NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Perilous Pocono Punishes Robby, Rewards Others

It was “All for One and One for All” for Front Row Motorsports after Charlotte as the combined efforts of FRM’s David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil, now in the struggling Nos. 37 and 38, shoved Robby Gordon’s battered No. 7 back out of the Top 35 for the first time since Texas in April. That left the driver/owner on the outside looking in at the worst possible time; Gordon wouldn’t even be at Pocono, an off-road Baja Excursion leaving his car in the hands of a driver in Ted Musgrave who hadn’t even made a Cup start since 2003.

Meanwhile, in a precarious position not far ahead of Gordon now sat Bobby Labonte’s No. 71, whose continuing sponsorship woes slipped TRG Motorsports to within four points of Kevin Conway, now in FRM’s No. 34, and within 125 points of the wrong side of the Top 35. Then, you had the wild card; a dismayed David Stremme, whose No. 26 missed the show at Charlotte and lost all 51 of the points driver and team had gained on the bubble since Richmond. Could Pocono be his first step forward towards making the team a Top-35 force to be reckoned with once again?

Read on to find out how each of those drivers did, as the bubble battle was waged over 204 laps at Pocono Raceway Sunday:

LOCKED-IN AT MICHIGAN

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+147 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 11th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+209 points ahead of 35th)

The biggest point gain by any bubble driver on Sunday was accomplished by Hornish Jr., who followed-up his fourth-place finish at Pocono last August with another sterling run at the track. Hornish flew under the radar for much of the race, but his decision to pit with other tail-end drivers before the fifth caution with 34 to go thrust him into contention for the win. When the green flag flew with 29 laps remaining, Hornish had launched himself from 22nd to a front-row position for the restart, up front alongside teammate Kurt Busch.

Though many, including myself, expected Busch would hang onto the lead, it was Hornish in the top spot by the end of that lap. Even more surprising was how long Hornish stayed up front: the next 16 circuits saw his No. 77 first across the line. In fact, it was on Hornish that a charging Denny Hamlin made the winning pass with 12 laps to go, having to fight hard with the No. 77 before finally pulling away. Although Hornish’s Dodge struggled in traffic from that point, he avoided all the late chaos and barely missed securing his eighth top-10 finish. The 62 points Hornish gained has put him 209 points ahead of 35th, the most cushion he’s had all year.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+138)
Sunday’s Finish: 18th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+174)

Smith also performed well on Sunday, having gained 36 points of cushion after his third top-20 finish in the last four races. Like Hornish, Smith was often towards the tail end of the lead lap, but benefited from an early pit stop with 39 to go, just five laps before the fateful fifth caution jumbled the field. Smith found himself seventh when the green flew with 29 laps remaining and fought tooth-and-nail to stay there. He tried to follow Hamlin through the middle of a three-wide battle in turn one, then banged doors with Ryan Newman in the tunnel turn a few moments later. The latter contact negatively affected his car for the final two restarts, ultimately placing him just behind the multi-car crash that ended the race. Fortunately, Smith was able to negotiate the minefield of debris on the backstretch and finish under his own power to cap off a solid performance.

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+172)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+169)

Sadler’s three consecutive weeks of owner point gains came to an end on Sunday, though only resulting in a three-point loss at the checkered flag. Considering the two incidents in which his Stanley Ford was involved, things could have turned out much worse. The first took place during the lap 158 restart, when Sadler got into Casey Mears in turn 1 and barely avoided a journey through the rain-soaked grass. Sadler was not so fortunate in the second wreck, suffering extensive nose damage in teammate Kasey Kahne’s spectacular last-lap crash. Still, as a credit to the durability of NASCAR’s new car, he was able to limp across the finish line one lap down.

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG-Daugherty Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+145)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+145)

Not so fortunate was luckless Ambrose, who left Pocono with his third consecutive crash and sixth DNF of 2010. Ambrose was in the top 20 all afternoon long, but lost control in the smoke on that final lap. The resulting spin put the nose of his Toyota on a collision course with Pocono’s notorious infield barrier, annihilating the Little Debbie’s machine. Still, despite the gains of Hornish and Smith, Ambrose walked away and did not lose a single point of cushion in his turbulent 2010.

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 22nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+24)

Although he was forced to pit for tires before the rain-delayed start of the race and started 38th, Kvapil’s day ended with his second-best finish of 2010 (behind his 18th-place run at Talladega). Thanks in part to the last-lap crash and earning the Lucky Dog during the fourth caution on lap 158, Kvapil inched the No. 38 team off the bubble with a 24-point gain. Among this week’s drivers, only Hornish and Smith gained more points on Sunday.

No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+33)
Sunday’s Finish: 35th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+18)

Perhaps recovering from his illness at Charlotte, Conway was 4 mph off the pace in qualifying and finished five laps down on Sunday as he familiarized himself with one of NASCAR’s trickiest tracks. As the rookie driver continues to get his feet under him, the No. 34 team has lost 36 points in two races and is now the closest it has been to the bubble since Texas. Next week’s wide groove and fast speeds at Michigan should be more compatible with Conway’s present experience, however.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+37)
Sunday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+18)

After weeks of battling amongst themselves and the No. 7 car, Front Row has another driver and team they’ve caught on the brink of the Bubble. Now tied with the No. 34 are Labonte and TRG’s unsponsored No. 71. After he started in the 41st spot, Labonte stayed out during the first competition caution to lead lap 18, then pulled behind the wall. He then returned to the track eight laps down, but only to pass four other parked cars of Chad McCumbee, Geoffrey Bodine, Michael McDowell and Dave Blaney. After 32 laps, Labonte was parked for good, his second such S&P effort in the last three starts he’s had behind the wheel. Even with five bonus points factored in, the team is now 19 points closer to relying on Labonte’s remaining past champion’s provisionals to make the field.

No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+9)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

Back on the bubble for the first time since Darlington is FRM’s No. 37. Unable to follow Kvapil, his similarly-painted teammate, into the top 25, Gilliland was the only car to finish two laps down. Still, the team lost just nine points of cushion, thanks in no small part to what transpired on qualifying day….

NOT LOCKED-IN AT MICHIGAN

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-15 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-60 points behind 35th)

Less than a week after his team was muscled out of the Top 35 at Charlotte, Gordon’s No. 7 team faced a major setback on Friday: the team’s first DNQ in five years. Gordon, who was participating in a trophy truck race that day, gave veteran Musgrave the task of trying to make his first Car of Tomorrow event. Unfortunately, where Bodine succeeded in the No. 36 that day, Musgrave failed. During his first timed lap, Musgrave slipped up the track in turn 3 and decided not to try a second trip around the track. The DNQ, Gordon’s first since the 2005 Dickies 500 at Texas, not only dropped him 45 points farther away from the Top 35, but 63 points closer to a persistent bubble combatant.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-165)
Sunday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-147)

Two days after signing GlobeTrack Wireless as an associate sponsor, Stremme and Latitude 43 Motorsports turned in what was arguably its most crucial qualifying run of the season. One week after they failed to make the 600 and the same day Musgrave was unable to get Gordon’s No. 7 up to speed, Stremme squeaked into Sunday’s field as its 43rd and final starter.

Both driver and team knew the potential Sunday’s race could have on their Top-35 prospects, and made the most of it. Stremme was up to 28th by lap 31, then stayed inside the top 30 for much of the day. Even after he was caught up in the late stages of that final-lap wreck, Stremme avoided serious damage and came across the line as the third-from-last car on the lead lap. 18 points closer to the bubble and 63 points closer to Gordon, the next few races could see some thrilling qualifying battles between these two teams as they fight to claw their way back inside the top 35.

2010 Bubble Chart After Pocono

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
28 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,260 +209
29 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,225 +174
30 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 1,220 +169
31 JTG Racing 47 Marcos Ambrose 1,196 +145
32 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 1,075 +24
33 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 1,069 +18
34 Front Row Motorsports 34 Kevin Conway 1,069 +18
35 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 1,051 0
36 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 991 -60
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme 904 -147
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Geoffrey Bodine 712 -339
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 672 -379
40 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 574 -477
41 Phoenix Racing 09 Terry Cook 564 -487
42 Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 556 -495
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 545 -506
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 545 -506

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