NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Road Rage Pulls Bubble Battle Up the Leaderboard at Sonoma

A 150-point penalty for Travis Kvapil topped the Bubble headlines last week, knocking the No. 38 team out of the Top 35 and putting Robby Gordon’s No. 7 back in for the first time since Dover. Gordon played defense at Michigan and successfully guaranteed himself a starting spot at Sonoma, a strategy that worked to perfection when Kvapil had more problems of his own. Struggling to hang on to the lead lap, he slumped throughout the 400-miler and ended up even closer to Latitude 43’s No. 26 in a heated battle for 36th in owner points.

Front Row Motorsports was unable to secure a successful appeal of their penalty in time for Sunday, so David Gilliland jumped back in the No. 38 at Sonoma, scene of his best career Cup finish in 2008. However, Gilliland would have to bring his “A” game at the winding road course, as a driver with even more experience at Infineon Raceway climbed back behind the wheel of the No. 26. Which of these cars came out on top in the Napa Valley? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown!

LOCKED-IN AT LOUDON

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG-Daugherty Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+254 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: Sixth
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+278 points ahead of 35th)

The controversy over his late penalty aside, Ambrose enjoyed a career run at Sonoma – his best of 2010 – and the 24 points of cushion he gained was second-most of this week’s bubble drivers. From the sixth starting spot, he remained in the top 10 for nearly the entire race and led 35 of the race’s final 49 laps. What’s more, Ambrose was clearly faster than winner Jimmie Johnson before the final caution, certainly a badge of honor for a driver who said “Jimmie Who?” last summer at Bristol. Also, the Tasmanian’s near-miss on Sunday after dominating all the weekend’s practices was just as attributable to his road course prowess as it was to momentum. Recall that last week at Michigan, he rallied from an early spin to a 15th-place finish, topping all bubble drivers.

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+260)
Sunday’s Finish: 17th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+246)

A top-10 darkhorse in recent events at Infineon Raceway, Sadler seemed poised for another solid finish even after he earned a “Sonoma Stripe” on lap 10. The damage was inflicted by the spinning cars of Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer, whose incident forced Sadler to follow teammate AJ Allmendinger through the grass just as the hole closed up. Fortunately, Sadler’s damage was less severe than Allmendinger’s, and the Virginian ran much of the race in the top 20, allowing him to lead the 81st circuit during green-flag stops.

It was not until lap 99 that misfortune found him again. A nudge from Jeff Gordon in turn 11 sent both Sadler and Bowyer spinning, costing both valuable track position under the green flag. While the seventh and final caution allowed Sadler to close the gap on the field for the final five laps, there was not enough time to make another bid at the top 10. Though Sadler finished a respectable 17th, strong runs by other Bubble drivers like Ambrose actually cost him 14 points of cushion. Frustrated at Gordon after the race, the normally mild-mannered Sadler showed some fire as he realized Sunday became a lost opportunity for the No. 19.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+290)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+214)

Hornish had a disastrous weekend in California: he only managed to qualify 39th on Friday, wadded-up the primary car in tricky turn 10 on Saturday, then suffered perhaps the most extensive damage in Sunday’s biggest wreck. Invisible during the early stages, Hornish and his backup car were trapped in the back of the field for the lap 66 restart. Unfortunately, this meant that he had nowhere to go when the leaders spun their tires, causing him to plow into the ensuing pileup on the frontstretch. After extensive repairs, Hornish was somehow able to return to the track and finish under power, seven laps down without any sheetmetal on the nose.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+259)
Sunday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+177)

Also involved in Hornish’s grinding wreck was Smith, whose resulting loss of 82 points was the biggest hit incurred by any of this week’s bubble drivers. Like Hornish, who lost 76 points, Smith’s Chevrolet was trapped in the back of the pack, having been lapped in turn 11 during Johnson’s early dominant run. With the nose of his Chevrolet crushed, Smith was barely able to roll up to the entrance of turn 1 before the No. 78 ground to a halt. Repairs took 13 laps and left him two spots behind Hornish in the final running order. The crash ended a positive trend at FRR that stretched six races since Smith lost an engine at Talladega and fell to within 33 points of the bubble.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: Second
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+39)

Although Ambrose’s resurgence and subsequent penalty made the No. 47 the most visible bubble driver in Sunday’s race, the biggest points gain on the day belonged to one Robby Gordon. The stunning runner-up finish was the product of superior pit strategy, a glaring weakness that has prevented the Californian’s team from racking up another road-course win in recent years. When the red flag was lifted from Smith and Hornish’s lap 66 melee, the No. 7 car’s plan went into effect: he and a handful of others decided to make their final stop, followed by a second stop under the same caution. Set to go the distance, Gordon bided his time and crept up the leaderboard as Johnson and the other leaders pitted.

On lap 87, Gordon was up to the top five, shoving a battered Brad Keselowski’s Dodge into the dirt as the two raced through turn 7. Up to third under the final caution, Gordon suddenly found himself starting alongside leader Johnson for the lead following Ambrose’s penalty. For the final five laps, Johnson scampered away from Robby, whose hands were full with Kevin Harvick all the way until the checkered flag. Several times Harvick nearly snagged the spot away – particularly in turn 7, where Robby always smoked the brakes – but in the end, Robby had his best finish since his third and most recent Cup win at Watkins Glen in 2003.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+49)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+12)

While Robby stole the show on race day, qualifying belonged to Labonte. With Adobe Road Winery’s vibrant paint job returning to TRG Motorsports’ No. 71, Labonte surprised many with a strong eighth-place run, topping all this week’s bubble drivers. After a simple turn 11 spin in practice, Labonte fought to defend his track position during the race, and tire marks were on the driver’s side of his Chevrolet by the third lap. 18 circuits into the event, Labonte was still 14th, but two consecutive speeding penalties – one for exiting, the other for entering when serving the penalty – left him two laps down and outside the top 30.

However, his luck turned with the Lucky Dog under the second caution on lap 59, followed by a wave-around a few moments later. Like Sadler, Labonte sought to climb his way back up the leaderboard in the late stages, but on the final lap, he was shoved into the esses’ tire barriers by an out-of-control Matt Kenseth. Labonte suffered less damage than Kenseth, but lost much track position and fell just outside the top 20. Still, also like Sadler’s run, the finish was not enough to keep the No. 71 from losing points: 37, to be exact.

No. 37 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+49)
Sunday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+9)

In car 37 for the first time since Daytona was Kvapil, whose fingers were crossed that teammate Gilliland would be able to help get the No. 38 back into a guaranteed spot at Loudon. Although none of the three FRM cars set the world on fire Sunday, Kvapil seemed readily able to keep his Ford out of trouble – except for whatever incident twisted the sheetmetal around the rear of his car. That left him 24th, smack in the middle of the field, and the concern now turns to Loudon, where the No. 37 will have just nine points of cushion to work with following a 40-marker loss at Sonoma.

No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+52)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

Sunday was yet another trial run in the ongoing experiment that has been Conway’s rookie season. As in prior races, Conway’s was the slowest car in qualifying, and he trailed the entire field during a large portion of the first green-flag run. But by finishing inside the top 30 for the first time since Talladega, Conway’s car did not appear damaged in any visible way at race’s end – unlike the Fords of his two teammates.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT LOUDON

No. 26 – Boris Said (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-78 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: Eighth
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-62 points behind 35th)

With blood in the water after the No. 38 team’s penalty, Latitude 43 Motorsports decided to swing for the fences at Sonoma and bring back Said for the first time since Atlanta. Though Said was uncertain the No. 26 would contend, as his car could only function with outdated Car of Tomorrow setups, the Air National Guard Ford was 17th in qualifying, fastest of the cars not locked into the field. Said’s performance on race day was an even more pleasant surprise. He cracked the top 10 on lap 51, but stayed out when the caution flew just six laps later. This handed Said the lead for the first time, which he fought to defend on the restart after 60 circuits.

It was on that restart that Said made the first of two impossible saves in turn 2, both involving some “agricultural racing:” In the first, Said cut the corner too narrow and narrowly averted a spin when he returned to the track, forcing the leaders to scatter behind him. Not only did Said avoid an accident, but he even kept the lead for another lap. The second incident, which came on the 87th circuit, took place when Keselowski body-slammed him into the grass while racing for the lead.

By the lap 87 restart, Said was on the same pit strategy as Robby Gordon, except he held the lead by foregoing a second stop under the lap 66 caution. While Said lost the lead after his encounter with Keselowski, he inched backwards through the field, but was still able to wrestle another underfunded team into the top 10. Still, with the even stronger run by Robby Gordon, Said was only able to inch the No. 26 16 points closer to the Bubble. The resulting 62-point margin is still the closest the team has been, though, since the points were reset at Bristol.

No. 38 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-65)
Sunday’s Finish: 19th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-90)

Back in the No. 38 at Infineon, the very number with which he scored a career-best second in 2008 while running for Yates Racing, Gilliland’s goal was to keep Said’s No. 26 at bay while fighting to squeeze the team back into the Top 35. However, while Said made himself known as a contender for the lead, Gilliland decided to keep a low profile until he chose to pit for the final time along with Said and Robby Gordon. Still, Gilliland’s gains were tempered by the perils of road racing traffic: the nose of his Ford was crunched as early as lap 72, and he was spun in the esses on 19 trips around the track after. Frustrated by the damage to his car from the wreck, Gilliland paid Keselowski back the favor by spinning him in the middle of turn 7.

Although Gilliland’s fender-bender with Keselowski provided some interesting fireworks, the 19th-place finish that resulted still cost the team 25 points worth of cushion. That allowed the eighth-place finishing No. 26 team to squeak by, moving up to 36th spot in the owner standings.

2010 Bubble Chart After Infineon

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
28 JTG Racing 47 Marcos Ambrose 1,469 +278
29 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 1,437 +246
30 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,405 +214
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,368 +177
32 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,230 +39
33 TRG Motorsports 71 Bobby Labonte 1,203 +12
34 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 1,200 +9
35 Front Row Motorsports 34 Kevin Conway 1,191 0
36 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 Boris Said 1,129 -62
37 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 1,101 -90
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Various Drivers 765 -426
39 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 740 -451
40 Phoenix Racing 09 Various Drivers 740 -451
41 Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 687 -504
42 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 674 -517
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 628 -563
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 598 -593

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