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Bubble Breakdown: Monster Mile Mashes 2 Teams Into Top-35 Trouble

Last week, the “Lady in Black” brought the Bubble Battle to a boil when Front Row Motorsports teammates Kevin Conway and David Gilliland, back in their old rides from Fontana, both crashed out of the 500-mile marathon. Still, Conway remained on the bubble with his nearest combatants tantalizingly-close in the rankings. Gilliland, 22 points away from a guaranteed starting spot, was left to contend with the No. 26 of David Stremme, suddenly just 105 points behind him.

Then, for the second time in four races, post-race penalties changed the complexion of the Top 35. On Wednesday, a 25-point penalty for Robby Gordon put the No. 7 back on the bubble, just 18 points ahead of Gilliland, while Conway squirted past Robby into 34th. Would “The Monster Mile” prove to be just as unpredictable? Read on to find out!

LOCKED-IN THE COCA-COLA 600

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG-Daugherty Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+180 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+169 points ahead of 35th)

Unfortunately for Ambrose, the aggressive setup with which he attacked The Monster Mile ended up hurting rather than helping his performance. As the race turned into a green-flag affair, his right-front tire simply couldn’t hold up, causing him to slap the wall on two occasions. The second hit, which took place on lap 224, took him out of the race for good when the tire shredded on the way back to pit road. While the wreck cost him points, none of his closest competitors fared much better, and he lost just 11 points as a result.

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+138)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+151)

A week after a solid finish at Darlington, Sadler was back to fighting adversity at Dover. He lost his primary car in Friday’s first practice session when he lost a right-front tire, then faced a similar fate in the Truck Series race that evening. The backup Cup car qualified a respectable 19th, but pit road proved an imposing obstacle. Sadler locked his brakes during the opening green-flag cycle, then made an unscheduled stop on lap 180 that took him out of contention for the Lucky Dog. In the end, he was the only car six laps down, but endured to gain 13 points worth of cushion.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+119)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+114)

A driver who shared Ambrose’s frustrations was Hornish. He was involved in two incidents of his own. His lap 54 encounter with the outside wall in turn one was the first caution of the day, necessitating several laps worth of repairs in the garage area. He then returned before the halfway mark only to lose control off the fourth corner and make slight contact with the inside wall. By the time all the repairs and laps were completed, Hornish was the last car running at the finish, 88 laps down to winner Kyle Busch. The 34th-place run cost him just five points on the bubble.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+86)
Sunday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+111)

To illustrate how difficult it was for the bubble drivers to make any headway at Dover, Smith was the highest-finishing of the group, but ended up the second car four laps down. Smith managed to squeak into the top 25 despite his team’s transmission change, making his the only car sent to the back before the green flag. The 24th-place finish continues a marvelous three-race streak for the No. 78 team in which they have gained 78 owner points on the bubble.

No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+44)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+54)

Another driver who continued his forward progress was Kvapil, author of another quiet finish that gained him 10 points on the bubble. Kvapil was the only car seven laps down at the finish, but has started to challenge teammate Gilliland for the role of FRM’s steadiest performer.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+66)
Sunday’s Finish: 39th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+46)

After eleven races, capped off with a terrible night at Darlington, Labonte was forced to park Kevin Buckler’s No. 71 for the first time in 2010 after just 65 laps. The team was without sponsorship for the third time this season and appeared to be running an older car as it resembled the unsponsored Gilliland’s 2009 No. 71, which ended up parking as well. While the run cost the team 20 points of cushion, Labonte will again have sponsorship for both the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600, where he has a guaranteed starting spot in each. What is unknown is how many more times Labonte will have to call it a day until Tax Slayer returns at Pocono in August – and if the team can stay in the Top 35 during that time.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Darlington: 34th (+21)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 7 Received 25-Point Penalty: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+0)

It was a week of frustration for Gordon’s underdog team. First, the 21-point cushion Gordon held after Darlington evaporated after a 25-point penalty for excessive door braces at Darlington dragged the team back onto the bubble. Then, after qualifying 42nd at Dover, Gordon missed the entrance to pit road during green-flag stops and struggled to keep up from there, winding up 14 laps down. Though not the worst performance among the bubble drivers this week, he will arrive in Charlotte tied for 35th with one of his FRM rivals…

No. 38 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Darlington: 36th (-22 points behind 35th)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 7 Received 25-Point Penalty: 36th (-16 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 25th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

Enter Gilliland, who gained six points on 35th thanks to Gordon’s penalty, then the remaining 16 after he finished 25th, five laps down. His run, second-best of the bubble drivers to the 24th-place finish of Smith, did not turn any heads, though he sneaked into Sunday’s field as the second-slowest car that was then outside the Top 35. Unfortunately, this will not be the last time this month Gilliland will have to “go or go home:” a certain Extenze-sponsored team is again in need of a FRM bailout.

NOT LOCKED-IN THE COCA-COLA 600

No. 37 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Darlington: 35th (On The Bubble)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 7 Received 25-Point Penalty: 34th (+4)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-2)

Like Gordon, Conway experienced his own roller-coaster ride this past week. Gordon’s penalty inched Kevin four points ahead of the bubble, but Miles the Monster was lurking around the corner, ready to wreak havoc with his guaranteed starting spot at the 600. Conway finished under power this week and – except for some slight contact with the outside wall late in the race – avoided any serious incident. Still, the No. 37 seemed to be pit road’s most frequent visitor for no reported reason, like something out of a bladder control medication commercial. By race’s end, Conway was 49 laps down in 33rd and again out of the Top 35, albeit by just two points. With the Memorial Day classic upon us, another FRM team switch between Gilliland and Conway is all but certain.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-127)
Sunday’s Finish: 27th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-111)

Lying in the weeds behind the ongoing saga of “Gordon vs. Front Row” is Stremme, who also avoided any incidents and ended up five laps down in 27th. The guys in the broadcast booth reported that, despite donating their sponsorship, Latitude 43 Motorsports is committed to avoid the “start-and-park” syndrome in 2010. After Stremme inched 16 points closer to 36th in the rankings, this strategy may pay huge dividends. If Labonte’s No. 71 ends up parking more this summer or any of the FRM teams miss a race, don’t be surprised to see the No. 26 return to Top 35 contention.

No. 36 – Johnny Sauter (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-235)
Sunday’s Finish: 43rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-265)

Once a Top-35 favorite, Tommy Baldwin Racing has found itself in a rut, no thanks to driver changes, sponsorship woes and just plain bad luck. Sure, Sauter was the first car to park on Sunday, but the reasons for this should also be considered. The team had an excellent run at Richmond, but faced utter disaster at Darlington when Casey Mears wrecked the primary car, then was unable to qualify the backup. With Mears subbing for Brian Vickers at Dover, Baldwin was forced to make a last-minute change as he brought back Sauter for the first time since Talladega. Sauter performed admirably in qualifying – he edged Todd Bodine for the final starting spot – but without sponsorship, the No. 36 team could not afford to risk losing another car and went behind the wall.

Also losing points on the weekend was the No. 13 of Max Papis, whose ill-handling Toyota slapped the wall during his second timed lap. The run resulted in Papis’s third DNQ of 2010 and moved the team 38 more points away from the bubble. Still, thanks to Papis’s better finishes, the No. 13 is still 72 points ahead of the Nos. 09, 87, 66, 55 and 46, who all parked in the first 127 laps of Sunday’s race. Also, since the No. 36 lost 30 points on Sunday, Papis is also just 51 points away from taking their 38th spot away.

2010 Bubble Chart After Dover

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
30 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,013 +114
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,010 +111
32 Front Row Motorsports 34 Travis Kvapil 953 +54
33 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 945 +46
34 BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 899 +0
35 Front Row Motorsports 38 David Gilliland 899 0
36 Front Row Motorsports 37 Kevin Conway 897 -2
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme/Boris Said 788 -111
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Casey Mears 632 -267
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 583 -316
40 Phoenix Racing 09 Mike Bliss 511 -388
41 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 494 -405
42 PRISM Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 468 -431
43 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 462 -437
44* Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 443 -456

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