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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Start And Parkers Still Chasing After Dreams

With twelve races remaining in the 2010 Cup season, two teams still have a realistic shot at re-entering the Top 35 in owner points: the No. 26 Latitude 43 Motorsports team and the No. 38 owned by Front Row Motorsports. Although both cars face an uphill battle to lock themselves into future races, they both enjoy a nearly 400-point gap over the 23 other part-time and full-time teams who have struggled even more in 2010.

What happened to everyone else? On this, the final off week of the year, let’s take a look back at the seasons of the seven full-time teams currently ranked 38th through 44th in Owner Points and examine how they got there.

*No. 09 – Phoenix Racing*
*Number of 2010 Starts After 24 Races:* 17
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-534 points behind 35th)

James Finch’s venerable single-car team faced adversity before the season even began when, just days before Speedweeks, the Miccosukee tribe abruptly ended its eight-year run as primary sponsor. After driver Aric Almirola missed the Daytona 500, the team was forced to “start-and-park” on a more regular basis than in 2009. Almirola left the team after his third DNQ at Phoenix to focus on his promising Truck Series career, leaving the seat open for Mike Bliss. Bliss gave the team its best finish of the season at Talladega when he ran 10th even after a rumored one-race sponsorship deal fell through.

Bliss remained with the team through their fifth DNQ at Charlotte, after which a newly-released Terry Cook missed the show at Pocono. The week after that, Landon Cassill successfully qualified for his first Cup race at Michigan and, since then, the youngster has been appointed as the team’s de facto “start-and-park” driver. Running the few remaining full races for Finch this season is Bobby Labonte, who has made six starts in the car ever since he left Kevin Buckler’s No. 71 team in June. Labonte’s best finish came in his first start for Finch at Daytona in July, where he brought on Coke Zero sponsorship and came home 16th.

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Bobby Labonte will finish the season driving for James Finch after starting it driving for Kevin Buckler.

Before Labonte arrived, road racer Jan Magnussen made his own inaugural start at Sonoma and, thanks to sponsorship from Rick Hendrick, the Finch team ran the whole race and finished 12th. Hendrick’s sponsorship stirred existing rumors that the owner would purchase Finch’s team for Kasey Kahne to drive in 2011, but Kahne’s move to Team Red Bull has eliminated much of this speculation – for now.

*No. 36 – Tommy Baldwin Racing*
*Number of 2010 Starts After 24 Races:* 15
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-567)

For the second consecutive year, Tommy Baldwin Racing was one of the feel-good stories of the Gatorade Duels, but has been unable to carry that momentum through the rest of the season. In February, Mike Bliss raced his way into his second Daytona 500 field in a backup No. 36, but finished a disappointing 42nd on Sunday after he was involved in the first two accidents. Three races later at Atlanta, the team was tied for 35th in owner points with Front Row Motorsports’ No. 37, but Bliss DNQ’d at Bristol and dropped the team 48 marker behind the Bubble. Although primary sponsor Wave Energy Drink just last week reaffirmed its commitment to the team, Wave scaled back into an associate sponsor role just seven races into the season at Phoenix, where a frustrated Bliss missed a second race, then left the team to replace Almirola in James Finch’s No. 09.

Since Bliss’ departure, driver changes at Baldwin’s team have become almost a weekly occurrence. Johnny Sauter first moved from Baldwin’s now-defunct No. 35 team to run the car at Texas and Talladega, only to DNQ in the former and crash in the latter. Casey Mears signed on at Richmond, qualifying 13th and finishing 26th, but one week later wadded up a primary car at Darlington, missed the race in the backup, then left to relieve Brian Vickers in the No. 83.

Sauter returned to attempt three more races at Dover, Charlotte, and Michigan, qualifying for the first two, but by then the team had descended into the “start-and-park” doldrums. Even after Geoffrey Bodine got the No. 36 into the show at Pocono and made his first Cup start in nearly six years, the veteran still parked after just 23 laps. Neither Brian Simo nor Ron Fellows were able to get the team’s 2009 road course chassis into the races at Infineon and Watkins Glen, but the team was high enough in points for Steve Park to make his own return to the Cup Series when rain washed out qualifying at Daytona. Driving a fan-supported Richie Evans-themed Chevrolet, Park avoided the chaos of the night to finish an impressive 13th, to date the team’s best 2010 performance.

Last week at Bristol, Casey Mears left the team for a second time between Friday’s two practice sessions and was replaced by Dave Blaney, who upped the team’s DNQ total to nine. With Blaney making the move to Front Row Motorsports’ No. 38 in the upcoming Atlanta race, J.J. Yeley is slated to become the team’s 10th different driver in 2010.

*No. 13 – Germain Racing*
*Number of 2010 Starts After 24 Races:* 19
Current Owner Points Ranking: 40th (-666)

Like the No. 36 team, Germain Racing made a splash in the Duels when fan favorite Max Papis edged the Kirk Shelmerdine-owned Toyota of Todd Bodine for the final transfer spot in an electrifying battle. An early crash in the 500 left Papis 40th in the final running order, but the No. 13 team knew it would have more opportunities to make the most of its part-time 20-race schedule with backing from GEICO.

The first four races of the schedule were all fully-funded, and Papis qualified for each with a best finish of 28th at Fontana. After race four at Atlanta, the No. 13 was 39th in points, but just 29 points out of 35th, so the decision was made to stretch the team’s part-time funding into a full-time schedule by “start-and-parking” in the team’s non-funded races. However, when Papis missed the team’s first non-funded race at Bristol after spinning out during his timed lap, the team found themselves 80 points behind and, ultimately, out of Top 35 contention.

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What was supposed to be a sophomore season of growth for Max Papis has appeared to go down in flames instead; a handful of fiery DNFs for mechanical problems paired with a long list of DNQs in kicking him out of the No. 13 Cup Series car this August.

Ever since then, Papis’ tremendous efforts in qualifying have been a double-edged sword: the Italian qualified for 18 races, but suffered five DNQs. On race day, a combination of bad luck and tough “start-and-park” decisions have kept the GEICO colors out of the Top 25 in all but two races this season (22nd-place finishes at Texas in April and Watkins Glen). Casey Mears was tabbed to take over the ride at Atlanta, but he ended up making his first start at Bristol following a number of last-minute driver changes during practice. This is the fourth different team Mears has driven for in 2010, not including his temporary relief driver role for Denny Hamlin following Hamlin’s ACL surgery last spring. Like Almirola, Papis is currently focusing his attention on his Truck Series schedule, which will be supported on a full-time basis next year by Germain and GEICO.

*No. 46 – Whitney Motorsports*
*Number of 2010 Starts After 24 Races:* 12
Current Owner Points Ranking: 41st (-735)

Dusty Whitney’s brand-new start-up team missed February’s Daytona 500, but the No. 46 crew left the track with their heads held high. 42-year-old rookie Terry Cook had a stellar run going in February’s Gatorade Duels, but just past the halfway mark, his Dodge’s splitter suffered damage in a spin through the tri-oval grass. A tougher pill for the team to swallow were the three consecutive DNQs to follow, during which time sponsorship continued to elude the organization. Cook used his short track experience to muscle his way into his first three Cup fields at Bristol, Phoenix, and Richmond, but a combination of rain and inexperience sent him home early at Martinsville, Texas, and Talladega – the last of which led to Cook’s departure and an end to his longshot Rookie of the Year bid.

However, when J.J. Yeley took over for Cook at Darlington, ending his two-season absence from Cup racing, the change yielded almost instant results. Yeley qualified for eight consecutive races over the next two months, attracting several one-race sponsors along the way before Cash America came on board for Race No. 8 at Daytona. There, despite an early tire failure, Yeley finished 19th, the team’s best result of the year. Unfortunately for the team, the early-season struggles made that race one of just three where Yeley was able to run the whole race (Charlotte and Sonoma being the other two). And unfortunately for Yeley, when his start streak ended, he missed five of the next six races, setting the stage for his move next week to replace Dave Blaney in Tommy Baldwin’s No. 36. Michael McDowell was selected to drive for Whitney in Atlanta, where the team will switch to Chevrolets and Earnhardt-Childress engines for 2010’s remaining speedway races.

*No. 87 – NEMCO Motorsports*
*Number of 2010 Starts After 24 Races:* 22
Current Owner Points Ranking: 42nd (-766)

Interestingly, Joe Nemechek’s grassroots team has qualified for more races than any other team outside the Top 35, having missed just two races this season (Darlington and last week’s Bristol race). Unfortunately, despite changing fortunes in sponsorship, the No. 87 has yet to complete a race this season and has finished no better than 37th, which came when he had to park a very fast car at Michigan in June.

Much of Nemechek’s season has been a case of “good news, bad news.” He was lightning-quick in Daytona, fast enough to lock himself into the 500 field on speed for the second time in three years. He attracted so much attention for one-race sponsor England’s Stove Works that their servers crashed. Still, an early wreck in the big race ended up the first of six last-place finishes in 2010, the most of any Cup driver this season. At New Hampshire in June, he qualified 7th, but was still unable to find a sponsor and was forced to settle for a 39th-place finish at one of his best tracks. Then, when sponsorship finally did arrive the next week at Daytona, his shiny new HostGator.com car only graced the track for 38 laps before calling it a night. Combined with another pair of costly short track accidents at Martinsville and Richmond, the NEMCO organization has faced – but so far, endured – one of its most difficult years on record.

*No. 66 – PRISM Motorsports*
*Number of 2010 Starts After 24 Races:* 18
Current Owner Points Ranking: 43rd (-865)

Last year, “start-and-park” king PRISM Motorsports’ No. 66 was surprisingly consistent in qualifying, missing just four of the 36 races and even qualifying 8th and 4th in both Bristol events. Most of those strong runs were thanks to Dave Blaney, who continued his role as the team’s lead driver at the start of 2010. However, with the exception of a team-best 3rd starting spot at Bristol last March, qualifying has been a little more of a struggle for Blaney this season. The team has already missed six races, including three of the last six heading to Atlanta next week.

Blaney missed the Daytona 500, but made both good and bad headlines a week later after he qualified a surprising 5th at Fontana. On race day, the still-unsponsored No. 66 fell to the back for the start, delayed its first pit stop long enough to lead three laps, then coasted behind the wall on the 43rd circuit. Weeks before NASCAR instituted its controversial mandatory inspections of last-place finishers, the series “randomly” selected Blaney’s Fontana car for inspection, but assisted PRISM in preparing the team’s other backup car for Las Vegas. Blaney qualified 36th for that race and finished 29th, three laps down. To date, this is the only time one of PRISM’s cars has finished under power in 2010.

Although Blaney continued to obey owner Phil Parsons’ strange business decisions, including a rather pointless two-race team switch with “start-and-park” teammate Michael McDowell at Phoenix and Texas, PRISM’s qualifying prowess has begun to falter. The first sign came at Richmond, where both Blaney and McDowell missed the show after a pair of uneventful qualifying laps. The No. 66 then missed Michigan, then Chicago, and finally Watkins Glen, after which Blaney finally decided enough was enough.

Ironically, Blaney’s replacement at Michigan was Scott Riggs, who left Tommy Baldwin’s team for “start-and-parking” after the No. 36’s promising start to 2009. Riggs missed the Michigan event and qualified 32nd last week at Bristol, so it is still unclear whether or not he’ll be fast enough to make the Atlanta race.

*No. 55 – PRISM Motorsports*
*Number of 2010 Starts After 24 Races:* 19
Current Owner Points Ranking: 44th (-880)

Despite a continued lack of sponsorship for the No. 66, PRISM Motorsports expanded to two unsponsored cars this season with Michael McDowell aboard. Six months later, the No. 55 team’s purpose and future still remain a complete mystery.

In the Duels, McDowell succeeded where Blaney did not when he raced his way into his first Daytona 500 field. Although it was suspected the team would park in the early stages of the race, McDowell acquired a one-race sponsor in Firefly Vodka and almost completed the entire race before a broken drive shaft took him out after 195 laps. Though McDowell promptly attained similar qualifying success to Blaney in 2009, the No. 55 has yet to finish a race and currently has five DNQs of its own.

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Waltrip’s special 50th anniversary Aaron’s car has been one of just four times the No. 55 Toyota has headed to the track fully sponsored in 2010.

In fact, the car has completed more than 46 laps just two times since Daytona. The first time was when Blaney and McDowell switched cars at Phoenix, where Blaney ran until the rear gear failed after 160 laps. Though the team came to Phoenix a whopping 212 points out of the Top 35, PRISM reported the switch was made to somehow get Michael Waltrip a guaranteed starting spot for a one-race deal in the car at Talladega. Combined with Waltrip himself parking the No. 55 at Bristol after nearly wrecking on his timed lap, the team actually lost 77 more points on the Bubble after the Phoenix debacle. Fortunately for them, a washed-out qualifying session locked Waltrip and his Aaron’s sponsorship into the race, where the veteran led four laps and contended for the lead in the first half before a multi-car wreck left him 39th after 84 laps.

The National Day of Prayer effort sponsored McDowell’s return the next week at Richmond, but after his DNQ, it was business as usual for the No. 55 camp – except for one more peculiar twist. In June, Waltrip bumped McDowell out of the car once more only to DNQ at Michigan, setting the stage for an even more disappointing performance at Sonoma. With Toyota’s “Sponsafier” ad blitz in full force, hopes were high that Waltrip could qualify the powder-blue “Praying For Karson” Special at the winding Infineon Raceway. Unfortunately, the car handled terribly on qualifying day and missed the show as the slowest car overall.

McDowell returned to the team at New Hampshire and made six more “start-and-park” runs with a pair of DNQs at Daytona and Chicago. Two weeks after teammate Blaney left the No. 66, McDowell has followed suit and is currently preparing for his inaugural ride in Dusty Whitney’s No. 46. As of this writing, PRISM has not announced who will drive the No. 55 at Atlanta.

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