Last week, as Regan Smith continued to fight for an elusive top-10 finish, Scott Speed and Elliott Sadler joined the No. 78 in pulling away from the bubble while auditioning for rides in 2011. Sam Hornish Jr.’s No. 77, also facing an offseason of uncertainty, was left shaking his head with his worst finish of the year following a crash not of his own making. But while two Front Row Motorsports cars rolled nose-to-tail across the finish line three laps in arrears, a three-car battle for the final two spots in the Top 35 took shape:
The first combatant would be TRG Motorsports’ No. 71, which finally had enough sponsorship to finish the race at Charlotte, albeit 19 laps down, but now had just 15 points of breathing room. Second would be the No. 7, still on the bubble despite the best efforts of owner Robby Gordon when pit struggles and a late spin marked a frustrating North Carolina night. Finally, there was the No. 38, still on the comeback trail from the Pocono debacle in June and, after a modest 28th-place finish, sat just five points away from shaking up the standings for the first time in two months.
Which of our bubble contenders struck first at the final short track race of 2010? Read on to find out!
LOCKED-IN AT TALLADEGA
No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+598 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+592 points ahead of 35th)
Like many of this week’s bubble contenders, Speed enjoyed a promising start to his weekend at Martinsville only to endure a Sunday filled with adversity. Speed ran 17th fastest in Friday’s opening practice session, 15th in the second practice, and qualified 14th. He hovered around 21st spot for much of the race, but not without being knocked around in traffic. The most notable incident took place on lap 185 when Hornish Jr.’s No. 77 routed him out of the groove in turn 4. Speed retaliated by clipping Hornish’s right-front, then was punted even harder into Smith. Though Smith’s car prevented Speed from spinning, he still lost ground when he sped off pit road two cautions later on lap 225. As he tried to climb back into contention, Speed twice lost a lap to the leaders, but gained the next two Lucky Dogs. When the cautions ended, however, the No. 82 fell two laps in arrears and lost six points of cushion to the bubble.
No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+601)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+580)
As speculation continued to swirl around Richard Petty Motorsports, Sadler qualified an unremarkable 31st and never contended on Sunday. On lap 112, Sadler blew a right-front tire in turns 3 and 4, then stopped on the track to bring out the second caution of the race, drawing a two-lap penalty. The blown tire broke a sway bar mount on the Stanley Ford, forcing extensive repairs. He returned to the track only to be tangled in Ken Schrader’s lap 133 spin, where he parallel parked his way out of the mess by backing up into the nose of Joe Nemechek’s stopped Toyota. He was held another lap on the 173rd circuit for pulling up to pit, adding to the 26 laps he’d lose to the leaders by the checkered flag. Sadler lost 21 points with his 28th-place finish, but this was only the fifth-largest drop among this week’s drivers.
No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+560)
Sunday’s Finish: 25th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+548)
“Sideways” Hornish Jr. has historically struggled at Martinsville and, though he finished four laps down, he actually ran in the top 20 most of the day. From a 24th starting spot that overshadowed his 11th-fastest run in Friday’s practice, the No. 77 climbed to 16th by the one-quarter mark and seemed ready to turn in another solid Chase performance. He was racing Speed for 20th when his right-front was damaged in the aforementioned lap 185 tangle, setting off a frustrating downhill slide through the pack. He sustained more damage in David Reutimann’s lap 234 spin, lost a lap less than 100 circuits later, then drew the next-to-last caution on lap 359 with a solo spin off turn 2. Hornish left 12 points of cushion behind at Martinsville, and he has lost 58 points since finishing 15th at Fontana.
No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+553)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+523)
Smith drew the short straw in the Hornish-Speed fracas when the two sent the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet backwards into the turn 1 fence, requiring more than 50 laps of repairs. In a frustrating twist, Smith’s streak of two consecutive top-15 finishes ended after he was 13th in qualifying and top 20 in two practice sessions. A pit-road speeding penalty prior to the lap 185 crash kept him mired in traffic while the pace of the remaining circuits left him 58 laps down at the finish. He lost 30 points that afternoon, fourth-most among this week’s teams, but with Smith’s history at next week’s venue, Halloween could be a prime opportunity for the New York driver to snag his second Talladega triumph.
No. 34 – Tony Raines (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+113)
Sunday’s Finish: 32nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+80)
FRM endured a miserable afternoon in Virginia as all three of its teams each finished more than 60 laps down and lost more than 30 points of cushion. The finishing order shows that Raines barely beat his two teammates, but for much of the day, he performed significantly better. He qualified 40th and apparently benefitted from Dennis Setzer shaking down his car in Happy Hour while Raines qualified for the final Nationwide event at Gateway. Raines moved to 30th by Lap 175, having been in the right place at the right time for three of the race’s first five Lucky Dogs. From there, he held onto the tail end of the lead lap through the race’s middle stages and climbed to 22nd on lap 300. He was still on the same lap as the leaders when the race restarted on the 396th circuit, when he immediately fell off the pace with a flat left-rear tire. The No. 34 then snapped loose in the third turn and popped the outside wall, dropping him off the lead lap for good in the 27th position. He lost another five positions when the rear gear failed inside the final 60 laps, dropping the team 33 points closer to 35th.
No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+113)
Sunday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+65)
The lowest-finishing FRM car belonged to Gilliland, who almost made it to the front page at LASTCAR following some severe mechanical troubles in the early laps. He qualified next to Raines in 39th, but was off the track during the first caution on lap 48. Radio traffic indicated the Taco Bell Ford had bent the driveshaft and was suffering a severe vibration. Running 42nd on lap 120, the No. 37 made a brief trip onto the track under caution, but immediately returned so the team could change the transmission. By the time he was back on track for good, he was 42nd, 114 laps down. By the checkered flag, he was another four laps behind the leaders, but five positions up on the track. Still, the 48 points he lost on the Bubble were the most of any driver this week.
No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 22nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+2)
For the first time since Watkins Glen, Gordon’s No. 7 is off the bubble but by no means out of danger. The preliminary entry list had Kevin Conway in the 35th-ranked car while Robby would drive the team’s backup No. 07. However, after Conway qualified 41st and Robby DNQ’d, the owner put the driver’s hat back on and even changed the driver’s name decal above the window. After being sent back two positions to the rear for the driver change, Gordon began a slow, but deliberate march into the top 25 at one of the Californian’s worst tracks. With the aid of just one Lucky Dog on lap 112, Gordon earned his best Martinsville finish since April 2005, when he finished 20th. His best finish since then was 34th on two occasions, most recently in this year’s spring race. The improvement was rewarded with just a two-point gain, but more importantly, one team now separates the No. 7 from Top-35 oblivion heading into the series’ most unpredictable track.
No. 71 – Hermie Sadler (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+15)
Sunday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Four positions behind Gordon, Hermie Sadler tied his third-best Cup finish in his first start in the series since Michigan in August 2006. The SPEED personality’s No. 71, built by Richard Childress and prepared by Kevin Harvick Incorporated, was down on power in practice and qualifying, but nevertheless had sufficient sponsorship to try and defend TRG Motorsports’ paltry 15-point cushion on the bubble. Although that cushion evaporated completely, Sadler kept the damage to a minimum by earning two straight Lucky Dogs in the middle stages and held the 26th position for the final 75 laps of the race. Better yet, they actually gained 42 points on the 36th-ranked team in spite of some stacked odds coming into the race.
NOT LOCKED-IN AT TALLADEGA
No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-5 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 35th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-47 points behind 35th)
Coming into Sunday’s race, Kvapil’s mission was clear: finish in front of Gordon’s No. 7 to erase a five-point deficit and shore up a spot in the Top 35. FRM did a great job putting together a fast enough car, one quick enough to secure the 27th starting spot well ahead of his two teammates, but luck was not on their side on race day. Just 48 laps into the race, Kvapil had a blown right-front tire and right-side damage from a close encounter with the turn 4 wall. He lost a half-dozen laps to the leaders in the incident, went behind the wall for a failing rear gear on lap 352, then came back out only to have the gear fail completely with 22 to go, shrouding turn four with thick smoke. Now, the No. 38 will not only have to make Talladega on qualifying speed, but the team will have to count on outpacing the Nos. 7 and 71 in the “wild card” race of the Chase.
No. 26 – Ken Schrader (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-177)
Sunday’s Finish: 18th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-163)
In a surprising and pleasant twist, the best bubble performance of the week belonged to Latitude 43 Motorsports and fan favorite Schrader. Making his first points race in two years (and first Cup appearance since this year’s Budweiser Shootout), Schrader nipped Michael McDowell for a starting spot in the race after the No. 26 was the final car to take qualifying time. From the 38th starting spot, the veteran enjoyed a rollercoaster run through the pack. Running in the middle of the field, he spun off turn 2 on lap 133 after a three-wide battle with Marcos Ambrose and Bobby Labonte sent him into the path of Elliott Sadler and Nemechek. Schrader righted the car in time for him to take on fresh tires and was in or near the Lucky Dog spot for the rest of the day. Schrader made up a lap on two cautions, including one on lap 359 that vaulted him within view of the top 20.
This allowed the No. 26 to stay out when the 14th yellow flew on lap 384, putting the Air Guard Ford out front for seven caution laps. At the drop of the green flag, he slipped back through the pack and bounced between rows of cars until the right-rear sheetmetal began to dig into his right-rear tire, billowing smoke. Fortunately, NASCAR didn’t have a chance to black flag him as Raines’s own tire problems drew the final yellow three circuits later. With another fresh set of tires, Schrader then made one final rally through the field during the last green-flag run, moving 14 points closer to the bubble. Next week, Schrader and Latitude 43 Motorsports will be at it again at the scene of “Super K’s” first Cup triumph in 1988.