NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Surprises of All Sizes at Destructive Daytona

Last week at New Hampshire, all three cars from the Front Row Motorsports stable left the track on the brink of Top-35 oblivion. Two days after Travis Kvapil’s No. 38 was sent home early with the team’s first DNQ of 2010, teammates Kevin Conway and David Gilliland could only muster 30-something finishes, dropping the Nos. 34 and 37 teams within three points of the bubble.

On the hot seat for the first time in 2010 was TRG Motorsports’ No. 71, whose champion driver Bobby Labonte left the team as it was relegated to “start-and-park” status. As Labonte filled in for a one-off performance in Robby Gordon’s No. 7, road racer Andy Lally took over Labonte’s ride for his oval-track debut at NHMS. Still, the No. 71 could only muster 142 laps around the “Magic Mile” before Lally, too, had to call it a day.

Now, at Daytona, the spotlight truly belonged to the No. 26 of Latitude 43 Motorsports. With a top-10 finish by Boris Said and another solid weekend by David Stremme, the opportunity was ripe for the Air National Guard Ford to eliminate the rest of its 56-point deficit at The World Center of Racing.

Did Bill Jenkins’s “Little Team That Could” succeed? Read on to find out!

LOCKED-IN AT CHICAGO

No. 6 – David Ragan (Roush-Fenway Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 25th (+405 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 27th (+357)

Ragan joins this week’s group as he lost 48 points Saturday, a loss greater than that of any bubble team ranked 28th through 39th in owner points. Sent to a backup car following Thursday afternoon’s practice crash with Kyle Busch, Ragan tried his best to capitalize on the No. 6 team’s string of strong restrictor-plate runs. In just 30 laps, he climbed from the 25th starting spot to ninth on the leaderboard. He was still flirting with the top 10 inside the final 50 circuits when the bumpy upper groove of turns 3 and 4 upset the UPS Ford once again, triggering a three-car crash with Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr.

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG-Daugherty Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+338)
Saturday’s Finish: 32nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+308)

Ambrose’s No. 47 was one of the nearly 20 cars gobbled-up in Saturday’s version of the Big One, leaving him with a banged-up racecar and a 30-point loss. When all hell broke loose with 13 laps to go, the Tasmanian was creeping toward the top 15 after struggling in the mid-20s all night. Unfortunately, this left him with no way of avoiding the melee that unfolded before him in turn 3.

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+293)
Saturday’s Finish: 22nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+298)

A different, though equally frustrating fate befell Sadler. A restrictor-plate darkhorse in his own right, Sadler and the No. 19 team were vexed by mechanical gremlins in practice, allowing his Air Force Ford just two laps around the track on Thursday before the big dance. Once the green flag fell, however, Sadler flipped a switch and his car was suddenly in the top five. For 14 of the 23 circuits run between laps 25 and 48, Sadler led the field longer than any bubble driver and appeared to be a sure bet for a strong finish. In traffic, he bounced off the wall on at least three occasions and narrowly missed the big wreck only to be turned head-on into the tri-oval wall by our next bubble driver with just two laps to go.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+244)
Saturday’s Finish: 21st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+252)

Sadler’s end came from the bumper of Hornish, who until then was having a career run in the Mobil 1 Dodge. The fastest of 12 cars before qualifying was canceled Friday, it was clear the Defiance, Ohio native had something to prove. Like Sadler, Hornish flew up to the lead early, as did his Penske teammates Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski. The No. 77 also led 11 laps of the race’s opening half, retaking and defending the lead with such ease that Kyle Busch was forced to run extremely high off turns 1 and 2 just to get his own five bonus points.

Hornish had a much closer encounter with the big wreck when he swapped paint with the wobbling Jeff Burton in turn 3, but his crew completed timely repairs to his fenders before the red flag ever flew. In the final sprint, Hornish, sent to the tail end of the longest line for pitting on a closed pit road, was about to re-enter the top five when he lost control off the fourth corner and collided with Kurt Busch and Sadler, destroying his fleet Dodge. Though certainly disappointed, both Hornish and Sadler were still able to inch eight and five points, respectively, from the bubble.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+177)
Saturday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+144)

A troubling three-week span for Furniture Row Racing continued Saturday when the car that finished 12th in the 2009 Coke Zero 400 was another listed casualty of the Big One. The run that preceded the wreck was not much better; despite lofty expectations following Talladega, the No. 78 was never quite able to break into the top 20.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (BAM Racing/Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+48)
Saturday’s Finish: 12th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+83)

One of many drivers who greatly benefited from the Big One was one Robby Gordon, whose reversal of fortune since missing Pocono has been nothing short of miraculous. Despite a continued lack of third-party sponsorship, Robby paced Happy Hour and served notice the No. 7 would be one to watch once again. Though the long green-flag runs left him languishing around 28th, this allowed him to take a harmless detour through the grass when the field piled up in turn 3. Suddenly 10th for the ensuing restart, Gordon trailed the remaining lead draft the final few circuits and secured his second top 15 in two races, worth 35 points of added cushion. In fact, only the next team in today’s list gained more points than Robby’s.

No. 71 – Mike Bliss (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Saturday’s Finish: Ninth
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+41)

Bliss finished ninth on Saturday, surprising TRG Motorsports with its first top 10 since last fall at Talladega. Bliss had failed to qualify James Finch’s No. 09 just the previous week at Loudon, but was tabbed to replace Lally at Daytona because of his top 10 for Finch at Talladega. With Bliss on board and Tax Slayer back to foot the bill, the team was ready to go.

Early adjustments on lap 59 required the hood to go up on No. 71, but the extra effort was rewarded when Bliss moved to 20th with just 60 tours remaining. Bliss spun to avoid Stremme’s turn 1 crash and slipped a few spots, but was thus able to avoid the Big One, which vaulted him near the top 10. From there, Bliss continued to creep into the picture up to eighth at the time Hornish’s crash forced the green-white-checkered finish. At the finish, No. 71 came home ninth, but had nowhere to go when a spinning Kurt Busch crossed his nose exiting the tri-oval. Still, the $110,975 earned by Bliss should be more than enough to get that car ready for Talladega.

No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+3)
Saturday’s Finish: 14th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+27)

Another happy face belonged to rookie Conway, whose “slow and steady” approach paid huge dividends in his Daytona debut. Though the Lucky Dog put No. 34 back on the lead lap with 24 laps remaining, the big wreck vaulted him from 31st to 14th for the final part of the race. Conway climbed as high as 10th during those final moments before the scramble to the flag left him 14th. It was not only Conway’s best Cup finish, worth 24 points of cushion, but an added boost of confidence for a driver trying to make a name for himself in this series.

No. 37 – Robert Richardson Jr. (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+3)
Saturday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

Still on call for FRM’s restrictor-plate season, Richardson climbed back into No. 37 for his third start of 2010. The car he entered Saturday was one of Conway’s backup cars, however, as Richardson was involved in a grinding four-car practice crash on Thursday that involved Tony Stewart, Reed Sorenson and Denny Hamlin. Richardson’s race proved to be a struggle as well: he tangled with a wrecking Stremme with 24 laps remaining, ripping his right-rear tire off the rim. However, like Conway, this kept Richardson clear of the melee that unfolded 11 laps later, leaving him 23rd despite finishing seven laps down. Though the team is on the bubble for the first time since Pocono, the No. 37 is still guaranteed a spot at Chicago when Gilliland returns this week.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT CHICAGO

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-56 points behind 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-96 points behind 35th)

Although hopes were high for Latitude 43 Motorsports as the team had secured sponsorship for the rest of 2010, luck was not on their side at Daytona. Like Smith, Stremme never contended Saturday night as he was unable to keep up with the lead pack. The right-front of his Ford’s splitter was damaged early in the race, necessitating a lengthy pit stop under the second caution on lap 59. After he led the 118th circuit during pit stops, his loose condition worsened, sending No. 26 into a “hospital wobble” entering turn 1 with 24 circuits left on the board. The wobble sent Stremme head-on into the outside wall, collecting Richardson’s No. 37 on the way down the banking. Though Stremme walked away, the damage on the car reflected the damage to the points: the 40 markers Stremme lost that night was second only to Ragan for the most lost by a bubble driver this week.

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-123)
Saturday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-159)

11 laps after Stremme’s crash, 36 points were lost by Kvapil when his Ford was left in a crumpled heap on the apron of turn 3 following the Big One. The long green-flag runs were particularly adverse to Kvapil’s machine, which required several extended pit stops early on that kept him two laps down for the rest of the race. What was gained, however, was four points on the No. 26 team by virtue of finishing three spots ahead of Stremme’s machine.

No. 36 – Steve Park (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-414)
Saturday’s Finish: 13th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-382)

Though Saturday’s race was full of surprises near the top of the leaderboard, the most amazing has to be that of Park, back from a seven-year Cup hiatus, and his 13th-place run in Tommy Baldwin’s rolling tribute to “The Rapid Roman,” potential Hall of Fame inductee Richie Evans. In a race marred by so much carnage on the track, it was thrilling to see a driver, a team and the memory of a NASCAR legend all make a comeback on the same night. The No. 36 had flirted with pit strategy in the late stages, moving up to 10th on lap 120 after staying out to lead the previous lap, but the Big One allowed Park to stay there, running with the leaders with his fan-supported car remarkably unscathed. Combined with Casey Mears’s respectable run at New Hampshire, Tommy Baldwin’s team has gained 44 points on the bubble, beginning a steady march back into contention.

No. 09 – Bobby Labonte (Phoenix Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-487)
Saturday’s Finish: 16th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-469)

Finally, one cannot ignore the 16th-place finish of Labonte, whose 600th consecutive Cup start – and his first for James Finch – ended with his best performance of 2010. After giving the command to start engines from a car funded last-minute by race sponsor Coke Zero, not much was seen of the Texan veteran, though he battled in the top 20 through the halfway mark of the race. Still, even though No. 09 banged the outside wall trying to pick its way up high through the Big One, the crew patched Labonte’s Chevrolet back together in time to keep it on the lead lap. In the end, Labonte gained Finch 18 points on the bubble, fifth-most this week, and the two hope to build on the performance at Chicago.

2010 Bubble Chart After Daytona

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
28 JTG Racing 47 Marcos Ambrose 1,660 +404
29 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 1,659 +394
30 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,604 +348
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,496 +240
32 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon/Bobby Labonte 1,435 +179
33 TRG Motorsports 71 Andy Lally 1,393 +137
34 Front Row Motorsports 34 Kevin Conway 1,379 +123
35 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 1,352 0
36 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme 1,256 -96
37 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 1,193 -159
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Various Drivers 970 -382
39 Phoenix Racing 09 Various Drivers 883 -469
40 Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 842 -510
41 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 811 -541
42 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 760 -592
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 699 -653
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 669 -683

 

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