NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Robby Gordon’s Sorry Saturday Not What the Doctor Ordered

Last week, bubble drivers continued to make headlines among the humps and bumps of Daytona’s war-weary pavement. Elliott Sadler’s No. 19 and Sam Hornish Jr.’s No. 77 combined to lead 25 laps, only to wreck each other out of top-5 finishes. “The Big One” reared its ugly head, deflating the cushions of Regan Smith and Marcos Ambrose while rewarding a hungry Mike Bliss with a ninth-place finish for Kevin Buckler’s No. 71 team.

As Bliss left the Bubble, Robert Richardson, Jr., in a backup No. 37, slipped to 35th after tangling with 36th-place points man David Stremme, whose No. 26 was involved in a scary single-car crash late in the event. Though Travis Kvapil’s No. 38, already two laps down, was unable to capitalize on Stremme’s misfortune when “The Big One” took him out, the Nos. 36 and 09 of Steve Park and Bobby Labonte wrote feel-good stories for their cash-strapped team owners, securing each a well-deserved top-20 result. Joining in their celebrations was Kevin Conway, whose 14th-place run in the No. 34 was the best of his young career. Such strong performances from so many “backmarkers” left hopes high the momentum would carry them through the 1.5-miler up in Chicagoland.

How would these storylines play out in the Windy City? Read on to find out!

LOCKED-IN AT INDIANAPOLIS

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+298 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 21st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+331 points ahead of 35th)

Wrecked out of a good finish at Daytona, reunited with crew chief Todd Parrott on Tuesday, and now possibly gearing up for his final four months in car No. 19, Elliott Sadler earned a respectable finish and gained points on the bubble for the third consecutive race. Sadler gained 33 points of cushion on Saturday – second-most among this week’s drivers – and was able to stay relatively competitive for most of the race. While none of this week’s bubble contingent were able to finish on the lead lap, race winner David Reutimann was only able to lap Sadler for good after a tight battle with 20 laps remaining in the event.

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG-Daugherty Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+308)
Saturday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+320)

Seven positions behind Sadler, two laps down at the checkered flag, Ambrose gained back 12 of the 30 points the Big One claimed at Daytona. The Tasmanian ran a mediocre yet uneventful race under the lights in Chicago, one marred only by a second stop under the lap 40 caution for missing lugnuts.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+252)
Saturday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+276)

Hornish qualified fifth on Friday, ready to move on from his disappointment at Daytona at one of his best tracks from his IRL days. Unfortunately, like his Penske teammates, the No. 77 eased out of contention in the first 40 green-flag laps and was never quite able to keep up with adjustments as track conditions changed. Making things worse, on-track contact damaged the front end of his No. 77, the latest in a string of accidents that have left this team fighting from behind seemingly every week. Still, Hornish did receive the Lucky Dog under the fourth and final caution period on lap 179, which allowed his crew to take extra time taping the banged-up nose of his Dodge so he could grab some more points. The repairs paid off with a 24th-place finish, still one lap down, completing Hornish’s steady 32-point gain since Infineon.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+144)
Saturday’s Finish: 20th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+180)

Aside from David Ragan’s 12th-place finish and 60-point gain on 36th, one that moved him out of this week’s discussion, the best bubble performance on Saturday belonged to Smith, who gained 36 points from his 20th-place finish. The run could not have happened at a better time for this team, whose driver will now go under the knife for surgery on his injured left wrist. Once 259 points ahead of 35th after Michigan, much of that advantage was gobbled up by crashes and flat tires suffered at Infineon, Loudon and Daytona that left this single-car organization vulnerable to being overtaken.

Continuing his woes initially this weekend, Smith timed in 41st for Saturday’s race, his worst qualifying run of 2010 – but the 10 spots he gained in the opening 29 laps were the most of any driver in the field. Like Sadler, Smith was also able to stay on the lead lap for much of the event. After a well-timed Lucky Dog under the third caution 137 circuits into the race, he fell off the lead lap with just 12 remaining after he grazed the turn 4 wall racing Reutimann.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+83)
Saturday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+65)

Chicago was a much more forgettable experience for Gordon, whose grassroots organization suffered a setback following a vicious crash with Bill Elliott on lap 179. By that point, Gordon’s race was already not going very well. He qualified 38th, fell off the lead lap early, and was three circuits down to the leader by lap 127 as the next-to-last car still on the track. When Elliott crashed in turn 3 52 laps later, Gordon did his best to slow down, but the brakes locked up, sending his car hard into the passenger side of Elliott’s No. 21. Both drivers walked away unscathed, but Gordon ended up with the second-largest loss of cushion (18 points) among this week’s drivers. It’s a discouraging loss of momentum for an organization seemingly on the upswing – especially after a second-place run at Infineon last month left them with some much-needed Top-35 breathing room.

No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+27)
Saturday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+24)

11 laps down to Reutimann, Kevin Conway had a much less spectacular night at Chicago than the Saturday that preceded it, but still lost just three points of cushion on the bubble. In fact, he gained a spot in owner points with this team, certainly a confidence booster as the rookie prepares for his first ever start at the Brickyard.

No. 71 – Landon Cassill (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+41)
Saturday’s Finish: 39th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+20)

In the days following Mike Bliss’s ninth-place finish at Daytona, the best ever performance by Kevin Buckler’s Cup operation, the question became: What next? Early last week, Andy Lally was listed as Chicagoland’s driver of the No. 71, with sponsorship from RB Enterprises. However, when the Cup Series arrived in Illinois, it was Cassill making his second Cup start, with TaxSlayer.com returning as associate sponsor in what would ultimately be a start-and-park effort. Jimmie Johnson lapped Cassill early before the team ended up pulling in on lap 75, costing the No. 71 more points to their competitors (21) than any other organization this week. However, the young rookie gained valuable on-track experience he may need if TRG utilizes him once more at Indianapolis.

No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Saturday’s Finish: 32nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

Gilliland climbed back into FRM’s No. 37 at Chicago, but by qualifying 40th and finishing six laps down, his team remains on the bubble for the second straight race. What was gained, however, was 12 points on his team’s nearest threat for the 35th spot, mission accomplished in what was otherwise a difficult evening for this team.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT INDIANAPOLIS

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-96 points behind 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 36th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-108 points behind 35th)

When the yellow flag flew for the first time on Saturday, it was for Stremme’s Air National Guard Ford, which plowed up the outside wall in turns 1 and 2 on lap 40. The contact required more than 70 laps worth of repairs behind the wall, and the No. 26 wound up the final car in the field to finish under power. Though just 12 points of cushion were lost on the night, a total of 52 have been lost by the team since Daytona, a deficit they can ill afford if Bill Jenkins’s team is to make a sustained run at the Top 35.

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-159)
Saturday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-156)

Although their night did not go much better, coming to the checkered flag six laps in arrears, Kvapil and the No. 38 closed from 63 to 48 points behind the No. 26 on Saturday. Thus, even after both a 150-point penalty at Pocono and a DNQ at Loudon, all is not yet lost for FRM’s chances at getting all three teams into the Top 35.

What was most important about Kvapil’s performance is that his car made the show at all – they squeezed into the 43rd spot ahead of four other qualifiers, the most teams sent home for a race since Charlotte in May. With another 47-car entry list expected at Indianapolis, expect another qualifying showdown between the Nos. 26 and 38 late in that Saturday’s “knock-out” session.

2010 Bubble Chart After Chicagoland

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
28 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 1,750 +331
29 JTG Racing 47 Marcos Ambrose 1,739 +320
30 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,695 +276
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,599 +180
32 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,484 +65
33 Front Row Motorsports 34 Kevin Conway 1,443 +24
34 TRG Motorsports 71 Various Drivers 1,439 +20
35 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 1,419 0
36 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme 1,311 -108
37 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 1,263 -156
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Various Drivers 1,013 -406
39 Phoenix Racing 09 Bobby Labonte 959 -460
40 Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 867 -552
41 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 848 -571
42 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 794 -625
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 727 -692
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 700 -719

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