Last week at Pocono, Sam Hornish Jr. was all smiles when his fourth consecutive top 11 at the tricky triangle capped a five-race, 157-point climb up the standings for his No. 77. The run moved them past Marcos Ambrose, who suffered his third engine failure of 2010, and Elliott Sadler, who was left catching his breath after a horrifying late-race crash, while putting the top 25 in points within reach. Further back, Bobby Labonte performed admirably in “Part One” of his return to the No. 71 team, besting the three ailing Front Row Motorsports Fords that finished 29th, 30th and 31st to push TRG towards a little more breathing room on the bubble.
But all these fringe teams knew that Watkins Glen had the potential to make or break their Top 35 hopes for the future. For some, it could be their one shot at a solid finish the rest of the year; Ambrose wanted to avenge his missed victory at Sonoma, while Hornish simply wanted to avoid the kinds of crashes he suffered in his last two starts at The Glen. And then, there were the road-course ringers: both owners Kevin Buckler and Bill Jenkins had them lying in wait, each ready to capitalize on the struggles of those teams in front of them.
But when all was said and done, there was one team in particular who made the perfect driver and strategy calls to earn themselves a trip off the bubble. Who was it? Read below to find out, as well as the ups and downs of those battling to stay within the Top 35 in owner points.
LOCKED-IN AT MICHIGAN
No. 47 – Marcos Ambrose (JTG Daugherty Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+316 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: Third
Current Owner Points Ranking: 27th (+406 points ahead of 35th)
Clearly, the biggest gain among this week’s bubble contingent was that of Ambrose, whose third-place finish gained the No. 47 team an impressive 90 points of cushion and leapfrogged them up two spots in the rankings. Ambrose led eight laps on Sunday and, as at Sonoma, was evenly matched with the dominant car up front. This time, it the No. 42 of Juan Pablo Montoya who matched Ambrose’s aggression as both vied for the lead, which created some of the most exciting competition this season near the halfway mark. Unfortunately, while briefly winning that exchange it also taxed Ambrose’s equipment, and rough brakes combined with fading handling ultimately kept him from notching that first Cup win.
No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 27th (+442)
Sunday’s Finish: 43rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+396)
Much less fortunate was Speed, who joins this week’s list of bubble teams after he scored his first ever last-place finish in the Cup Series. Speed’s weekend began on much better terms when he timed in eighth on the grid, his first top-10 start since qualifying on the outside pole at Phoenix in April. But less than 15 laps into the race, Speed made his first pit stop and couldn’t get the car restarted. The No. 82 was pushed behind the wall, gushing oil, then returned to the track briefly before he fell out for good after 28 laps with engine failure. Speed lost 46 points of cushion on Sunday and is now ranked 28th, the lowest his team’s been in owner points since Speed’s strong start to 2010 locked them inside the Top 35.
No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+334)
Sunday’s Finish: 14th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+375)
The second-highest gain on Sunday (41 points) was earned by the No. 77 and Hornish Jr., who not only finished his first Cup race at Watkins Glen without hitting something extremely hard but in doing so scored his second straight top-15 finish. Hornish has now gained a total of 198 points over the last six races without ever giving any back in that span. Hornish was equally impressive in qualifying, too, starting right next to road-race ace Ambrose in 12th.
No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+291)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+287)
One week and countless abbreviated replays after his Pocono crash, Sadler attracted little attention at Watkins Glen. He timed in 38th on the grid, and by lap 5 was the first car to pit after the green flag came out. Sadler ran off course and lost a lap just before the second caution on the 40th circuit, needing the Lucky Dog to simply climb his way back into contention. But the remaining laps were uneventful, spent at or near the back of the pack, and Sadler came across the line having lost just four points of cushion in 29th.
No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+194)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+175)
Two months after a forgettable afternoon at Sonoma, Smith was snake-bit by the road courses once more. His car ran off course exiting the “Bus Stop” in Friday’s opening practice, then he qualified 27th for the race, leaving him stuck in traffic for much of the 90-lap event. Smith still managed to make his way up to 17th with 10 laps remaining, but once he got there, the sway bar came apart in the Esses four circuits later. In a parts failure that exploded his right-rear tire, Smith limped back to pit road, which prevented a sixth caution, but the resulting suspension damage abruptly ended his day. The 19 points of lost cushion was third-most among this week’s drivers, continuing what has been an unsteady, inconsistent summer for Furniture Row Racing.
No. 71 – Andy Lally (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 18th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+29)
Lally made his third career Cup start on Sunday, his second in a row at the Glen, and with Kevin Buckler’s returning sponsors Adobe Road Winery and TaxSlayer.com on the No. 71, its road racer gave the team its second-best finish of 2010 (to Mike Bliss’s ninth-place finish at Daytona). Lally’s sole misfortune of the weekend was when he ended up the first driver to take a qualifying time, leaving him 33rd on the grid, but he remained on the lead lap during race day. On lap 62, he moved to second when the third caution interrupted a green-flag pit cycle, giving him fresh tires for the final run to the finish. Lally climbed almost 10 spots in the final 30 laps and gave TRG Motorsports 29 points worth of cushion, more than enough to move them off the bubble for now.
No. 37 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+14)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+7)
FRM anchored the field in qualifying last Saturday by coming in 41st, 42nd and 43rd. And, just like it’s been for the last couple of Sprint Cup events, that’s pretty much where they stayed throughout the day. Kvapil, the fastest of the three, lost a lap early, earned the race’s first Lucky Dog on lap 28, but lost seven points of cushion when he finished between his two teammates.
No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+28)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+3)
What promised to be a big points day for Robby Gordon Motorsports turned into a nightmare on the demanding road course. Gordon qualified 15th, but believed his Toyota was faster still after extensive testing earlier in the week. However, Robby fell to 17th by lap 19 and reported transmission troubles, his bright orange Toyota grinding up third gear. Robby went behind the wall past the halfway mark, spending 13 laps on repairs, then returned to the track only to blow the engine in a huge plume of smoke with six circuits remaining. In the end, that’s not all Robby lost; dropping 25 points to 36th, the second-biggest fall among this week’s group, the owner/driver could be vulnerable to qualifying on speed again if he’s not careful.
Also, for the fourth time in as many road races, Robby was joined Sunday by part-time teammate PJ Jones in the No. 07. However, Jones didn’t fare much better, losing power both in practice and on race day while requiring two assists from the tow truck.
No. 34 – Kevin Conway (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+10)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Conway’s Ford was the last car to complete all 90 of Sunday’s circuits and, though he managed to finish on the lead lap in both road course races in 2010, his No. 34 team is back on the bubble for the first time since Sonoma. Conway did lose a lap earlier in the race after the Extenze machine spun entering the “Bus Stop” on the 10th circuit, but picked up a timely Lucky Dog under the third yellow 52 laps later.
NOT LOCKED-IN AT MICHIGAN
No. 26 – Patrick Carpentier (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-202 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 21st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-182 points behind 35th)
With Mattias Ekstrom unavailable to repeat his Sonoma run in the No. 83 at Watkins Glen, Boris Said stepped in, leaving the No. 26 open for another road-race ace to salvage the team’s Top 35 hopes. Carpentier answered the call and ran strong right out of the box, much to the relief of the No. 26 team, which failed to qualify for the last two races in a row. Indeed, Carpentier was the fastest “go-or-go-homer” in both the opening practice (13th) and qualifying (17th), tying Said’s run at Sonoma for the No. 26’s best starting spot of 2010. On Sunday, Carpentier held on in the top 20 through the opening stages and fell back to 30th, but the lap 62 caution thrust him back into competition. He was running 20th on the final lap, but just barely lost a drag race with Brad Keselowski off the final turn to the checkered flag. Still, there’s nothing for anyone to hang their heads in shame about. Bill Jenkins’s team gained 20 points on 35th, and again moved past FRM’s third car….
No. 38 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-199)
Sunday’s Finish: 27th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-197)
Even with Gilliland’s road-course experience and top-20 finish at Sonoma last June, qualifying was still a harrowing experience for the No. 38 team. The driver started last on the grid, beating JJ Yeley by just a half-second on the stopwatch to make the field. However, while Carpentier was able to flirt with the top 20 all day and Gilliland moved past some of the other backmarkers, the No. 38 was never quite able to overtake the No. 26. At the finish, Gilliland was six positions behind Carpentier, dropping his team back a spot in the points while he ironically gained two markers on Conway in front of him.
2010 Bubble Chart After Watkins Glen
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|27||JTG Daugherty Racing||47||Marcos Ambrose||2,055||+406|
|28||Red Bull Racing||82||Scott Speed||2,045||+396|
|29||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||2,024||+375|
|30||Richard Petty Motorsports||19||Elliott Sadler||1,936||+287|
|31||Furniture Row Racing||78||Regan Smith||1,824||+175|
|32||TRG Motorsports||71||Andy Lally||1,678||+29|
|33||Front Row Motorsports||37||David Gilliland||1,656||+7|
|34||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||1,652||+3|
|35||Front Row Motorsports||34||Kevin Conway||1,649||0|
|36||Latitude 43 Motorsports||26||David Stremme/Patrick Carpentier||1,467||-182|
|37||Front Row Motorsports||38||Travis Kvapil||1,452||-197|
|38||Tommy Baldwin Racing||36||Casey Mears/Ron Fellows||1,139||-510|
|39||Phoenix Racing||09||Bobby Labonte/Landon Cassill||1,127||-522|
|40||Germain Racing||13||Max Papis||1,007||-642|
|41||Whitney Motorsports||46||JJ Yeley||974||-675|
|42||NEMCO Motorsports||87||Joe Nemechek||931||-718|
|43||PRISM Motorsports||66||Dave Blaney/Michael Waltrip||832||-817|
|44||PRISM Motorsports||55||Michael McDowell||808||-841|