NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Restrictor-Plate Heartbreak for Several Competitive Underdogs

Last week, the No. 34 of Front Row Motorsports (driven by Travis Kvapil) slipped back into the Top 35 after Texas. It wasn’t pretty, but that minuscule three-point cushion was enough to push FRM teammate David Gilliland’s No. 37 back onto the bubble spot for the first time since Bristol. At Talladega, that meant it would be up to part-timer Robert Richardson Jr. – making only his third Cup start – to give them breathing room over Robby Gordon, whose No. 7 was now just one point away from unseating the No. 37 team in 36th. Could RGM win back their coveted spot on the grid, knocking FRM back out?

Meanwhile, a pair of 50-point penalties wreaked havoc with two teams on either side of the bubble. Could the drivers of those cars bounce back after such a deflating week? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Breakdown….

LOCKED-IN AT RICHMOND

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG Daugherty Racing)
Owner Points Ranking After Texas: 26th (+171 points ahead of 35th)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 47 Penalty: 28th (+121 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+86 points ahead of 35th)

Three straight top-20 finishes by Ambrose since his costly wreck at Bristol seemed to have put the No. 47 on the right track. However, the 171-point lead he enjoyed over 36th would not last long. The weighted lower radiator pan found on Ambrose’s car at Texas cost the team in fines, probation, and – most critically – 50 owner points. Sunday’s race offered no solace. A lap 64 pit-road accident with Brad Keselowski during green-flag stops required lengthy repairs that cost him a lap. Though Ambrose scored the Lucky Dog under the fourth caution with 88 to go, all that accomplished was putting his Toyota in the wrong place at the wrong time. The place was turn 3, the time – lap 190. When Joey Logano clipped Ryan Newman during the first green-white-checkered attempt, Ambrose was turned hard into the outside wall by Bobby Labonte, leaving his Toyota in a flaming heap on the apron. While Ambrose was unhurt, the crash cost him 35 points in addition to the 50 from the Texas penalty.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+66)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+73)

Back with his TaxSlayer.com sponsorship, Labonte was an early threat for a top-10 finish at the same track he scored TRG’s lone top-10 run last fall. He ran sixth on lap 17, then led off pit road during the third caution on lap 84. Remaining in contention through the halfway point, even a penalty for Labonte’s crew coming over the wall too soon couldn’t dampen his effort. After losing track position, Jimmie Johnson drafted the No. 71 back up to fifth with 55 laps to go, and the team looked to be a darkhorse victory contender. Unfortunately, Labonte lost touch with the lead draft in the ensuing green-flag run, then was spun off turn 2 by David Reutimann with 11 laps to go. He avoided contact with the inside wall but, like Ambrose, ended up at ground zero for the big lap 190 wreck during the first GWC attempt. Unlike Ambrose, Labonte avoided serious damage and finished 23rd, the next-to-last car on the lead lap. That recovery gained Labonte seven points on the bubble.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+66)
Sunday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+33)

Flashes of November, 2008 came to mind when Smith flexed the muscle of his Childress chassis and Hendrick engine during Sunday’s early laps. Smith flirted with the lead as early as lap 12, then led twice for three laps (lap 72, laps 95-96). Four laps after he got knocked out of first, Smith was still in the top 10 when his engine detonated halfway through the tri-oval. The tremendous plume of smoke signaled the end of his day and a 33-point loss on the bubble. Next week at Richmond, Smith must fight to get some of those points back at the track where he scored his first career DNF last season.

No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+3)
Sunday’s Finish: 18th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+30)

While his FRM teammates struggled to keep up with the lead draft, the polesitter for the fall race in 2008 managed to finish in the top 20 for the first time this season. Kvapil gained 27 valuable owner points on the day, including five for leading lap 86 during the third caution of the race.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-1 point behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 20th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+20)

Equally surprising on the Talladega high-banks was Gordon, who was not only the fastest “go-or-go-home” car in Friday’s first practice, but climbed from 38th to the lead on Sunday during laps 21 and 22. Still in contention throughout most of the day, a costly speeding penalty seemed to take the wind out of Gordon’s sails; a pass-through penalty after green-flag stops cost him a lap on the field. But the big lap 190 wreck that involved Ambrose and Labonte gave Gordon the Lucky Dog, which allowed him to finish on the lead lap. The run netted Gordon’s No. 7 a total of 21 points on the bubble, moving him past two of the three FRM teams and locking him into the show at Richmond.

No. 38 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+14)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

For the fourth time in the four races since the 2010 owner points set this year’s field, we have a new team on the bubble. Conway lost the draft early and fell the first of his five laps down on lap 42. From there, the rookie reused the strategy that has defined his 2010 season: logging laps at a reduced pace while steering clear of the leaders. But as Conway often pulled this maneuver by running the low line around the track on Sunday, the three-wide lead pack was able to avoid him without serious incident. In fact, the No. 38 was not the cause of any of the day’s multi-car accidents. Although Conway survived his first restrictor-plate race (albeit five laps down), the 30th-place finish dropped him to the bubble for the second time in 2010. Heading to Richmond, the question now is whether FRM will again make one of Conway’s teammates switch rides with him to keep the team’s youngest driver off the bubble.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT RICHMOND

No. 37 – Robert Richardson Jr. (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-2 points behind 35th)

Two months after a late crash marred his first Daytona 500, Richardson returned to FRM for his third Cup start. This time, Richardson climbed into the No. 37, which came to Talladega on the bubble following a 29th-place finish by Gilliland at Texas. Hopes were high that Richardson would replicate his 18th-place finish at Talladega last fall and, by and large, those hopes were satisfied. Richardson lost the draft from the drop of the green flag and was lapped on lap 14. While this gave the No. 37 the Lucky Dog under the first competition caution on lap 20, it did not prevent the rookie from losing two laps by the checkered flag. Still, Richardson kept the nose of his Ford clean with a 26th-place finish, which cost the team just two points in the standings. That may make all the difference to Gilliland, who will likely return to the No. 37 at Richmond.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Texas: 38th (-157)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 13 Penalty: 37th (-157)
Sunday’s Finish: 27th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-162)

One position and one lap behind Richardson was Stremme. Saturday’s rains washed away the memories of the team’s back-to-back DNQs at Phoenix and Texas, giving Stremme and Latitude 43 Motorsports their first start since Martinsville. But while Stremme’s Cup career has been marked by flashes of promise at restrictor-plate tracks (most notably a solid run driving in relief of Dario Franchitti in 2008), the No. 26 was not a factor on race day. He scored the Lucky Dog under the second caution on lap 76, only to spin out during the multi-car wreck that ensued eight laps later. Stremme finished three laps down in 27th; however, on the plus side, he only lost five points on the bubble. A slip by Gilliland in Friday’s qualifying session, combined with a good run at Richmond, could pay big dividends for the No. 26 team.

No. 36 – Johnny Sauter (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Owner Points Ranking After Texas: 39th (-169)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 13 Penalty: 38th (-169)
Sunday’s Finish: 41st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-215)

With a solid performance during the preliminary events for February’s Daytona 500 under its belt, TBR came to Talladega hoping to recapture some of that SpeedWeeks magic. This time, Wave Energy Drink was wholly absent from the No. 36, replaced instead by a throwback paint job that paid tribute to Tommy Baldwin’s father and his gold-and-brown modified series ride. Unfortunately, the throwback car ended up playing the starring role in a multi-car wreck on lap 84, costing the team 46 valuable points. While running in the top 15, Sauter was knocked sideways by Kyle Busch in the tri-oval, destroying the No. 36 and ending Michael Waltrip’s equally-promising run in PRISM Motorsports’ No. 55. There is no indication as of yet who will drive for Baldwin next week at Richmond, nor whether Wave Energy Drink will return for that race.

No. 13 – Max Papis (Germain Racing)
Owner Points Ranking After Texas: 37th (-156)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 13 Penalty: 39th (-206)
Sunday’s Finish: 40th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-250)

Like Ambrose, Papis felt the sting of a 50-point penalty for a weighted lower radiator pan at Texas. For his No. 13 team, the penalty dropped him back behind both the No. 26 and No. 36 teams before the Talladega event ever began. Once the race started, things did not go much better for the GEICO Toyota. The nose of Papis’s car was caved-in during the lap 84 melee, sending him to the garage right behind the No. 36 of Sauter. With a total loss of 94 points on the week, it is again doubtful if Germain Racing’s effort at a full season will lock the team into the Top 35.

No. 09 – Mike Bliss (Phoenix Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 46th (-348)
Sunday’s Finish: 10th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 40th (-301)

It was good news/bad news for one of NASCAR’s most prolific single-car operations. One year after Brad Keselowski’s thrilling victory at Talladega and two months after losing sponsorship from the Miccosukee tribe just days before the Daytona 500, owner James Finch decided on Saturday he will put Phoenix Racing up for sale. The team still had cars in all three events at Talladega, though it is now uncertain what will become of each going into next week. All we know right now is that Bliss, Sunday’s driver in the Cup race, turned in a fantastic performance. Though the No. 09 still lacked primary sponsorship – the deal rumored last week fell through – the plain orange Chevrolet was third fastest in Happy Hour, then on Sunday surged from the 37th starting spot to eighth by lap 48. For the rest of the race, Bliss hovered around the top 15 and narrowly averted disaster on several occasions. The closest call came with six laps to go when he clipped a slowing Jeff Burton into the tri-oval wall, then banged doors with Kasey Kahne and Scott Speed. But any damage sustained in the shunt was incidental and, after starting the final GWC in 15th, he raced up five more spots into the top 10. It was James Finch’s 11th top-10 finish in 133 starts over 17 years of Cup ownership.

2010 Bubble Chart After Talladega

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
30 JTG Racing 47 Marcos Ambrose 787 +86
31 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 774 +73
32 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 734 +33
33 Front Row Motorsports 34 Travis Kvapil 731 +30
34 BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 721 +20
35 Front Row Motorsports 38 Kevin Conway 701 0
36 Front Row Motorsports 37 Robert Richardson Jr. 699 -2
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme/Boris Said 539 -162
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Johnny Sauter 485 -216
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 451 -250
40 Phoenix Racing 09 Mike Bliss 400 -301
41 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 380 -321
42 PRISM Motorsports 55 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 376 -325
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Michael McDowell 366 -335
45 Whitney Motorsports 46 Terry Cook 305 -396

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