NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Sam Hornish Jr. Didn’t Win… But He Still Lucked Out at Pocono

Last week, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was mean to the bubble drivers, preventing all but one – 24th-place Travis Kvapil – from finishing any higher than 30th. A first-lap crash crunched the fenders of Elliott Sadler and Sam Hornish Jr., a shredded tire ended Robby Gordon’s day and mechanical troubles wreaked havoc on both Kevin Conway and Regan Smith.

Landon Cassill was forced to park his TRG Motorsports No. 71 for the second-consecutive race, dropping the team to the bubble for the first time since New Hampshire. Ironically, though, even with the early exit Kevin Buckler’s team still left Indy with a firmer grasp on the Top 35. Both 36th-ranked David Stremme in the No. 26 and 37th-ranked David Gilliland in the No. 38 failed to make the Brickyard 400, giving returning No. 71 driver Bobby Labonte 40 more points of cushion to work with at Pocono. But would the beginning of Labonte’s four-race return help to move TRG back up the standings? Read on to find out!

LOCKED-IN AT WATKINS GLEN

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+278 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 11th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+334 points ahead of 35th)

On Sunday, Hornish extended an impressive streak by finishing inside the top 11 for the fourth consecutive Cup race at Pocono. Hornish was the Lucky Dog recipient after Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun out with 41 laps remaining, so crew chief Travis Geisler chose to make the ensuing pit stop the last one of the day. This allowed the No. 77 to move to the top of the scoreboard five circuits later, when Hornish stayed out after Kurt Busch and Elliott Sadler crashed hard in turn 2. A timely rain delay kept him out front for nine laps before the race was finally restarted with 21 to go.

On the restart, Hornish held his own by racing eventual winner Greg Biffle through turns 1 and 2. It wasn’t until lap 191 that he fell any farther back than second, courtesy of a turn 3 bump from Tony Stewart. Though the tires fell off from there, Hornish still finished just outside the top 10 and gained 56 points of cushion. He has now gained points every week since his crash at Sonoma: 157 points in all over the last five races.

No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG-Daugherty Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+349)
Sunday’s Finish: 39th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+316)

Not so fortunate was Ambrose, whose third engine-related failure of 2010 dropped him 33 points back into this week’s group of bubble drivers. Ambrose qualified a respectable 19th, but pulled behind the wall during the first round of green-flag stops on lap 46. On top of his plans to change teams at the end of this season, these mechanical gremlins will certainly be a major concern next week as the Tasmanian looks for road course redemption at Watkins Glen.

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+309)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+291)

As we all know, it was both the best of times and the worst of times for Sadler at Pocono. Just over a day after his emotional return to victory lane in the Truck Series, Sadler was lying on the track catching his breath next to a completely annihilated Air Force Ford, the car’s engine ripped free and smoking on the infield grass. Sadler had lost two laps when an early spin off turn 3 failed to draw a yellow flag, but he was holding his own when Busch wrecked in front of him with 36 laps remaining. Fortunately, Sadler was not only able to walk away from his grinding crash, but the No. 19 only lost 18 points of cushion – just the fourth-most among this week’s teams.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+173)
Sunday’s Finish: 21st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+194)

One week after the cockpit of the No. 78 filled with smoke, Smith was back in his element when he picked up the team’s 11th top-25 finish of 2010. Like Hornish, the only other bubble driver to finish on the lead lap Sunday, Smith picked up a timely Lucky Dog on lap 146 and remained there throughout the rest of the event. Smith also gained a healthy 21 points of cushion, more than making up for the seven he lost at Indy.

No. 7 – PJ Jones (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+49)
Sunday’s Finish: 35th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+28)

The 2010 season at Pocono could not have ended soon enough for Robby Gordon Motorsports. After Ted Musgrave failed to get the No. 7 into the show in June, Jones lost the primary car in Friday’s opening practice after a hard slap into the turn 1 wall. The plain black-painted backup car was never quite able to get up to speed, either. Jones called off his qualifying lap on Friday and, after starting 42nd, the car was black-flagged by NASCAR for failing to meet the minimum speed requirement. Like the No. 47 team, Gordon’s is looking to bounce back in a big way at Watkins Glen after a strong showing of their own at Sonoma.

No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+20)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+14)

The three Front Row Motorsports cars finished 29th, 30th and 31st on Sunday as the final three cars to take the checkered flag. Second among them was Gilliland, who carried sponsorship from Gander Mountain for the second time in 2010. Gilliland qualified 37th, and lost the first of his two laps on the 51st circuit. However, since so many other bubble teams struggled on Sunday, Gilliland lost just six points of cushion. And since he secured a top 20 driving the No. 38 at Sonoma, expect him to climb back into that car next week at The Glen.

No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+19)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+10)

Last among the Front Row Trio was Conway, who was making his first return trip to a track as a Cup Series driver. Conway lost nine points on the day, but again, has continued to hold his own in the Top 35 ever since he was moved to the No. 34 team.

No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble By 196 Points)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble By 199 Points)

TaxSlayer and Labonte returned to Kevin Buckler’s team for the first of a four-race deal, allowing the No. 71 to run the entire race for the first time since Mike Bliss’s standout performance at Daytona last month. Despite his post-Sonoma frustrations, Labonte performed admirably: he qualified 22nd, beat all three of the FRM cars and gained three points of cushion as a result.

Next week, expect Andy Lally to return to this car as the road-race ace marks the one-year anniversary of his Cup Series debut. Assuming this deal comes together, it should be interesting to see if Lally can capitalize on the continuing struggles of FRM to put the No. 71 back ahead of the rest of the field.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT WATKINS GLEN

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-196 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-199 points behind 35th)

Kvapil bested both of his FRM teammates for the third consecutive race, this time doing so in the No. 38 that missed the show last week at Indy. Although the team lost three points to 35th-ranked TRG Motorsports, the team returned to the 36th spot in owner points after qualifying, once again, dashed the hopes of their persistent bubble competitors….

No. 26 – David Stremme (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-154)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-202)

Stremme threw everything he had into his qualifying lap on Friday, but left too much black and blue paint on the turn 3 wall to keep the No. 26 from missing its second consecutive race. The team lost 48 points of cushion, capping off a costly 106-point slide since Stremme wrecked at Daytona last month. Watkins Glen and the return of the “Said Heads” could not have come at a better time – except that Boris will be piloting Red Bull’s No. 83 on Sunday instead.

2010 Bubble Chart After Watkins Glen

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
29 JTG Daugherty Racing 47 Marcos Ambrose 1,885 +316
30 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 1,860 +291
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,763 +194
32 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,597 +28
33 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 1,583 +14
34 Front Row Motorsports 34 Kevin Conway 1,579 +10
35 TRG Motorsports 71 Various Drivers 1,569 0
36 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 1,370 -199
37 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 David Stremme 1,367 -202
38 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Casey Mears 1,096 -473
39 Phoenix Racing 09 Landon Cassill 1,069 -500
40 Whitney Motorsports 46 J.J. Yeley 943 -626
41 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 910 -659
42 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 885 -684
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney / Michael Waltrip 804 -765
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 771 -798

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