NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: 3’s Not the Charm for David Reutimann in Texas

Last week on the Bubble Breakdown, a 14th-place finish at Phoenix vaulted Robby Gordon’s No. 7 back onto the bubble, locking him into a Cup race for the first time since Bristol. Gordon bumped out the No. 34 car driven by Travis Kvapil, who finished 36th after his engine exploded on lap 314. At Texas, Kvapil would have to participate in his first knockout qualifying session of 2010 to have any hope of closing the seven-point deficit he had to Gordon.

For more on No. 7 vs. No. 34 and the other bubble stories from Monday’s race, read on as the Breakdown returns to its team-by-team format!

LOCKED IN AT TALLADEGA

No. 00 – David Reutimann (Michael Waltrip Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 25th (+143 points ahead of 35th)
Monday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+109 points ahead of 35th)

For the third time in five races, a disastrous mechanical problem struck the Aaron’s Dream Machine; and this time, the spectacular engine failure that set Reutimann’s car ablaze on lap 310 put the No. 00 in Bubble jeopardy. It’s a shame, because just like Bristol, Reutimann had one of the fastest cars on the track in Monday’s race. He qualified 16th and, despite a distracting alternator light in the cockpit, remained in the top 10 for much of the day, reaching the top five near the halfway mark. On lap 154, Reutimann fought Jimmie Johnson for third, then floated between fourth and eighth for much of the rest of the day. Towards the end, he was racing Tony Stewart just as hard for sixth inside the last 30 laps when the engine let go, bringing out the sixth caution of the race that wound up jumbling the final running order.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+52)
Monday’s Finish: 21st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+66)

Fresh off a solid 26th-place finish at Phoenix and a productive test with road racer Chris Cook at Infineon Raceway, Smith brought the same RCR-prepared Chevrolet from Phoenix to the Lone Star State. Smith qualified 26th at Texas, kept his nose clean, and advanced five positions despite losing two laps. That allowed him to gain an additional 14-point cushion on the bubble headed to Talladega, where both Smith and FRR have historically been very competitive.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+58)
Monday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+66)

One week after running a blank white Chevrolet at Phoenix, Labonte brought an eye-catching paint job to his home track, thanks to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s campaign footing the bill. Labonte qualified 41st and, like Smith, ran a solid race. He finished two laps down, but gained 18 positions on the track and eight points on the bubble. Next week at Talladega, part-time primary sponsor TaxSlayer will again adorn the No. 71, at a track where Labonte won in 1998 and finished 10th last fall – still the team’s best ever run since joining the Cup Series last year.

No. 38 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+18)
Monday’s Finish: 27th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+14)

Once again the only rookie of the race, Conway reprised his role as NASCAR’s “student driver,” keeping to the high lane out of harm’s way as the frontrunners slugged it out for the lead. Conway qualified 40th and fell off the lead lap early; when all was said and done, the No. 38 wound up five laps off the pace. Still, Conway’s Ford remained in one piece and only lost four points on the bubble thanks to his best Cup finish in seven starts (topping a 28th-place run at Bristol). As Conway failed to gain approval for the Daytona 500, it will be interesting to see how the rookie negotiates the 33-degree learning curve that is Talladega for the first time next week.

No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-7 points behind 35th)
Monday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+3)

Kvapil successfully negotiated Friday’s knockout qualifying session by securing the 35th starting spot. Kvapil was the second-slowest “go-or-go-home” driver to Reed Sorenson’s No. 32 (who started 43rd), but still started ahead of the man he needed to beat on Monday: Gordon (38th). Once the race began, Kvapil fell off the lead lap around lap 60 – at which point he was running right in front of Gordon – then received the Lucky Dog under the second caution on lap 78. The timing of the caution allowed Kvapil to stay out under the next yellow flag on lap 99, securing five bonus points for leading lap 102. That would prove to be the difference; for although Kvapil would finish the race three laps down, he finished two positions and two laps ahead of Gordon, worth a total improvement of 11 points in the standings. Now, Kvapil not only has a guaranteed starting spot at Talladega, where he won his lone pole position in the fall of 2008, but a team car separating his No. 34 from Gordon’s No. 7 machine.

No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+10)
Monday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

That teammate is Gilliland, who after starting the season as FRM’s steadiest driver is back on the bubble. Gilliland brought his best piece to Texas – the very car that was running 16th at Atlanta when it was involved in a late, multi-car wreck – and by qualifying 31st, he was again the fastest of his teammates. But that’s where the good fortune ended this weekend, as the bottom fell out of his Ford in Monday’s race. Gilliland was the first recipient of the Lucky Dog during the competition caution on lap 25, but by the next yellow on lap 78, he had to make a second stop to keep his splitter from bouncing off the track. The broken piece would haunt the handling of his car the rest of the day; by the finish, Gilliland was six laps down in 29th, evaporating all 10 points of his cushion on the bubble. Now, next week at Talladega he must fight to make sure history does not repeat itself; Gilliland’s involvement in an early crash there last spring knocked TRG out of Top-35 contention the rest of the year.

UPDATE: Shortly after this article was posted, the Talladega entry list showed the No. 37 will be driven by rookie Robert Richardson Jr. In two previous starts, Richardson finished 18th at Talladega last fall, but crashed late in February’s Daytona 500 and finished 31st. Although we do know Richardson will be in Sunday’s field, it’s anyone’s guess as to which side of the bubble the No. 37 will be on after 188 laps (give or take) around the Talladega Superspeedway.

NOT LOCKED IN AT TALLADEGA

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Monday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-1)

Another struggle in qualifying trapped Gordon in 38th on race day, but the owner/driver fought hard to score a much-needed mid-20s finish akin to those earned by Labonte and Smith. While the effort was not enough to keep Gordon inside the Top 35, it was enough to keep him just one point away from Gilliland’s No. 37 going into Talladega, where anything can happen. If he turns in a fast enough lap in next Saturday’s qualifying session, the task for Gordon is now refreshingly simple: keep that No. 37 behind you. Of course, at a track like ‘Dega, where positions change multiple times every lap, that’s far easier said than done….

No. 13 – Max Papis (Germain Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-167)
Monday’s Finish: 22nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-156)

As I’ve mentioned before, even though both driver and team were only scheduled to run 20 races in 2010, including next month’s Sprint Showdown, Papis and Germain Racing have attempted every race so far this season in a bid for the Top 35. Although the team has parked at both Martinsville and Phoenix, the effort has allowed the No. 13 car to close in on the No. 26 and No. 36 teams, who have begun to struggle in qualifying. And once the team came to Texas, one of the 20 planned races, Papis was ready to make his move. He was the fastest car outside the Top 35 in practice (25th), qualified 27th that afternoon, and on Monday locked up a 22nd-place finish, two laps down. The effort moved him past the No. 26 and No. 36 duo, which both failed to qualify once again.

However, the effort did not come without controversy. On Saturday, NASCAR confiscated a weighted lower radiator pan from Papis’s car, as well as from the No. 47 of Marcos Ambrose. Any points penalties against Papis could cost him the 11 points and two spots he gained on the Bubble.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-102)
Monday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-157)

Last Monday, Boris Said, who drove for Latitude 43 Motorsports at the start of this season, indicated that Sacred Power may return as the No. 26’s sponsor later this year, pending the outcome of two business deals Sacred Power is working in California. After Stremme missed his second consecutive race when Sorenson’s No. 32 edged him at Texas, the No. 26 team will need that sponsorship sooner rather than later. There is no official word as of yet as to whether Said or Stremme, both of whom are decent at the plate tracks, will pilot the car at Talladega (Stremme’s name is on the entry list). Keep in mind Said scored the team’s second-best finish of 2010 at Daytona, where he crossed the line in 25th.

No. 36 – Johnny Sauter (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-108)
Monday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-169)

Left with his second DNQ of the season at Phoenix, Mike Bliss parted ways with owner Tommy Baldwin as driver of the No. 36, then was picked up by James Finch to take over the No. 09, a car left open when Aric Almirola decided to focus on his Camping World Truck Series ride. Baldwin then moved Sauter from the team’s unsponsored No. 35 that qualified at Phoenix to the No. 36. Turns out Baldwin’s move fell short of paying off for now; while Bliss qualified the No. 09 car 34th at Texas, Sauter was the slowest of the three drivers to miss Monday’s race. Unlike Phoenix, the No. 36 appeared at Texas in full Wave Energy Drink livery, and should also have sufficient sponsorship when Sauter attempts to qualify the car in Sunday’s race at Talladega.

No. 87 – Joe Nemechek (NECMO Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 41st (-228)
Monday’s Finish: 40th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 40th (-271)

At Texas, Nemechek gained another local sponsor, Crosby Roofing, for his Toyota, and he was one of the three fastest cars in practice. However, in Monday’s race, he still surrendered his 22nd starting spot before the green flag and fell out after completing 75 laps. Although the 40th-place finish cost him 43 points more on the bubble, Nemechek may be one to watch next week at Talladega, where he has both qualified and raced well for Felix Sabates and FRR. In last spring’s event, Nemechek finished 14th in his own car, avoiding all the day’s chaos in the process.

Equally interesting to watch at Talladega will be the No. 09 of Bliss and the No. 55 of Michael Waltrip, both of them planning to run the full race with adequate sponsorship. After a 28th-place finish at Phoenix, it will also be interesting to see if Scott Riggs, driver of Keyed-Up Motorsports’ No. 90, will include Talladega as part of its new part-time schedule for 2010. All three teams are ranked 42nd or worse in owner points, each more than 289 points out of 35th.

2010 Bubble Chart After Texas

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
30 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 David Reutimann 723 +109
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 680 +66
32 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 680 +66
33 Front Row Motorsports 38 Kevin Conway 628 +14
34 Front Row Motorsports 34 Travis Kvapil 617 +3
35 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 614 0
36 BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 613 -1
37 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 458 -156
38 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme/Boris Said 457 -157
39 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Johnny Sauter 445 -169
40 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 343 -271
41 PRISM Motorsports 66 Michael McDowell 332 -282
42 PRISM Motorsports 55 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 325 -289
43 Keyed-Up Motorsports 90 Scott Riggs 304 -310
44 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Bill Elliott 290 -324
45 Whitney Motorsports 46 Terry Cook 274 -340
46 Phoenix Racing 09 Mike Bliss 266 -348

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