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Bubble Breakdown: Brickyard Where Top-35 Dreams Went to Die… Or DNQ

Two weeks ago, the stage for the Brickyard’s bubble battle was set on an Illinois night where all 10 drivers ranked 28th through 37th failed to finish on the lead lap. The race began with TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 parking, bringing an early end to Landon Cassill’s second Cup start. It ended with a violent crash where Robby Gordon’s No. 7 slammed into Bill Elliott. Both teams lost nearly 20 points of cushion that night to their rivals, but were still guaranteed starting spots at Indy after an ugly race for seemingly everyone in this section of the points standings.

Still on the outside looking in were both David Stremme’s No. 26 and Travis Kvapil’s No. 38, the former barely able to finish the race at Chicago after the latter narrowly made the field. As Kvapil traded rides with teammate David Gilliland for Indy, both teams would be ones to watch in the closing stages of Saturday’s qualifying session. How competitive would the bubble drivers be in the biggest race of the summer at Indy? Read on to find out in the latest edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

LOCKED-IN AT POCONO

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+331 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+309 points ahead of 35th)

Sunday’s race was hardly 20 seconds old when two bubble drivers were gobbled up in a multi-car accident off the second corner. Sadler’s Stanley Tools Ford received perhaps the most damage of anyone, an innocent victim after Kyle Busch spun his car in front of the field. In the chaos, the No. 19 was turned sideways into the grass, t-boned by David Reutimann, then punted into the wall by Reed Sorenson and Bobby Labonte. Repairs took 105 laps, keeping the car in last place for much of the day before he returned to the track. Although he gained back five positions, Sadler still lost 22 points of cushion, ending an impressive 84-point rally over the last three races.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+276)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+278)

The wreck that took out Sadler also included Hornish, who was turned sideways by the ill-handling Busch. The contact sent his No. 77 backwards into the outside wall, then back into traffic where the rest of the field barely avoided hitting him. Unlike Sadler, the Penske crew was able to make repairs on pit road, losing just two laps even after a pit-road speeding penalty added insult to injury. When the checkered flag flew, Hornish was three laps down to the leaders, but still managed to gain two points of cushion as his other bubble competitors struggled.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+180)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+173)

Near the halfway point of the race, Smith, driving a multi-colored tribute to the U.S. farming industry, seemed on his way to another solid finish. After starting 22nd, he was still hanging onto 19th place at halfway. However, his run was derailed by a burnt rear-end gear that forced him to go behind the wall for more than 20 laps during the race’s closing stages. He finished 25 laps down as a result, preventing him from capitalizing on the struggles of his fellow bubble drivers.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+65)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+49)

A more visible series of misfortunes befell Gordon, ending what had begun as a promising weekend for the owner/driver. Gordon was fourth fastest in Friday’s opening practice session, then qualified a solid 21st the following day. Unfortunately, his bright orange Toyota was one of the many cars to overheat due to dislodged infield grass in turn 2 early in the race, forcing an unscheduled stop on lap 14. Then, sometime after Max Papis blew an engine the next lap, Gordon’s right-front tire exploded, tearing off an entire fender for the first caution of the day. After his team repaired the car, Gordon logged a few more laps before he stopped for good with a vibration problem after 68 circuits.

No. 37 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+20)

Ironically, the only ray of sunshine for an otherwise miserable day of Bubble trouble was the 24th-place finish of Kvapil: the only one of this week’s drivers to finish higher than 30th. The run not only gained his team 20 points of cushion and took them off the bubble, but moved the No. 37 up to 33rd in points, the highest it has been since Michigan in June. Although the nose of his Ford was scraped up following the lap 1 crash, Kvapil was in the right place at the right time for the rest of the race by twice earning the Lucky Dog. He also managed to remain in the top 25 despite overheating in the final run to the checkers.

No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+24)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+19)

Not so fortunate was Kvapil’s teammate Conway, whose engine expired after 124 laps. Still, Conway’s loss of cushion was kept to just five points, thanks in part to leading the 18th circuit during the caution involving Gordon and Papis.

No. 71 – Landon Cassill (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+20)
Sunday’s Finish: 39th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

Lap 17 of the race was led by rookie Cassill, making his second consecutive start in Kevin Buckler’s No. 71. Like Gordon, Cassill was impressive in qualifying as he posted the 20th-fastest time. He was caught up in the frenzy of unscheduled stops during the start of the race, and was forced to pit off sequence. On the 50th lap, this allowed Cassill to run second to Montoya during green-flag stops, getting his car some valuable TV time. However, once he returned to pit road two laps later, the underfunded No. 71 ended up driving back to Gasoline Alley.

Next week, Bobby Labonte will return to this team for the first of four races over the season’s second half. As Labonte has made his thoughts on “start-and-parking” known, expect this car to run more laps at Pocono. However, even if the car does have to park later this year, the team’s Top-35 prospects are starting to look better, thanks to two qualifying runs last Saturday….

NOT LOCKED-IN AT POCONO

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-108 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-154 points behind 35th)

No. 38 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-156)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-196)

The biggest setbacks in this week’s bubble battle were suffered on qualifying day when, for the first time this year, both the 36th and 37th-ranked teams missed the race, dropping each more than 40 points further away from the Top 35. It was the fourth DNQ of 2010 for the No. 26, and the second time in four races that the No. 38 wasn’t in the starting field.

This pair of DNQs was surprising because of how uneventful their timed laps were and how steady both have competed this season. Stremme was 14th-fastest in Friday’s first practice, and seemed set to build on his 24th-place finish at Pocono in June. Gilliland, while moved back to FRM’s No. 38, had some of his best runs in 2010 with that same car, most recently at Sonoma where he finished 19th. Hopefully, with Pocono coming up next week, both teams have enough notes from Indy to figure out how to put together a better-timed run this Friday.

2010 Bubble Chart After Indianapolis

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
29 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 1,799 +309
30 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 1,768 +278
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,663 +173
32 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,639 +49
33 Front Row Motorsports 37 Travis Kvapil 1,510 +24
34 Front Row Motorsports 34 Kevin Conway 1,509 +19
35 TRG Motorsports 71 Various Drivers 1,490 0
36 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme 1,336 -154
37 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 1,294 -196
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Various Drivers 1,041 -449
39 Phoenix Racing 09 Bobby Labonte 1,029 -461
40 Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 889 -601
41 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 882 -608
42 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 842 -648
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip 767 -723
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 737 -753

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