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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Front Row Fumbling Top 35 Spots Away – But Who Gets Them?

_Last week’s race at Infineon brought the Bubble Battle into greater focus. Although he came up short of his first Cup win, Marcos Ambrose’s No. 47 finished a season-best sixth and gained 24 points of cushion on his rival. Four cars in front of Ambrose, Robby Gordon’s No. 7 managed to one-up the Tasmanian: a stunning second-place finish and a 39-point bump was more than enough to take Gordon’s operation off the Bubble. Gordon, now ranked 32nd, shoved Kevin Conway in Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 back to 35th – even after the rookie earned his first lead-lap finish in Cup._

_Just nine points ahead of Conway sat teammate Travis Kvapil, necessitating another FRM driver switch with David Gilliland as the series headed to New Hampshire. The switch was a calculated risk. On the other side of the Bubble, FRM’s No. 38 team, still dazed from their 150-point penalty at Pocono, was under siege. Gilliland fought hard to keep the No. 38 in the top 20 at Sonoma, bringing his battered race car home 19th following several encounters with the tire barriers and Brad Keselowski. At the end of the day, however, David’s efforts were still not enough to hold off Boris Said and Latitude 43 Motorsports._

_Back in the No. 26 for the first time since Atlanta, Said raced both on and off-course to wrestle an eighth-place finish from Tony Stewart, moving Latitude 43 past the No. 38 to 36th in owner points. Now just 62 markers away from that “locked in” spot, it was again up to David Stremme to close the gap even further at New Hampshire, while making sure Kvapil’s No. 38 stayed in his rear-view mirror._

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Unhappy with TRG Motorsports, Bobby Labonte finally had enough at Infineon and walked away from the team a day later. He accepted a ride in Robby Gordon’s No. 7 at New Hampshire, creating some startling changes around the Bubble this week.

_And as the series headed back east, Bobby Labonte brought even more focus to the Bubble Battle. Last-lap contact between Labonte’s No. 71 and Matt Kenseth on the road course dropped the veteran to 23rd at the finish, the last straw in what became a decision Wednesday to leave TRG Motorsports. Ironically, the Texan’s destination was Robby’s No. 7 as the Californian owner-driver would be away from the track on business. While Labonte geared up for New Hampshire, Andy Lally suited up to make his second Cup start in the No. 71 following his own breakout run last summer at Watkins Glen._

_When the Loudon field was finally set, how did this shell game of driver switches turn out? Find out in this week’s “Bubble Breakdown!”_

*_LOCKED-IN AT DAYTONA_*

*No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG-Daugherty Racing)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+278 points ahead of 35th)
*Sunday’s Finish: 13th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+338 points ahead of 35th)

By race morning at Loudon, when he completed the last of his countless interviews about that ill-timed stop at Infineon, Ambrose had long since shaken off the frustrations of that day. The No. 47’s team meeting last Tuesday must have done the trick, for Ambrose followed-up his 12th-fastest time in qualifying with a 13th-place finish Sunday, scoring him 60 more points of cushion as this week’s top-finishing Bubble driver. Ambrose was running in the top 25 for much of the afternoon, losing a lap during the long, 201-lap green-flag run that consumed the majority of the race. Once he earned a Lucky Dog under the third yellow with 20 laps remaining, though, he picked up fresh tires and climbed through the pack for his third straight top-15 finish.

*No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+246)
*Sunday’s Finish: 19th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+293)

Sadler was another driver who recovered nicely from an up-and-down day at Infineon, scoring his fourth finish of 21st or better in the last five races. Combined with his staying out under the first yellow to lead lap 37, Sadler gained back 47 points of cushion, more than compensating for the 14 markers he lost out in California. If the FR9 engine really shows its muscle next week at Daytona, Sadler, who nearly won the 2009 Daytona 500, could be one to watch as a darkhorse next Saturday.

*No. 77 – Sam Hornish, Jr. (Penske Racing)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+214)
*Sunday’s Finish: 23rd*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+244)

Determined to bounce back from his hard crash at Infineon and the whopping 76-point loss it gave him, Hornish parlayed an outstanding eighth-place qualifying run with a Top 25, bringing 30 of those points back to his cushion. On Sunday, only a shunt from a sliding Joey Logano off turn four put the No. 77 in the highlight reel, but it was for good reason: Hornish managed to keep control of his car, showcasing his steady improvement in NASCAR.

*No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+177)
*Sunday’s Finish: 33rd*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+177)

Not so pleased Sunday was Regan Smith, who was forced to make an unscheduled green-flag stop on the 165th circuit for a flat right-front tire. Although he caught the problem early and avoided contact with his fellow competitors, the No. 78 missed the commitment cone and incurred a penalty as a result. When it was all over, the car that rolled off 18th was nine laps down to winner Jimmie Johnson, its driver suffering through with a broken wrist he suffered in a road course crash the week before. Still, next week’s race at Daytona may yield much better results: Smith finished 12th in the July classic last year, and was running with the leaders at Talladega last April when the engine blew.

*No. 7 – Bobby Labonte (BAM Racing / Robby Gordon Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+39)
*Sunday’s Finish: 30th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+48)

Within hours of Robby Gordon’s strong second-place finish at Sonoma, rumors were already circulating that the No. 7 was without sponsorship at New Hampshire, and that P.J. Jones would park the car in the early laps before Gordon returned at Daytona. Although Gordon was, indeed, unavailable to run on Sunday, the rest of the rumors proved untrue. A new opportunity opened up when Bobby Labonte left TRG Motorsports, allowing Robby to tap the 2000 Cup champion to run his car at Loudon. Though the weekend started out rough, when Labonte crashed the primary car in Friday’s practice, the Texan was still able to run the entire race (finishing four laps down) and he even gained Robby nine more points of cushion. When Robby returns this Saturday, Labonte will move to Phoenix Racing’s No. 09 to run both Daytona and Chicagoland, running the distance in both events. Mike Bliss failed to get the No. 09 into the show at New Hampshire.

*No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
*Sunday’s Finish: 32nd*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+3)

Even though Conway fell back to the Bubble after the chaotic Sonoma event, Front Row Motorsports appeared pleased with the rookie’s first lead-lap finish and kept him in the No. 34. Though he finished nine laps down when the checkered flag fell on Sunday, the rookie still managed to gain three points of cushion and squeeze past teammate David Gilliland’s No. 37, guaranteeing both cars starting spots next week at Daytona. Saturday’s race should be quite the experience for Conway, who was unable to gain NASCAR approval to run the Daytona 500. That is, of course, unless Robert Richardson, Jr. returns to FRM and squeezes him out of his ride…

*No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+9)
*Sunday’s Finish: 35th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+3)

One of the few Bubble teams to lose points this week was David Gilliland, who climbed back into the No. 37 when he and Travis Kvapil switched rides. Gilliland started 35th, but was felled by a broken sway bar early in the race that required several laps worth of repairs behind the wall. By lap 176, he was already 31 laps down, and the team lost one more circuit by race’s end to become the final car running at the finish.

*No. 71 – Andy Lally (TRG Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+12)
*Sunday’s Finish: 37th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

When Bobby Labonte, frustrated by TRG Motorsports’ adoption of the “start-and-park” strategy, climbed out of Kevin Buckler’s No. 71 Chevrolet, it opened a door for road racer Andy Lally to make his oval track debut. Lally, still busy developing his career in sports car competition, timed in 40th on the grid and was able to clock more laps than any other underfunded driver in practice. Lally was the only Bubble driver that failed to finish Sunday’s race, leaving the track after 142 laps with “brake” issues, but the seat time he gained on the weekend will be helpful if Buckler needs him to run the car more times this season. With Kevin Conway’s inability to gain NASCAR approval at Daytona in February, however, it is uncertain as of this writing whether Lally will again be in the car this Saturday. If nothing else, expect Lally to return to the team at Watkins Glen, where he finished 27th in his series debut last season.

*_NOT LOCKED-IN AT DAYTONA_*

*No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-62 points behind 35th)
*Sunday’s Finish: 31st*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-56 points behind 35th)

Although Stremme struggled at Loudon, giving Latitude 43 Motorsports its worst finish since Martinsville, the No. 26 steered clear of danger and finished seven laps down, inching the team six more points closer to the Top 35. Just as importantly, Stremme got the team into the show, which, fortunately for them, is more than his closest Bubble combatant can say.

Coming off a strong performance by Boris Said at the road course, it should be interesting to see if team owner Bill Jenkins puts Said back in this car come Saturday. Boris finished a solid 25th with the team in this year’s Daytona 500, and has traditionally fared even better in the July race. Better still, thanks to Jamie McMurray’s win with the number in 2009, Said will not be sent home if qualifying is rained out this week.

*No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-90)
*Sunday’s Finish: DNQ*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-123)

Qualifying will be just as important to the No. 38 team, which suffered Front Row Motorsports’ first DNQ of the 2010 season. Kvapil’s slippery lap around “The Magic Mile” cost the team 33 more points on top of the 25 lost at Sonoma, putting the team almost a full race out of the “locked-in” spot just three weeks after their 150-point Pocono penalty. Kvapil has been a steady competitor at NASCAR’s restrictor-plate races, particularly during his tenure with Yates Racing, but it is anyone’s guess who will be driving any of the FRM cars at Daytona and how, if it all, Robert Richardson, Jr. will factor into the equation.

*No. 36 – Casey Mears (Tommy Baldwin Racing)*
Incoming Owner Poitns Ranking: 38th (-426)
*Sunday’s Finish: 29th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-414)

Kvapil’s ill-handling Ford was nudged out of Sunday’s field by Casey Mears, the final car to qualify in Friday’s “knockout” session. Mears, making his first laps with the 38th-ranked Tommy Baldwin team since Darlington, secured sponsorship from Mohawk Northeast, allowing them to run the entire race. Though Mears gained the team 12 points of cushion, the No. 36 team’s prior string of DNQs and early exits still leave the team 414 points out of the Top 35 heading to Daytona. There, just weeks after Geoffrey Bodine’s return to the racetrack at Pocono, another veteran, Steve Park, will make his own homecoming with the team in a neat Richie Evans-themed paint job.

*2010 Bubble Chart After New Hampshire*:

*Pos**Owner**Car #**Driver**Points**Points +/- of 35th Place*
*28*JTG Racing47Marcos Ambrose1,593+338
*29*Richard Petty Motorsports19Elliott Sadler1,548+293
*30*Penske Racing77Sam Hornish, Jr.1,499+244
*31*Furniture Row Racing78Regan Smith1,432+177
*32*Robby Gordon Motorsports7Robby Gordon / Bobby Labonte1,303+48
*33*Front Row Motorsports34Kevin Conway1,258+3
*34*Front Row Motorsports37David Gilliland1,258+3
*35**TRG Motorsports**71**Andy Lally**1,255**0*
*36*Latitude 43 Motorsports26David Stremme1,199-56
*37*Front Row Motorsports38Travis Kvapil1,132-123
*38*Tommy Baldwin Racing36Various Drivers841-414
*39*Germain Racing13Max Papis774-481
*40*Phoenix Racing09Various Drivers768-487
*41*Whitney Motorsports46J.J. Yeley736-519
*42*NEMCO Motorsports87Joe Nemechek720-535
*43*PRISM Motorsports66Dave Blaney / Michael Waltrip665-590
*44*PRISM Motorsports55Michael McDowell638-617

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