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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: The Curious Case of Kevin Conway

Last week on the Bubble Breakdown: A wild afternoon of restrictor-plate chaos at Talladega vaulted Robby Gordon back into the Top 35 while Robert Richardson Jr., back in the No. 37, saw his Front Row team fall just two points out in 36th. Between the two teams sat the car driven by Kevin Conway, whose slow and steady approach to race day put him back in bubble jeopardy following a Talladega slugfest he avoided by never running fast enough to catch the draft. Would Conway’s No. 38 “stay out of trouble” strategy be enough to keep his nose clean at “The Action Track” in Richmond? Read on to find out how his team’s spot in the Top 35 shakes out after a night full of changes at the back end of NASCAR’s points standings!

LOCKED-IN AT DARLINGTON

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+121 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+102 points ahead of 35th)

Elliott Sadler started Saturday’s race in 24th, but when an uneventful race turned disastrous, the No. 19 team slid 19 points closer to the Bubble and into this week’s discussion. It was Sadler who brought the 192-lap green flag run to an end in the second half of the race when his right-rear tire cut down with 33 laps to go, sending his Ford into a spin. As the fourth caution flew, Sadler’s car ground around the track with all four tires flat, then came to a halt just past the entrance of pit road. The spin and subsequent repairs dropped him 15 laps down by the checkered flag, bringing the No. 19 the closest it’s been to the bubble since they were 56 points ahead after Las Vegas in March.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+73)
Saturday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+69)

Bobby Labonte and TRG Motorsports left Richmond with their second-worst finish of 2010 (three laps down to the leaders) but lost just four points to the bubble. Though his fender was the one that finally cut down Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s left-rear tire on lap 200, Labonte’s conservative run was not due to misfortunes on the track, but likely to a lack of primary sponsorship for the second time in four races. Tax Slayer returns to the No. 71 once again next week at Darlington, though, where another “survival-type” run could pay far bigger dividends in this season’s Top-35 battle.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+33)
Saturday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+38)

Regan Smith’s 29th-place qualifying run on Friday gave the No. 78 the first pit stall at the entrance of pit road, leading to near-disaster during a round of green-flag stops. The incident occurred near the halfway mark, when Smith locked his brakes right in front of Mark Martin, who was closing fast. Smith then lit up the brakes again with 19 laps to go once David Ragan spun in front of him in turn 1, requiring some evasive maneuvers to keep his nose clean. When the smoke settled, Smith finished in one piece but two laps down, dealt his sixth consecutive finish outside the top 20 (30th). Despite the performance, Smith still managed to gain five points on the bubble in the ever-tightening battle for 35th.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+20)
Saturday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+31)

Also two laps down was Gordon, who avoided a spinning Clint Bowyer across the finish line and gained 11 points on the bubble. Locked in again next week at Darlington, Gordon found some valuable primetime exposure for his BAM Racing sponsorship package (Warner Records) as he fought to fend off leaders Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch on lap 225. If Gordon winds up outside the Top 35 and forced to sit on the sidelines for June, July, and beyond it sure won’t be from a lack of trying….

No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+30)
Saturday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+23)

Travis Kvapil finished a nondescript four laps down at race’s end. But with all the bubble cars turning in subpar performances at Richmond, the team lost only seven points to those around them in the process. Kvapil still leads the Front Row Motorsports contingent in the Top 35, but one problem at Darlington could slip him back to that bubble spot of 35th – which he last occupied after Martinsville – or possibly outside the Top 35 altogether.

No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-2 points behind 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

The top-finishing FRM car at Richmond was David Gilliland’s No. 37, which just narrowly made the show at Richmond during his first “knock-out” qualifying attempt of 2010. On Saturday, he was the first driver to pit under green on lap 139, then made an unscheduled stop on lap 235 that kept him out of contention for the Lucky Dog. Mired in traffic with 19 laps to go, it was his ill-handling car who spun out Ragan in turn 1, causing the fifth caution of the night. Still, Gilliland finished three positions ahead of Kvapil and six ahead of Conway, moving the No. 37 back to the bubble for the third time in 2010.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT DARLINGTON

No. 38 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Saturday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-16 points behind 35th)

13 laps down at the finish, Conway slipped off the Bubble and out of the Top 35 for the first time since he was moved to FRM’s No. 38 at Martinsville. The rookie’s strategy and performance remained unchanged on Saturday night, but the question going into Darlington is whether they’ll let Conway run his first “knock-out” qualifying session on Friday or once again call upon Kvapil or Gilliland to switch rides and guarantee the first-year driver a spot in the field. Considering the rookie’s had seven qualifying runs of 32nd or worse, chances are a number switch will be upon us – especially considering the Lady In Black tends to eat up rookies and spit them out for fun.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-162)
Saturday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-154)

Less than a week after his Ford slid down the Talladega apron during the first multi-car mishap of the Aaron’s 499, David Stremme not only timed his way into the field, but kept the No. 26 among the top-30 finishers for the third time in four races. Though the eight points Stremme gained may not sound like much at first, it should be noted that this is the first points gain the team has had on the bubble since Stremme came on board at Bristol. If Latitude 43 can keep up the pressure on FRM over the summer without any more DNQs, they might have an outside chance of passing one of them up on the way back towards a locked-in spot.

No. 36 – Casey Mears (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-215)
Saturday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-199)

Another team that finally gained points on the bubble was Tommy Baldwin Racing, which signed Casey Mears on Tuesday and scored a one-race associate sponsorship deal from H.D. Segur Inc. the following day. A 13th-place qualifying run on Friday turned some heads, giving a much-needed boost to a team that has weathered two driver changes, a wreck at Talladega and three DNQs since Bristol. Mears clearly held his own, still running 25th on lap 41, losing a lap on lap 93, but never falling further back than that as TBR proceeded to run the entire race. In the end, Mears was the eighth and final car one lap down, scoring the team 16 valuable points in their ongoing battle for the bubble.

No. 13 – Max Papis (Germain Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-250)
Saturday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-290)

It was a short weekend for Max Papis and Germain Racing when Papis overdrove the entrance of turn 1 during his first timed lap, a mistake that destroyed his momentum for lap 2. Visibly frustrated when he returned to pit road, Papis was left with his second DNQ of 2010 as a result. Qualifying at the short tracks has apparently become the team’s Achilles’ Heel: Papis has two consecutive DNQs at Bristol and was only able to make the show at Martinsville when rain washed out the qualifying session.

No. 09 – Mike Bliss (Phoenix Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 40th (-301)
Saturday’s Finish: 40th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 40th (-326)

One week after a feel-good top 10 at Talladega, the realities of running a fledgling team returned to Phoenix Racing as the team was forced to park its unsponsored No. 09 just 86 laps into Saturday’s race. While James Buescher’s Nationwide Series ride will continue to run through the remainder of 2010, there is no word as yet about how much longer Mike Bliss will run the No. 09 Cup Series ride this season – and how long he’ll do it each race.

2010 Bubble Chart After Richmond

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
30 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 871 +102
31 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 838 +69
32 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 807 +38
33 BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 800 +31
34 Front Row Motorsports 34 Travis Kvapil 792 +23
35 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 769 0
36 Front Row Motorsports 38 Kevin Conway 753 -16
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme/Boris Said 615 -154
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Casey Mears 570 -199
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 479 -290
40 Phoenix Racing 09 Mike Bliss 443 -326
41 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 414 -355
42 PRISM Motorsports 55 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 407 -362
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Michael McDowell 391 -378
44 Whitney Motorsports 46 Terry Cook 351 -418

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