It was a long, tough Martinsville afternoon for many of the bubble contenders, with overcoming adversity the name of the game. Tempers flared between Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Speed, resulting in a costly crash for Regan Smith that ended the No. 78’s top-15 finish streak. Mechanical failures knocked out all three Front Row Motorsports cars, including the No. 38 – a team who watched a five-point deficit on the bubble grow larger as its two competitors became smaller by the distance. Robby Gordon took the wheel for rookie Kevin Conway in the No. 7, scoring his best Martinsville finish in five years and moving his team off the bubble for the first time since Watkins Glen. Now 35th belonged to TRG Motorsports, despite the efforts of Hermie Sadler, who performed admirably in his first Sprint Cup race in four years.
But the true bubble day belonged to Ken Schrader, running 18th in his first points race in two years. Driving Latitude 43 Motorsports’ troubled No. 26, “Super K” rebounded from an early spin and a hair-raising late restart to give the team its best run since Infineon. Another veteran would take the helm of the Air National Guard Ford at Talladega, where Saturday’s qualifying session proved just as significant to the bubble battle as the race itself…
LOCKED-IN AT TEXAS
No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+580 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 14th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+609 points ahead of 35th)
Four of this week’s bubble contenders finished inside the top 20 on Sunday, each scoring valuable TV time as the draft shuffled them into the lead pack. Of these four, Sadler had one of the best overall performances; quite the accomplishment given the uncertainty of what 2011 will hold for both driver and team. From the 33rd starting spot, the Virginian rallied up to eighth by lap 24, then to fifth just five circuits later. From that point, Sadler managed to hover around ninth for what seemed like the entire race. That kept him close enough to the lead to follow teammate Aric Almirola into second with 71 to go, eventually allowing him to pace the field on lap 119. He was 10th in the final 30 laps, during which the final scramble was just enough to squeeze him back to 14th. Still, the run netted Sadler 29 points of cushion, second-most of this week’s group.
No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+548)
Sunday’s Finish: 15th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+574)
Like Sadler, Hornish was a fixture in the lead draft on Sunday. However, the driver of the No. 77 spent his time as one of the best at vaulting two-car breakaways into the lead. Months after his career run at the July Daytona race ended with a late crash, Hornish’s Penske Power qualified 10th, then frequently helped teammates Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch maneuver into the lead. Later, he even gave Denny Hamlin the lap 50 shunt that pushed the No. 11 into first place and handed him five valuable bonus points. He was also just as good at getting bumped to the front, having paced the field three times for five laps. How quick was the Mobil 1 Dodge? During one rally with 38 to go, Hornish rebounded from a pit-road speeding penalty to gain 18 spots in just five circuits. With nine laps remaining, the former IndyCar star was at it again, shunting Michael Waltrip’s No. 55 to the lead after Waltrip helped Hornish to the front in the early stages. The caution that fell a few seconds later was not helpful, however, as Hornish had a slow restart behind Jimmie Johnson and was kicked to the high side, sending him sliding out of the top 10. Still, by finishing right behind Sadler, Hornish gained 26 points on the bubble, this week’s third-highest gain.
No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+592)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+571)
Speed was one of a half-dozen cars involved in the grinding last-lap wreck that brought out the final yellow, eclipsing what had been until then a run as steady as Sadler’s. The California native, who had finished inside the top 20 in all three prior restrictor-plate races in 2010, was 13th in opening practice, but unable to climb higher than 29th in qualifying. Back in the draft on race day, however, his silver No. 82 came to life and moved to 14th by lap 50. With 41 circuits remaining, Speed cruised in 11th and seemed poised to defend his fifth-place finish in the spring Talladega race last year. However, while still in the snarling lead pack at the white flag, he had nowhere to go when Tony Stewart, AJ Allmendinger and Waltrip collided in front of him, sending Speed spinning into the grass and outside the top 20. As a result, Speed lost 21 points of cushion, just the fifth-highest loss of this week’s group.
No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+523)
Sunday’s Finish: 12th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+553)
By just one point, the biggest gain of this week’s ten drivers again belonged to Smith, who scored his third top-15 finish in the month of October alone and a 30-point gain. Unlike his runs at Fontana and Charlotte, however, Smith and the No. 78 team did not have to rely on pit strategy to make gains in the final laps. His car painted a glossy black in place of Furniture Row’s trademark flat-black shade, Smith ran 14th and 21st in the two practice sessions, but for whatever reason struggled to only a 39th-place run in qualifying. Like Speed, though, Smith bounced back in the draft and earned sixth as early as lap 20. By lap 82, he had achieved what had been the fastest speed of any car on the track – 205 mph – and climbed up to the fifth spot. He lost touch with the top five when he held the high line on the final restart, then just barely lost his grasp on the top 10 when Allmendinger’s wreck ended the race under yellow, ruining his best chance yet to earn what would have been his best career result in NASCAR.
No. 34 – Robert Richardson Jr. (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+80)
Sunday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+35)
For the second straight week, FRM had little to celebrate once the checkered flag fell. This time, restrictor-plate ringer Richardson climbed into FRM’s No. 34, but was again unable to back up his 18th-place finish for Tommy Baldwin Racing last year. His A&W Ford was down on power the entire weekend, having qualified more than five mph off the pole speed on Saturday, then lost a lap on Sunday’s 19th circuit. The long green-flag runs of the race only amplified their lack of speed, leaving the team eight laps down, never in contention by the finish. Some of that lost time resulted from Richardson’s involvement in a multi-car wreck with 48 to go, when he rear-ended Bill Elliott’s No. 26 hard enough to cave in one of his fenders. All in all, it was an ugly afternoon as the No. 34 lost 45 points of their margin on 35th-place TRG Motorsports, third-most of this week’s teams.
No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+65)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+32)
FRM’s sole glimmer of hope came from Gilliland and the No. 37, who enjoyed one of the team’s best performances before Lady Luck left early. Although he qualified in the 40th starting spot, Gilliland was 12th on lap 20 and sixth on lap 33. He even rebounded from a lap 142 penalty for pitting too soon to make his way all the way to ninth with just six laps after the ensuing restart. In between, the Taco Bell colors were often spotted in the top 15, never once requiring Gilliland to vie for the Lucky Dog as several other underfunded programs lost laps. Shuffled to 21st by the final restart, he was set to make one more comeback on the last lap when the final multi-car wreck unfolded in front of him. Gilliland moved to the apron only to be blocked by the tumbling Allmendinger car, damaging the No. 37 as well. In a frustrating twist, NASCAR froze the field with Gilliland one lap down and one position behind Allmendinger’s decimated No. 43. As a result, the No. 37 lost 33 points, fourth-most this week.
No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+2)
Sunday’s Finish: 18th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+14)
With only a two-point cushion to work with, RGM re-evaluated its plan for the final four races and prepared for 2011. Gordon replaced Conway on the preliminary entry list as driver of his No. 7, making Talladega the first of a three-race “insurance run” with the team before Conway would return at Homestead. Gordon would also use the Talladega race to promote his new Speed Energy beverage company, which would also fund his team for at least part of 2011. Next year, Gordon plans to drive the No. 7 for the first five races and the “fun” events afterwards (so we know which ones to watch!)
Back in Alabama, Gordon came through with a very respectable 18th-place finish, the team’s best run since he finished 12th at Daytona in July. Like the results of his fellow bubble drivers, Gordon’s performance had an inauspicious start: he qualified 42nd, almost a full one mph slower than even Richardson’s run in the No. 34. However, just eight laps into the race, the bright orange Toyota made a daring bid for the lead entering turn 3. Keselowski passed him before the field reached the stripe, however, and he soon lost the draft during the ensuing green-flag run. Fortunately, he had just fallen a lap down on lap 64 when the first caution flew four laps later, scoring the first Lucky Dog by a bubble driver in Sunday’s 188-lap contest. Back in contention, Gordon made the most of the opportunity, climbing to seventh with just 67 circuits remaining. Ironically, the final cautions of the race made it more difficult for Gordon to defend his position, though he did avoid the final-lap crash and edged 12 points away from the bubble.
No. 71 – Chad McCumbee (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 22nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Chad “Sunny” McCumbee raced admirably in his first Cup race since 2008 on Sunday, running 22nd for a team that desperately needed it. Unlike many of this week’s bubble drivers, McCumbee had a good day in qualifying, putting up the 22nd-fastest speed ahead of half the Chase field. On Sunday, by lap 24, McCumbee was the final car on the lead lap in 39th, fell one lap behind then made at least one unscheduled pit stop with 58 circuits remaining that kept him out of the lead draft. However, as luck would have it, in the final 18 laps a car that wound up back on the lead lap when all was said and done somehow rallied from 31st to 22nd, much to the displeasure of an already-frustrated 36th-ranked team that still trails them…
NOT LOCKED-IN AT TEXAS
No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-47 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-116 points behind 35th)
One week after a rash of mechanical failures doomed their afternoon at Martinsville, the No. 38 team left Talladega early with its third DNQ of 2010 and its first since Gilliland missed the show at Indianapolis. Combined with the top-25 finishes of Gordon and McCumbee, the third FRM car lost more points than any of the other teams this week – 69 in total. Now 116 points in the red, it is anyone’s guess as to which of the team’s group of drivers will be called upon to close the gap over the next three races.
No. 26 – Bill Elliott (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-163)
Sunday’s Finish: 40th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-217)
Although Latitude 43 Motorsports made the field – thanks to both the past champion’s provisional held by Elliott and the 24th-fastest time by 2000 champion Bobby Labonte – Elliott’s first Talladega start in seven years did not yield the intended results. The No. 26 scored only 42nd and 35th in the weekend’s two practices, then turned in the fourth-slowest time of any driver who qualified for the race. Already struggling back in 32nd inside the final 50 laps, Elliott checked up to avoid Marcos Ambrose’s tangle with Kevin Harvick only to get tagged by Richardson, sending Elliott hard into the inside wall. Elliott was unhurt, but the race’s low attrition left the team 40th in the finishing order – far behind McCumbee and Gordon – thus costing the team 54 points to TRG they’ll likely be unable to make up by the end of the season.
2010 Bubble Chart After Talladega
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|28||Richard Petty Motorsports||19||Elliott Sadler||2,982||+609|
|29||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||2,947||+574|
|30||Red Bull Racing||82||Scott Speed||2,944||+571|
|31||Furniture Row Racing||78||Regan Smith||2,926||+553|
|32||Front Row Motorsports||34||Robert Richardson Jr.||2,408||+35|
|33||Front Row Motorsports||37||David Gilliland||2,405||+32|
|34||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||2,387||+14|
|35||TRG Motorsports||71||Chad McCumbee||2,373||0|
|36||Front Row Motorsports||38||Travis Kvapil||2,257||-116|
|37||Latitude 43 Motorsports||26||Bill Elliott||2,156||-217|
|38||Germain Racing||13||Casey Mears||1,749||-624|
|39||Phoenix Racing||09||Bobby Labonte||1,641||-732|
|40||Tommy Baldwin Racing||36||Dave Blaney||1,612||-761|
|41||NEMCO Motorsports||87||Joe Nemechek||1,408||-965|
|42||Whitney Motorsports||46||Michael McDowell||1,372||-1,011|