five laps down at the time, erupted in a huge plume of engine smoke as it entered turn 1 on lap 314. The 36th-place finish that resulted knocked him outside the Top 35; now, his FRM team sits seven points back in 36th. Kvapil’s FRM teammates did not fare much better, either: Conway lost three points of his own when his No. 38 finished 33rd, seven laps down, while Gilliland’s No. 37 gained back five points, but is still ranked 34th after winding up four laps down in 32nd. Kvapil (lap 58) and Gilliland (lap 19) were each able to salvage five bonus points by leading a lap, but the rookie Conway was unable to follow suit. In fact, Conway has yet to even finish any of his starts on the lead lap; the closest he’s come was Fontana, where he wound up three laps off the pace in 31st.

With FRM struggling, that opened the door a crack for their competition; and wouldn’t you know it, Gordon stepped into the limelight. That slip in qualifying proved to be his only mistake of the weekend, as without a doubt, a 14th-place run during Saturday’s race proved to be the top Bubble story of the night. From as early as lap 109, Gordon’s No. 7 hovered between 14th and 20th on the track, remaining on the lead lap without the aid of a single Lucky Dog. Even when his car began to lose its handle in the final 50 laps, the ferocious Californian still waged a spirited battle with David Ragan and Brad Keselowski at or about 17th place.

That’s where his Warner Brothers Records car would stay until just before the finish, where Gordon gained three more spots thanks in part to the ninth and final caution that flew with four laps to go. At that point, Riggs in the Keyed-Up No. 90 blew a right-front tire, sending his car into the wall between turns 3 and 4. The wreck ended an excellent performance by Riggs, who was still running on the lead lap in 25th at the time of the accident. Despite the wreck, Doug Richert and crew were able to get Riggs back on the track fast enough that the incident only cost them a lap and three positions on the track. The team’s 28th-place result was two positions better than Mears’s run at Bristol, gaining the team 12 points on the bubble in a run that could earn Riggs some more time behind the wheel.

Although he missed the top 10 with an 18th-place finish, Sam Hornish Jr. had himself a solid performance all night with the No. 77 Dodge. Hornish kept pace with polesitter AJ Allmendinger in the early stages, remaining inside the top 10 through much of the middle stages of the race. While his teammates Kurt Busch and Keselowski found the outside wall, Hornish kept his Dodge in one piece and padded his bubble cushion by 43 points, the second-highest gain to Gordon’s 54 as he jumped outside the bubble discussion for now.

Solid runs by No. 71 Labonte (27th) and No. 78 Regan Smith (26th) also gained both drivers 15 and 14 points, respectively, on the bubble. Unfortunately for the PRISM Motorsports cars of No. 55 Blaney (42nd) and No. 66 McDowell (43rd), however, each lost nearly 30 points even though they both ran their underfunded cars more than 149 laps. It was an interesting game of chicken at the back of the pack, with several start-and-park cars trying desperately to avoid being the first car out of the race – subjecting themselves to NASCAR’s extensive (and expensive) engine teardown program. In the end, it was McDowell who bit the bullet, while the No. 55 came in behind him to fall 237 points out of 35th in owner points. That means even if both teams ran the distance next week, Waltrip will be forced to get the car in on qualifying speed at Talladega.

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2010 Bubble Chart After Phoenix

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 586 +58
32 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 580 +52
33 Front Row Motorsports 38 Kevin Conway 546 +18
34 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 538 +10
35 BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 528 0
36 Front Row Motorsports 34 Travis Kvapil 521 -7
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme/Boris Said 426 -102
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Mike Bliss 420 -108
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 361 -167
40 Keyed-Up Motorsports 90 Scott Riggs 304 -224
41 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 300 -228
42 PRISM Motorsports 55 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 291 -237
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Michael McDowell 287 -241
44 Whitney Motorsports 46 Terry Cook 246 -282
45 Phoenix Racing 09 Aric Almirola 229 -299

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