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Bubble Breakdown: Front Row’s “3 Musketeers” Shine at Charlotte

Two weeks ago at Dover, the bubble drivers again ended up fighting amongst themselves several laps down to the leader. First across the line came Regan Smith’s resurgent No. 78 in 24th, followed by the No. 38 of David Gilliland. Gilliland pulled Front Row Motorsports’ middle team back onto the bubble, though now the team would be tied with Robby Gordon’s No. 7 at Charlotte due to Gordon’s 25-point penalty at Darlington.

Once again, on the outside looking in was Kevin Conway, who could see that David Stremme’s No. 26 was now 109 points away from joining the party. Heading to the Coca-Cola 600, it was decision time again for Front Row Motorsports and “go time” for Gordon and Stremme. Could a reshuffling of FRM’s driver lineup bring all three teams back into the safety of “locked-in” spots? Find out with this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

LOCKED-IN AT POCONO

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+151 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 21st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+172 points ahead of 35th)

For the third straight points race since his wreck at Richmond, Sadler gained points on the bubble with a solid near-top-20 finish. He twice earned the Lucky Dog during the cautions on laps 63 and 166, then remained on the lead lap from there until the checkered flag fell. The 21 points he gained on 35th were matched by an 18-spot gain in track position, the biggest in-race improvement of any driver in the 600 field.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+114)
Sunday’s Finish: 17th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+147)

Another driver with a sizable points gain was Hornish, who turned his three strong performances in the Sprint Showdown into the best finish by a bubble driver in Sunday’s race. Hornish qualified 14th, lost a lap early, earned his first Lucky Dog on lap 91, then overcame a lap 271 pit-road speeding penalty with another free pass on lap 308. His perseverance was rewarded with a 33-point gain that was the most of any Bubble driver in the race, his best run since Martinsville the end of March. Next week, a successful defense of Hornish’s fourth-place finish at Pocono last August could pay big dividends in this year’s Top-35 battle, as he tries to distance himself from the cutline for good.

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG-Daugherty Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+169)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+145)

The 600-mile marathon Sunday night was much more forgettable to Ambrose, whose early season struggles continued. Having qualified 34th, Ambrose struggled to stay on the lead lap in an ill-handling Toyota, resulting in his spin off turn 4 on lap 91. He was saved by the caution on lap 166, which came just after he discovered his right-front tire was going down, and the Lucky Dog put him back on the lead lap on lap 302. However, the car’s poor handling came back to bite him with just 22 laps to go. Just like his lap 91 spin, Ambrose lost control by himself, only this time slipped off turn 2 and slammed the inside wall much harder. The wreck put No. 47 behind the wall for good – the only DNF among this week’s bubble drivers – and dragged Ambrose 26 points closer to the dreaded 35th spot. Ambrose now has more DNFs in 13 races this season – five – than he had during his prior 47 starts in the series.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+111)
Sunday’s Finish: 19th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+138)

After a sterling performance in last week’s Sprint Showdown, Smith gained points on the Bubble for the fourth consecutive race since his engine failure at Talladega. In fact, his 27-point gain from Sunday’s top-20 finish was second only to Hornish’s 33 among this week’s group. Like the Showdown, Smith’s run was not without its close calls: he narrowly averted a spin on lap 72 by drifting sideways through turn 4. But the car was a solid lead-lap effort, challenging for a top 15 before a late-race drop in the pits hampered him just before the race’s final restart.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+46)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+37)

Although the 600 was scheduled as TaxSlayer’s final appearance as Labonte’s primary sponsor for the spring, the No. 71 rolled into Charlotte in sponsorless blue-and-gold. However, a repeat of TRG’s decision to park at Dover was averted Saturday when the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Upper Big Branch Family Fund came on board. Unfortunately, Labonte’s Chevrolet was not up to speed on race day. He lost a lap on lap 30 and, after an unscheduled stop on lap 122, ended up five laps down to race winner Kurt Busch. Though the 31st-place result only cost him nine points, similar performances in the coming weeks may not be enough to keep TRG inside the Top 35 past June.

No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+54)
Sunday’s Finish: 35th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+33)

Last week, FRM took its “Three Musketeers” approach at its multi-car operation to the next level. All three of its drivers found themselves with new car numbers at Charlotte with Travis Kvapil in Gilliland’s No. 38, Gilliland back in Conway’s No. 37 and Conway now in Kvapil’s No. 34. As with the team’s previous changes, this gave Conway the highest position of the three in owner points thanks to the No. 34’s 54-point cushion. Still, for better and for worse, Conway’s performance remained the same. He was the slowest car in Thursday’s practice and qualifying sessions, lost a lap early on Sunday and ended up seven laps down with 21 points of his cushion gone. To add insult to injury, he was sick throughout most of the 600-mile event, throwing up inside the car while requesting Michael McDowell to stand by in relief (he never did exit the vehicle early). Still, the car remained intact and out of the way, admirable characteristics for a rookie trying to find his way.

No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-2 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+9)

Gilliland succeeded in thrusting the No. 37 back into the Top 35 with an 11-point gain and a 26th-place finish. Though two laps down at the checkered, he managed to be the only bubble driver to lead a lap Sunday: he stayed out during the second caution of the race to pace the field on lap 93. This marks the first time the No. 37 has been higher than 35th in owner points since Gilliland last had the team 34th after April’s race at Phoenix.

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

Two positions and one lap behind Gilliland on the track was Kvapil, making his first run of the season as driver of Front Row’s No. 38. Although his 28th-place finish was earned without serious incident, it was not enough to gain the team any ground on both of its teammates.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT POCONO

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+0, tied for 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-15 points behind 35th)

For the first time since Texas, Gordon was once again the last man standing when the bubble music stopped. Like Labonte, Gordon came to Charlotte without sponsorship and qualified toward the rear, but he averted a decision to park when Polaris put its logos on his Toyota. However, Gordon’s preference for running the high line put him in the wall on lap 164, then again on lap 299. The latter contact was hard enough to take him off the pace, just not enough to bring out a caution until two laps later. Gordon finished the race – albeit six laps down – but by finishing behind Kvapil’s No. 38, Gordon now finds himself 15 points out of the Top 35 as the owner-driver heads to tricky, unpredictable Pocono.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-111)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-165)

Latitude 43 Motorsports’ steady, but determined four-race march toward bubble contention faced a serious setback on Thursday when Stremme failed to make the 600 field. Combined with Front Row’s team switches and the top-30 finishes Kvapil and Gilliland obtained Sunday, the DNQ could not have come at a worse time: Stremme and team gained 51 points on the bubble during the last four points races, but lost 54 on Sunday alone. However, with Pocono’s proclivity for rained-out qualifying sessions and the possibility of Boris Said returning to the No. 26 at Sonoma in the race after that, there is still a good chance these points may soon be made up.

2010 Bubble Chart After Charlotte

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
30 JTG Racing 47 Marcos Ambrose 1,123 +145
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,116 +138
32 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 1,015 +37
33 Front Row Motorsports 34 Kevin Conway 1,011 +33
34 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 987 +9
35 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 978 0
36 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 963 -15
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme 813 -165
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Johnny Sauter 672 -306
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 611 -367
40 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 540 -438
41 Phoenix Racing 09 Mike Bliss 533 -445
42 Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 504 -474
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 502 -476
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 499 -479

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