Last week at Talladega, five bubble drivers finished inside the top 25, with three of them inside the top 15. The top finisher of both groups was again 12th-place Regan Smith, whose No. 78 finished inside the top 15 for the third time in the month of October alone. Equally impressive were Robby Gordon’s No. 7 and the No. 71 of Chad McCumbee, who finished 18th and 22nd, respectively, for their struggling 34th and 35th-ranked organizations. Those finishes could not have come at a better time, as the No. 38 failed to qualify for just the third time in 2010 despite the best efforts of 2008 Talladega polesitter Travis Kvapil. Now 116 points in arrears, it would take some late-season magic for Front Row Motorsports’ third team to work its way back into a locked-in spot by Homestead.
Would they have a chance to take the first step at Texas? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown!
LOCKED-IN AT PHOENIX
No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+609 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+637 points ahead of 35th)
Say what you will about him finishing 23rd as the first car one lap down, but Sadler proved he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2011. Just hours after his announced move to KHI’s Nationwide Series team, Sadler turned in the fifth-fastest time in opening practice, then roared to a blistering-fast 195.397 mph qualifying lap that snared him his first Cup pole in more than four years. The No. 19 seemed to have a fast race setup as well, running seventh-fastest in Happy Hour and battling Greg Biffle for the lead in the early laps. However, once he fell out of the top 10 in the first 100 circuits, the Stanley Ford eased out of contention. By keeping his nose clean, though, Sadler still earned back 28 points of cushion – third-most among this week’s drivers.
No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+574)
Sunday’s Finish: 18th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+617)
Hornish was the only bubble driver to finish inside the top 20, worth a healthy 43-point gain that was best amongst this week’s group. But the effort was not without its speed bumps. Starting 27th, but sixth in Happy Hour, Hornish was mired outside the top 25 for just about the entire race. Efforts at climbing up through the pack were made harder when he ground down the turn 4 wall on lap 58, causing Gordon’s spotter to say, “Man, that guy’s a weapon!” It was not until the final laps that the No. 77 clawed its way back into contention, likely from taking the wave-around when debris brought out the next-to-last caution on lap 299. From there, he made it up as high as 13th before slipping back five spots in the last scramble to the checkers.
No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+571)
Sunday’s Finish: 27th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+587)
Speed was 13th in Happy Hour after a 23rd-fastest qualifying speed, and it was unclear what kind of day the Californian would have when the green flag fell. He flirted with the top 20 for the opening half of the race, but was unable to keep up with the leaders as the field strung out. Unfortunately, the only time the No. 82 caught any TV time was when Denny Hamlin struggled to get around him on pit road, much to the No. 11 team’s frustration. In the end, Speed came home one lap down, a mediocre if uneventful day but still gained 16 points of separation from TRG Motorsports in 35th – fourth-most of this week’s teams.
No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+553)
Sunday’s Finish: 22nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+584)
Like Sadler, Smith enjoyed a solid weekend of pre-race performances. Sixth-fastest in the opening practice, he qualified eighth, scoring his first top-10 start since Talladega in April, and improved to fifth in Happy Hour. However, by lap 20, the No. 78 had tumbled all the way back to 24th with some handling gremlins they would never quite fully solve. In fact, his 500-mile race became a four-hour struggle to simply re-enter the top 20. Once again, timely pit work in the final stages thrust his black Chevrolet into the top 15, but Smith slipped from 13th on the final restart to 22nd in the final three laps. Despite the drop in track position, though, he gained 31 points on the bubble – second only to Hornish’s 43.
No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+14)
Sunday’s Finish: 35th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+11)
With Specialized Bicycles throwing a monkey wrench into Gordon’s ambitious dual role as owner, driver and sponsor in 2011, what the No. 7 team needed more than anything was a solid run in one of the richest races of the year. Unfortunately, luck was still not on the team’s side to pile on to the looming lawsuit over naming rights. At first, the day on the track looked promising: Gordon qualified 38th and, thanks to two Lucky Dogs on laps 42 and 132, held fast to a spot on the lead lap for much of the afternoon. These breaks allowed Gordon to move up to 22nd on lap 242, seemingly headed for a top-20 finish when the engine blew on his Toyota – leaving his the final car to fall out of the race.
No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+35)
Sunday’s Finish: 41st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+9)
No. 37 – Dave Blaney (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+32)
Sunday’s Finish: 42nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+3)
Gordon’s bad points day was kept to a minimum, however, thanks in part to a horrid afternoon for Front Row Motorsports’ two locked-in teams. Just nine laps into the race, Blaney’s No. 37 was already one lap down in 43rd. Joe Nemechek’s engine failure two laps later put Blaney back on the lead lap, but 24 circuits into the race, the No. 37 driver was slowing on the apron of turn 4, trailing smoke. Just seconds after Blaney pulled behind the wall, Kvapil’s No. 34 joined him, complaining that his Long John Silver’s Ford was running hot. Neither car returned to the race, and both listed overheating as the reason for their DNFs. The two teams lost 26 and 25 points on the B\bubble, respectively, inadvertently helping their teammate in the No. 38 while barely averting a LASTCAR headline.
No. 71 – Andy Lally (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Although three laps down at the finish, road racer Lally was able to lead twice under caution for four laps, snagging TRG Motorsports its first five bonus points since Indianapolis while completing just his second career Sprint Cup race on an oval. Thanks to a steady influx of sponsorship over the last month, the No. 71 has now finished under power in four straight races, keeping hopes alive their locked-in spot can stay intact through Bristol in March, 2011. With just two races left this season, all it may take is consistent, running-at-the finish performances like this one to keep the team inside the Top 35 – particularly given the modest gains of TRG’s nearest competitors.
NOT LOCKED-IN AT PHOENIX
No. 38 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-116 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-101 points behind 35th)
Despite the strange early misfortune suffered by teammates Kvapil and Blaney, Gilliland was unable to capitalize in Texas. 29th across the finish line, one lap down, even five bonus points for leading lap 44 under the second caution was not enough to bring the team any more than 15 points closer to the Top 35. The team now must gain 101 points in the final two races of the season, a tall order amongst this group of teams sitting on the bubble. Consider that no driver has gained more than 43 points on 35th in a single race since Smith’s 13th-place finish at Charlotte last month jumped him 60 points.
No. 26 – Patrick Carpentier (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-217)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-208)
Like Hornish Jr., fellow open-wheeler Carpentier was on the comeback trail at Texas, but for the No. 26, a dead end left him a disappointing 31st. After qualifying 37th, the Canadian followed suit with his fellow bubble drivers and worked hard just to lead a lap. He accomplished this feat by staying out during Hornish’s lap 58 caution, costing him precious track position by stopping out of sequence. Although he was stuck outside the top 30 for much of the race after that, he followed Hornish’s late-race strategy and jumped to 21st for the final 34 circuits. With seven to go, he was still 22nd when the left-rear tire on his Ford cut down and sent him into a spin down the turn 1 banking, drawing the ninth and final caution of the day. Although the team avoided the race-ending damage they suffered in a similar accident at Talladega, Carpentier was unable to make up much ground in the final three laps. Still, with the struggles of FRM, the No. 26 moved nine points closer to the bubble even after the team was virtually eliminated from Top-35 contention.
2010 Bubble Chart After Texas
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|28||Richard Petty Motorsports||19||Elliott Sadler||3,076||+637|
|29||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||3,056||+617|
|30||Red Bull Racing||82||Scott Speed||3,026||+587|
|31||Furniture Row Racing||78||Regan Smith||3,023||+584|
|32||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||2,450||+11|
|33||Front Row Motorsports||34||Travis Kvapil||2,448||+9|
|34||Front Row Motorsports||37||Dave Blaney||2,442||+3|
|35||TRG Motorsports||71||Andy Lally||2,439||0|
|36||Front Row Motorsports||38||David Gilliland||2,338||-101|
|37||Latitude 43 Motorsports||26||Patrick Carpentier||2,231||-208|
|38||Germain Racing||13||Casey Mears||1,839||-600|
|39||Phoenix Racing||09||Landon Cassill||1,684||-755|
|40||Tommy Baldwin Racing||36||J.J. Yeley||1,643||-796|
|41||NEMCO Motorsports||87||Joe Nemechek||1,442||-997|
|42||Whitney Motorsports||46||Michael McDowell||1,337||-1,102|