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Bubble Breakdown: Darlington Crashfest Keeps Top-35 Tussle Tight

Last week on the Bubble Breakdown: As Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon romped around Richmond, all the bubble contenders fell off the lead lap and were left scrounging for spots from 26th on back. In the end, Kevin Conway finished 13 laps down and lost his spot on the bubble to Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland, back in the No. 37 after a one-week hiatus at Talladega. As Robby Gordon slipped past Travis Kvapil for 33rd, the Front Row trio now straddled the bubble going into Saturday’s unpredictable Southern 500 at Darlington. But how well did FRM court the “Lady in Black?” Read on to find out.

LOCKED-IN AT DOVER

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+102 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 21st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+138 points ahead of 35th)

After weeks of struggles and a particularly rough outing last week at Richmond, Sadler had a much more pleasant outing at Darlington with his best finish since Texas. After qualifying 38th, Sadler’s team used pit strategy to its advantage. Past the halfway point with 145 laps to go, the No. 19 was running ninth, having skipped a trip to pit road under the seventh caution 23 laps prior. Though he would lose a lap in the final stages and grind the wall in turns 3 and 4 with 13 laps to go, Sadler remained on the track and ended up with 36 more owner points between him and the bubble.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+113)
Saturday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+119)

Just two weeks after he climbed to 28th in owner points, Hornish followed up his costly wreck at Richmond with another challenging night at Darlington. On lap 170, it was his Dodge that slammed into the unforgiving turn 2 fence just as leader Denny Hamlin was lapping Jimmie Johnson. The resulting caution, the fifth of the night, not only gave Johnson the Lucky Dog, but ironically showcased the resilience of both the Car of Tomorrow and the Penske team. Hornish not only went on to finish the race, but did so just nine laps down despite a subsequent spin past the halfway mark and a car that looked like it came straight from the junkyard. The run earned Hornish six owner points heading to Dover.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+38)
Saturday’s Finish: 17th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+86)

The most pleasant surprise in Saturday’s Battle for the Bubble was the performance of Smith, who chalked up his best finish since he was 14th in Atlanta and padded his bubble cushion by 48 points. Smith scored the 32nd starting spot by the skin of his teeth – or rather, paint – when his Furniture Row Chevrolet came inches from losing control off turn 4. From there, Smith crept into contention and stayed on the lead lap all night without the aid of a single Lucky Dog. Smith was running 21st on lap 78, then turned some heads when he moved to 12th with 145 laps to go. He slipped a few spots in the late-race chaos, but sped across the finish line as the next-to-last car on the lead lap with hardly a scratch on his Chevrolet.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+69)
Saturday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+66)

On the other end of the spectrum from Smith was Labonte, whose TaxSlayer Chevrolet gave up the ghost with crash damage after it completed 297 laps. The trouble began on lap 53 when the No. 71 suddenly snapped loose off turn 4 and plowed the outside wall. Though the team made repairs under a subsequent caution for Joey Logano, Labonte’s car was never the same for the rest of the night. Labonte fell off the lead lap, got the Lucky Dog under the fourth caution on lap 85, then lost it again when he received a penalty for knocking over the commitment cone on lap 151. His car showered debris on the track on lap 227, then tangled with fellow bubble driver Gilliland on lap 282 as they raced off turn 2. The Gilliland incident ultimately took Labonte out of the race, but with all the night’s chaos, it all cost him just three points on the bubble.

No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+23)
Saturday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+44)

Practically invisible for much of the race, Kvapil successfully avoided the night’s chaos and finished well ahead of his FRM teammates, three laps down to winner Hamlin. Kvapil’s run moved him up a spot in the owner points with a healthy 21-point gain.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing / Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+31)
Saturday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+21)

Like Labonte, Robby Gordon suffered a DNF at Darlington but paid a small price in the rankings. Gordon was the only bubble driver to lead a lap Saturday when he stayed out for a lap during the first caution on lap 47. The strategy cost him track position, forcing him to make several bold moves through traffic to remain on the lead lap. Gordon’s most spectacular maneuver came around lap 130, when he completed a three-wide pass on Logano and Scott Speed only to slap the wall in turn 3. Hw lost a lap to Jeff Gordon a few moments later, then lost the engine as the track crews were cleaning up Hornish’s crash on lap 170. Still, thanks in part to leading that single lap, Gordon lost just 10 points on the bubble. Now, though, he has no other car separating him from 35th.

No. 37 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Saturday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

To no one’s surprise, FRM had Conway and Gilliland switch numbers for the second time in 2010 to guarantee the rookie a spot in Saturday’s field. But while Conway remained slow in practice and qualifying, per usual, he seemed much faster on race day. On lap 89, the Extenze Ford was still on the lead lap. However, the unforgiving walls of the old speedway soon took their toll. Just seconds before AJ Allmendinger’s spectacular wreck with Johnson, Conway slapped the wall off turn 2, forcing him behind the wall for several laps worth of repairs. No sooner did he return to the track, with 50 laps to go, when he got stuffed into the turn 4 fence by Brian Vickers, taking him out of the race for the first time in his young Sprint Cup career. Still, with the earlier misfortune of his teammate Gilliland, Conway still holds fast to the bubble and will be in the show next week at Dover.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT DOVER

No. 38 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-16 points behind 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 35th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-22 points behind 35th)

Back in the number with which he started the season at California, Gilliland found the wall early and often and lost six points to the bubble. His most severe incident was the aforementioned tangle with Labonte on lap 282, which sent his car head-on into the inside retaining wall on the backstretch. Though his Ford put on a spectacular display of exhaust flames and spraying radiator water, Gilliland managed to drive his rolling fireworks display back to the garage and, eventually, back into the race. He completed only a handful more laps, though, before parking it for good after he clicked off just 283 of a potential 367. That means next week, Gilliland must again qualify on time for the race which saw his first last-place finish in Sprint Cup competition last May.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-154)
Saturday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-127)

When Gilliland hit the fence, Stremme and the beleaguered Latitude 43 Motorsports team knew they had a chance to capitalize. The Air National Guard Ford received the Lucky Dog twice (laps 62 and 232) and scored the team’s best finish since Bristol as the only car two laps down. The steady run brought the team 27 points closer to the bubble and within 105 points of Gilliland’s No. 38, while adding 63 points to their margin over 38th-ranked Casey Mears in the No. 36.

No. 36 – Casey Mears (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-199)
Saturday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-235)

Stremme’s 63-point gain on Mears came after a terrible Friday for TBR. The team’s primary car was annihilated in a Happy Hour accident off turn 2, leaving Mears with a backup that was unable to time its way into the field. It was the No. 36’s fourth DNQ of 2010 and the first with Mears as driver. The team lost 36 points in its pursuit of the bubble heading into Dover.

Joining Mears on the early ride home were Joe Nemechek, who also lost his primary car in a crash during Happy Hour. Nemechek’s first DNQ of 2010 cost him 33 points and dropped his No. 87 team to 42nd in owner points, 388 out of 35th. Mike Bliss in Phoenix Racing’s No. 09 also missed the race, dropping them 39 points back to 40th in owner points, 365 points back.

No. 13 – Max Papis (Germain Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-290)
Saturday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-278)

Thankfully for Papis and Germain Racing, the only major hiccup the team suffered at Darlington was when the GEICO Toyota had to be push-started during qualifying on Friday. Papis got the job done, squeezing his way into the 43rd and final starting spot for his second straight appearance at Darlington. Papis finished six laps down on Saturday, but gained valuable experience while inching 12 points closer to the bubble.

2010 Bubble Chart After Darlington

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
30 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 952 +119
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 919 +86
32 TRG Motorsports 78 Bobby Labonte 899 +66
33 Front Row Motorsports 34 Travis Kvapil 877 +44
34 BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 854 +21
35 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 833 0
36 Front Row Motorsports 38 Kevin Conway 811 -22
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme/Boris Said 706 -127
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Casey Mears 598 -235
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 555 -278
40 Phoenix Racing 09 Mike Bliss 468 -365
41 PRISM Motorsports 55 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 450 -383
42 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 445 -388
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Michael McDowell 428 -405
44 Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 391 -442

 

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