NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Front Row Motorsports Regroups at Brutal Bristol

Last week at Michigan, Elliott Sadler ended a nine month top-10 drought and amassed a season high 375-point cushion on the bubble. Regan Smith and Scott Speed also turned heads on race day by parlaying pit strategy into a pair of top-25 finishes while Sam Hornish Jr. continued a steady seven-race gain.

But behind these four teams, chaos reigned….

A miserable afternoon at Watkins Glen forced Robby Gordon to park both his Toyotas after 64 laps at Michigan, slipping the No. 7 back onto the bubble for the first time since June. Patrick Carpentier’s No. 26 gained points on Robby, but questions remained about the team’s solvency after David Stremme joined Boris Said on a growing list of drivers leaving the team for nonpayment. ExtenZe and Kevin Conway suspended their obligations to Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34, plopping Tony Raines into an unsponsored ride just 15 markers ahead of oblivion. TaxSlayer’s on-and-off sponsorship of the No. 71 would switch “off” again at Bristol, sending Bobby Labonte back to Phoenix Racing once more.

The last thing these other four teams needed was more uncertainty, but each would carry a new driver at Bristol, where the concrete high banks threatened to turn up the heat on the bubble’s war of attrition.

LOCKED-IN AT ATLANTA

No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+429 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+438 points ahead of 35th)

That Speed finished 33rd Saturday yet still gained nine points of cushion shows how rough a night Bristol was for this week’s bubble drivers. Though Speed had historically qualified quite well at the concrete tracks, his No. 82 was down on power in qualifying and timed in 23rd. On lap 193, he was not running much better in the 25th position when he lost a right-front tire and slapped the wall in turns 3 and 4, triggering the fourth caution of the night. Repairs left his silver Toyota 14 laps down at the finish as the third-to-last car to finish under power: Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson trailed him in 34th and 35th.

No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+387)
Saturday’s Finish: 25th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+420)

Hornish picked up his best career Bristol finish Saturday night, but only after another frustrating up-and-down night. The right side of his Dodge was scraped-up as early as lap 26, then was damaged further by the 123rd circuit when a flat tire forced him to make an unscheduled stop under green. He recovered as the Lucky Dog when Labonte’s blown right-front drew a yellow on lap 254, which allowed him to fight off Kyle Busch for a lead-lap finish with 176 remaining. Just after Busch got by, however, Hornish made a second unscheduled stop that would trap him three laps in arrears when the checkered flag fell. Still, the Ohio driver gained 33 points, third-highest among this week’s group, and continues an eight-race, 243-point gain on the bubble.

No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+395)
Saturday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+396)

Sadler won the pole for Wednesday’s Truck Series race, but the success just didn’t translate to Saturday’s Cup effort. He started 41st on Saturday – his worst qualifying performance of 2010 – and the Hunt Brothers Pizza colors were lapped quickly during the opening green-flag run. He lost eight more laps by race’s end, but still gained back a single point of cushion to add to the 88 he picked up at Michigan.

No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+220)
Saturday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+238)

One position on the track, but two laps behind Sadler at the finish, Smith was one of the many drivers to suffer tire problems. When AJ Allmendinger, David Ragan, Tony Stewart and Tony Raines received damage in a crash on lap 126, Smith spun by himself, but remained on the track. Less than 10 circuits later, the No. 78 lost its flat-spotted right-front tire and slammed the turn 2 wall hard enough to rip one of his shocks from the frame. Smith returned to the track and finished 11 laps down, but still gained 18 points of cushion.

No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+15)
Saturday’s Finish: 22nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+62)

Less than a week after Conway and ExtenZe left the team, all three Front Row Motorsports cars had ironically successful nights in the bubble standings. Kvapil, switched to the No. 34, performed the best as this week’s top-finishing bubble driver. He qualified 33rd and was the first Lucky Dog when teammate David Gilliland’s struggles brought the first yellow on lap 56. He stayed out to lead under the next caution and, by lap 152, was the only FRM car on the lead lap. Though Speed’s caution gave him another lap back, Kvapil still left Bristol as the first car two laps down. However, with all the bubble drivers finishing outside the top 20, Kvapil gained 47 points and moved one spot up the standings.

No. 71 – Landon Cassill (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+38)
Saturday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+35)

Kvapil’s gain was young Cassill’s loss as TRG Motorsports was again forced to park the No. 71 Chevrolet, this time after 129 laps with ignition problems as the listed cause. Although the night cost the team just three points, there is a now-greater chance that owner Kevin Buckler may lose another spot in owner points to FRM.

No. 37 – Tony Raines (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+7)
Saturday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+31)

Zeroing-in on TRG Motorsports is the No. 37 team, which saw Raines drive the number for the first time since his own start-and-park efforts for FRM in late 2009. After pulling the No. 34 off the bubble at Michigan, Raines turned in a respectable effort for his old team, moving them 24 points further away from 35th despite finishing two laps down. Except for his lap 126 shunt into Stewart, it was an uneventful night as well, something which the team will need if it is to sustain all three teams with limited funds.

No. 7 – Kevin Conway (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Saturday’s Finish: 36th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

The night before opening practice, Gordon worked out an 11th-hour deal with Conway and sponsor ExtenZe that put the rookie behind the wheel of Gordon’s No. 7. Robby remained in the No. 07 for the second straight race. Ironically, after all FRM’s struggles to keep Conway off the bubble in 2010, the move put the young driver in 35th once again without any locked-in teammates to switch rides: Gordon’s No. 07 has made just four starts since June and currently sits a distant 49th in owner points.

The last-minute deal seemed to amplify Conway’s struggles in 2010: he slipped from 40th at the start to 43rd and was lapped just 12 circuits into the race. The leaders passed him by at least 10 times after that before he pulled behind the wall for good under the fifth caution on the 254th lap. Vibration troubles were the listed cause of this, his fourth DNF of the season. Although the No. 7 remains on the bubble, the team lost more than 30 points to the “go-or-go-homers,” which at this rate could cost Conway a guaranteed starting spot four races down the road. Hopefully, the off-weekend will give RGM a better opportunity to allow Conway to adjust to his new ride.

NOT LOCKED-IN AT ATLANTA

No. 26 – Jeff Green (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-161 points behind 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-125 points behind 35th)

Latitude 43 kept the pressure on Robby’s team by putting short-track veteran Green in the No. 26, who was looking for a ride after Tri-Star Motorsports withdrew their No. 35 Cup car last Wednesday. Green rewarded the team by not only qualifying for his first Cup race since Martinsville in the fall of 2007, but racing into the top 25. Like Hornish, Green received a Lucky Dog early in the race and fought to stay on the lead lap in the closing stages. Green’s was the first car to finish three laps down at race’s end, but the No. 26 gained 36 points on the No. 7, this week’s second-biggest gain to Kvapil’s 47.

No. 38 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-174)
Saturday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-144)

Finishing Front Row’s post-Conway resurgence was Gilliland, whose No. 38 turned heads Friday as the fastest car in opening practice and third-fastest in Happy Hour. Although he struggled with a loose condition in qualifying that put him 34th on the grid, then brought out the first yellow when he lost a right-front tire on lap 56, Gilliland kept his nose clean for the rest of the night and finished five laps down, gaining his team 30 points on the No. 7. With both the No. 26 and the No. 38 now less than a full race’s worth of point gain behind Conway, it should be interesting to see if either Ford can capitalize on the struggles of Robby Gordon Motorsports.

2010 Bubble Chart After Bristol

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
27 JTG Daugherty 47 Marcos Ambrose 2,276 +642
28 Red Bull Racing 82 Scott Speed 2,197 +563
29 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 2,179 +545
30 Richard Petty Motorsports 19 Elliott Sadler 2,155 +521
31 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,997 +363
32 Front Row Motorsports 34 Tony Raines 1,821 +187
33 TRG Motorsports 71 Andy Lally 1,794 +160
34 Front Row Motorsports 37 David Gilliland 1,731 +156
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,759 0
36 Latitude 43 Motorsports 26 Patrick Carpentier 1,634 -125
37 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 1,615 -144
38 Phoenix Racing 09 Bobby Labonte/Landon Cassill 1,225 -534
39 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Casey Mears 1,192 -567
40 Germain Racing 13 Max Papis 1,093 -666
41 Whitney Motorsports 46 JJ Yeley 1,024 -735
42 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 993 -766
43 PRISM Motorsports 66 Scott Riggs 894 -865
44 PRISM Motorsports 55 Michael McDowell 879 -880

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