NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Travis Kvapil’s Penalty Breathes New Life Into Top-35 Battle

Last week had no shortage of bubble action. At Pocono, Sam Hornish Jr. and Regan Smith parlayed timely pit strategy into a pair of top-20 finishes, shooting both teams further up the owner points rankings. Below them, Bobby Labonte’s No. 71, starved for sponsorship, was forced to park for the second time in three races, dropping TRG Motorsports into a tie with Kevin Conway’s No. 34 for 34th. Both Labonte and Conway find themselves just 18 points ahead of David Gilliland’s No. 37, back on the bubble for the first time since after Darlington.

Meanwhile, substitute Ted Musgrave’s struggles in qualifying put Robby Gordon’s 36th-ranked No. 7 out of the field for the first time in five years. This opened the door for 37th-ranked David Stremme, who qualified 43rd in Latitude 43’s No. 26 and finished 24th despite involvement in the big final-lap crash. That vaulted him 63 points closer to Gordon’s struggling operation and his team back into the throes of Top-35 conversation.

But the biggest bubble news was still to come. On Wednesday, Travis Kvapil’s No. 38, ranked 32nd after Pocono, was assessed a massive 150-point penalty for illegal bleeder valve caps found on his car at the start of the race. Although Front Row Motorsports prepared for an appeal, nothing could prevent Kvapil from having to time his way into the Michigan race as NASCAR refused to withhold the penalty until after the case was concluded. That left the team free-falling to 36th in the standings, 66 in the red and facing a long road back towards the comfort of “locked-in” status.

But one man’s loss is another man’s gain. Back in the Top 35 was Robby Gordon, all smiles knowing that 200 laps were all that separated him from pulling out all the stops at Sonoma. Equally motivated was Stremme, whose No. 26 was now 87 points away from the bubble and just 21 away from yanking 36th away from the penalized Kvapil. How did all this madness play out at Michigan? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown!

LOCKED-IN AT SONOMA

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 28th (+209 points ahead of 35th)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 28th (+269 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+290 points ahead of 35th)

Hornish gained points on the bubble for the third straight race and, in the process, showed how well his Mobil 1 Dodge works in clean air. Under the third caution on lap 100, pit strategy again put him next to teammate Kurt Busch. When the green flag flew four circuits later, Hornish managed to hold off his Penske teammate for more than a lap before the field finally caught up. From that point, his tires acted their age, dropping the car to fourth by lap 108 and leaving him falling back through the field thereafter. But although the off-sequence strategy left Hornish the fourth car one lap down at the finish, he still gained 21 points on 35th. In all, that total was 81 when you consider the 60-point bonus received after Kvapil’s penalty knocked the No. 38 team down to a distant 36th.

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 30th (+169)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 30th (+229)
Sunday’s Finish: 21st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+260)

With another FR9 engine underneath the hood of his Stanley Ford, Sadler earned a respectable 21st on Sunday without incident. Sadler qualified 11th, his best start since Atlanta, and was the final driver to receive the Lucky Dog under the fourth and final yellow with 17 laps remaining. From there, he held off Clint Bowyer to become the next-to-last car on the lead lap. The 31 points of cushion Sadler gained at Michigan was second-most among this week’s drivers. Ironically, next week’s road race at Sonoma should be a good time for Sadler to make some more gains: he has four top-10 finishes in his last six starts there, including a 10th last year.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 29th (+174)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 29th (+234)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+259)

Although he performed well at Fontana in February, Smith’s team brought a new Chevrolet to Michigan. In practice, it was the right choice: the No. 78 was seventh in the opening practice, then eighth in happy hour. Still, Friday’s changing weather conditions confused Furniture Row Racing’s Chevrolet program when it counted, leaving him 23rd on the starting grid for Sunday. During the race, Smith was moving up nicely until lap 19, when he bumped a sideways Marcos Ambrose off turn 4. The contact required just minor repairs to the nose of his car, but the No. 78 was not the same the rest of the day. By the finish, he ended up the first car one lap down in 23rd; however, the team still gained 25 points, continuing a six-race string of consistent finishes that began at Richmond back in May.

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG-Daugherty Racing)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 31st (+145)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 31st (+205)
Sunday’s Finish: 15th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+254)

When Ambrose’s No. 47 slid through the frontstretch grass on lap 19, it appeared his Michigan experience would end up being another chapter in the Tasmanian’s frustrating tale of 2010. However, in an amazing turnaround, Ambrose ended up gaining 49 points, more than any bubble driver this week with his best finish since Richmond. Once he got the Lucky Dog on the very next caution – just 30 laps after his spin – Ambrose held fast to the top 20 the rest of the afternoon. The rally was reminiscent of his run at Sonoma, where he battled back from the rear in a backup engine to finish third last year. Headed back to the road course next week, Ambrose is gaining momentum at the best time possible.

No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 33rd (+18)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 32nd (+78)
Sunday’s Finish: 40th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+52)

Curiously, both of Kvapil’s FRM teammates were saved from Top-35 oblivion thanks to the No. 38’s 150-point penalty, but both ended up giving some of that cushion back after they struggled at Michigan. For Conway, the race marked just his second DNF of the season: a sour engine after the 38th lap left him mired among the “start-and-park” teams at the finish. As a result, Conway lost 26 points of post-penalty cushion, the most of any driver with the exception of Kvapil himself. Still safely locked into the field at Sonoma, however, it should be interesting to see how the rookie navigates Northern California’s tricky road course.

No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 35th (On The Bubble)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 34th (+60)
Sunday’s Finish: 35th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+49)

Nudged off the bubble thanks to Kvapil, Gilliland was also unable to make up any ground at Michigan. He was three laps down, the final car running at the finish, and lost 11 points of the new 60-point cushion Kvapil gave him. Still, Gilliland and his family have a history at next week’s Sonoma race: David made his first Cup start there in 2006 and scored his best career finish – second – in the 2008 running. This experience may be just enough to give the No. 37 team a little more breathing room by the time the Cup Series leaves the West Coast.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 34th (+18)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 33rd (+70)
Sunday’s Finish: 41st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+49)

Kvapil’s penalty also prevented Labonte from slipping into past champion’s provisional Land after Michigan, where he was again forced to park Kevin Buckler’s unsponsored Chevrolet just 31 laps into the race. The three-time Michigan winner’s short afternoon proved costly, as it dropped the No. 71 another 21 points closer to the bubble. Luckily, sponsorship from both Taxslayer.com and Adobe Road Winery will give him the funding to run the distance at Infineon, a timely maneuver that could provide at least a temporary boost of relief to a program in desperate need of a solid finish.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 36th (-60 points behind 35th)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

Unshaken from his team’s DNQ at Pocono, Gordon was the biggest beneficiary of Kvapil’s penalty. Back in the Top 35 for the first time since Dover, the goal at Michigan was to defend his spot at all costs heading to Sonoma, where he has almost always been a threat for the win. Gordon fired his first salvo on Friday with an outstanding 20th-fastest time, his best run of the season. Despite missing his pit stall during the first round of caution flag stops on lap 19, he climbed to the front during the next yellow 30 circuits later, staying out to snag another five bonus points. Though Gordon was never able to keep pace with the leaders and wound up the final car one lap down, the bubble is still his at Sonoma – pending Kvapil’s appeal. Should FRM win it this week, it should be something to see how aggressive Gordon runs his timed lap at the twisting road course.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT SONOMA

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 33rd (+18)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 36th (-66)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-65)

That, at last, brings us to the beleaguered Kvapil. In truth, the misfortune that befell the No. 38 team on Wednesday could have been much worse – reports grimly predicted a record 300-point penalty for the infraction that would have made it all but impossible for the team to get a guaranteed spot the rest of this season. As it stands, while FRM’s appeal is in the works, Kvapil found himself on the wrong side of the top 30 during the race, one lap down despite a Lucky Dog on lap 99. After struggling throughout, there is no word as of yet whether the team will resort to using a “road ringer” at Sonoma – Kvapil’s best finish at the track in two starts is 21st.

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Owner Points Ranking After Pocono: 37th (-147)
Owner Points Ranking After No. 38 Penalty: 37th (-87)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-78)

Bill Jenkins, owner of the No. 26 team, was another person smiling the day NASCAR levied its penalty against the No. 38. Already on the comeback trail following Stremme’s DNQ at the Coca-Cola 600, the Kvapil penalty put his team 60 points closer to the Bubble, 21 behind Kvapil and just 87 away from a “locked-in” spot. Better still, Stremme qualified at Michigan, stayed out under the first caution to lead lap 20, then came home in front of Kvapil for another nine-point gain. However, with no less than Gordon on the bubble heading to a road course, it may be prudent for Jenkins to fight fire with fire. If Jenkins is thinking what I’m thinking and this car makes the race, there should be some great fireworks between his team and Robby’s in the Napa Valley.

2010 Bubble Chart After Michigan

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
28 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,350 +290
29 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 1,320 +260
30 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,319 +259
31 JTG Racing 47 Marcos Ambrose 1,314 +254
32 Front Row Motorsports 34 Kevin Conway 1,112 +52
33 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 1,109 +49
34 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 1,109 +49
36 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,060 0
36 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 995 -65
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme 982 -78
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Various Drivers 737 -323
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 706 -354
40 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 631 -429
41 Phoenix Racing 09 Landon Cassill 613 -447
42 Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 602 -458
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 576 -484
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 573 -487

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