Last week, it was a difficult day in Texas for Front Row Motorsports: Travis Kvapil’s No. 34 and Dave Blaney’s No. 37 both fell out with overheating problems less than 25 laps into the race while David Gilliland was unable to capitalize for the No. 38, coming home a disappointing 29th. With that car still 101 points short of making the top 35 and only two races left to make up the deficit, only one of two scenarios would guarantee all three FRM cars starting spots in the 2011 Daytona 500: either more bad luck from the locked-in duo of Robby Gordon’s No. 7 and TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 or an all-out, swing-for-the-fences effort by the No. 38 these next two weeks.
Could they close the deficit? Yes… but by how much? As the championship battle heated up under the Avondale sun, find out how the battle for the bubble did the same as we head for the season finale!
LOCKED-IN AT HOMESTEAD
No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+637 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+682 points ahead of 35th)
Coming off Sadler’s impressive pole run at Texas, RPM’s check to Roush Fenway Racing mercifully cleared last Wednesday, and the No. 19 team headed to Phoenix with a chance for another steady late-season performance. Flying the flag for the Paralyzed Veterans of America with ESPN’s pit camera set up in their stall, Sadler qualified 23rd and rocketed to 15th in just 15 laps. He remained in the top 20 for another 50 laps or so, but then, it slowly began to unravel; he gradually fell out of contention during the long green-flag runs that defined the event. His was the final car on the lead lap on the 147th circuit and, by race’s end, he was two laps in arrears. Still, he claimed 45 points of cushion on the day, second-most among this week’s group as he prepares for one final run in this car this Sunday.
No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+617)
Sunday’s Finish: 32nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+650)
While nine of this week’s 10 drivers gained points on the bubble, most of these gains came during very marginal performances on race day. No bubble driver finished on the lead lap and six of them finished between 31st and 38th, each three or more laps down. The No. 77 was among this group, coming home 32nd after suffering more visible misfortunes than Sadler’s. After running 14th in opening practice and qualifying 18th, Hornish lost control after the lap 7 restart and slid into David Ragan entering turn 3, sending Clint Bowyer’s car into the outside wall. Although the Mobil 1 Dodge avoided any damage and climbed to 21st by halfway, he was then shunted by Paul Menard into the infield grass on the dogleg with around 60 to go and hopped all four wheels off the ground. The radiator choked with grass, Hornish was forced to make his final stop early with 50 to go, dropping him from one to three circuits down to the leaders. Regardless, the finish gained the third Penske team 33 points of cushion, fourth-most this week.
No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+584)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+644)
As has been the case for much of this year’s Chase, the biggest gain in points on the bubble was earned by Smith, who matched his 60-point bump at Charlotte with another 60 points in Phoenix. Once again, Smith showed tremendous speed in the preliminary events, running second to winner Carl Edwards in the opening practice and qualifying eighth for the second time in as many weeks. The No. 78 held fast to a top-15 run for the first 60 circuits, then spent the majority of the race in 20th as he fought to stay on the lead lap. This battle was one he won until lap 203, when leader Denny Hamlin finally got around him entering Turn 1. Unfortunately, when the caution fell 19 laps later, Jamie McMurray’s wounded Chevrolet had just lost a lap, beating him for the Lucky Dog. That left the Furniture Row team a small step behind the rest of the way, eventually clocking in the fourth car one lap down at the checkers.
No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+587)
Sunday’s Finish: 35th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+611)
With two races left in the season before an uncertain future in 2011, Speed was unfortunately invisible for much of the race at Phoenix. Qualifying 27th on Friday, the Californian was outside the top 30 less than 30 circuits into Sunday’s race and remained there for the rest of the afternoon. Like Hornish, Speed lost further ground with an unscheduled pit stop during the final green-flag run to the finish. With 10 laps to go, the No. 82 pulled down pit road with a flat right-front tire, his second of the day, and he returned to finish five laps down at the checkered flag – the 17th straight result outside the top 10 for a program that started the season with such promise. Despite these troubles, though, Speed’s team still jumped 24 points farther away from a bubble Kasey Kahne likely won’t have to worry about in 2011.
No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+11)
Sunday’s Finish: 33rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+41)
Two positions in front of Speed came Gordon, whose Toyota was again without its Speed Energy Drink logos in the wake of Specialized Bicycles’ cease-and-desist order. The car itself was also lacking some speed in the engine department; despite the team’s strong 14th-place run that buoyed the team’s Top-35 prospects at Phoenix earlier this year and running 17th in Happy Hour, the No. 7 was down on power in the race itself, finishing just one position better than it qualified. An early run to 24th by lap 60 did not last long; he quickly fell the first of four laps down, continuing to lose speed while a turn 4 spin with 90 to go kept him from making lemonade out of Avondale lemons. Gordon’s team would nevertheless gain 30 points of cushion, fifth-most of this week’s group, enough to virtually ensure a “locked-in” spot for 2011 that appeared in jeopardy just a few short races ago.
No. 34 – Tony Raines (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+9)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+30)
Raines returned to FRM at Phoenix to make his 150th Cup start, only to find the team stuck in the same rut it’s been in since Raines’s last appearance at Martinsville three races ago. After making the field on owner points in 42nd, the No. 34 ran no higher than 34th through the 312-lap affair and came home six laps down as the highest-finishing Ford from the FRM camp. Ironically, the run still brought the team 21 points back in the right direction, putting them almost in the same position it stood after Halloween’s Talladega event. After that one, Robert Richardson Jr.’s run left them with a 35-point cushion; now, it stands at 30 and with a 104-point lead on their “teammates” in the No. 38 car a spot in the 2011 Daytona 500 seems secure.
No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+7)
Sunday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+18)
For the third time in four races, mechanical woes saddled FRM’s No. 37 team with a lackluster afternoon that left them just outside the “bottom five.” Gilliland qualified 37th, best of the FRM trio, but ran no higher than 33rd as he and his teammates continued to lose laps. At last, after 274 completed circuits, the No. 37 pulled behind the wall with brake issues, making his the final car to fall out of Sunday’s race.
No. 71 – Brendan Gaughan (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 43rd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
The first car to fall out of Phoenix, however, was TRG Motorsports’ No. 71, derailing Gaughan’s first Cup race since (as a YouTube viewer corrected) the Truck Series veteran drove in relief of Mike Bliss at the 2005 Pocono 500. After running just one lap in the family-sponsored South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet, the right-front tire detonated in turn 1, sending his black-and-gold machine so hard into the outside wall that it couldn’t negotiate the backstretch dogleg. Kevin Buckler’s crew was unable to put the car back together and was forced to pack up early, so TRG will be featured on LASTCAR for the first time in 2010. However, despite suffering the worst-case scenario points-wise with two races to go, the team remains all but assured of its spot in the Daytona 500 – and by a comfortable margin – as TRG’s closest pursuer was unable to capitalize on their misfortune.
NOT LOCKED-IN AT HOMESTEAD
No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-101 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-74 points behind 35th)
When Gaughan slammed the wall in turn 1, a golden opportunity was granted to the No. 38 team, but unfortunately the Long John Silver’s car just did not have the power – nor the luck – to make the most of it. 38th on the grid, Kvapil hit the same glass ceiling as his teammates from the drop of the green flag. He gained just four spots on the track, spun by himself with 79 to go to usher in the final yellow, and came home four laps down, thus minimizing his gain to just 27 points. Looking ahead, FRM is rumored to scale back to a two-car operation with Kvapil driving one of the cars, but the RPM downsizing may still potentially bring this third team into the Top 35. Whether or not there will be one final round of FRM “musical chairs” at Homestead will be revealed later this week.
No. 26 – JJ Yeley (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-208)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-172)
Also keeping an eye on the RPM situation is owner Bill Jenkins and his Latitude 43 Motorsports team, which scored the third-biggest gain of 36 points after Sunday’s race. With past champions Bobby and Terry Labonte already listed in go-or-go-home cars at Phoenix, Jenkins switched out ‘88 champion and ‘89 Phoenix winner Bill Elliott with Yeley, who performed admirably with Whitney Motorsports in the first half of this season. Despite the late change, Yeley came through for the No. 26, grabbing the 33rd starting spot as the fourth-fastest car outside the Top 35. The Air National Guard Ford crossed the finish line three laps down, but three positions ahead of the No. 38 and 12 ahead of the No. 71, resulting in a respectable points day. As of this Sunday night writing, there is no report as to whether Yeley will return to the car at Homestead.
Bubble Chart After Phoenix
|Pos||Owner||Car #||Driver||Points||Points +/- of 35th Place|
|28||Richard Petty Motorsports||19||Elliott Sadler||3,155||+682|
|29||Penske Racing||77||Sam Hornish Jr.||3,123||+650|
|30||Furniture Row Racing||78||Regan Smith||3,117||+644|
|31||Red Bull Racing||82||Scott Speed||3,084||+611|
|32||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||2,514||+41|
|33||Front Row Motorsports||34||Tony Raines||2,503||+30|
|34||Front Row Motorsports||37||David Gilliland||2,491||+18|
|35||TRG Motorsports||71||*Brendan Gaughan||2,473||0|
|36||Front Row Motorsports||38||Travis Kvapil||2,399||-74|
|37||Latitude 43 Motorsports||26||JJ Yeley||2,301||-172|
|38||Germain Racing||13||Casey Mears||1,930||-543|
|39||Phoenix Racing||09||Bobby Labonte||1,792||-681|
|40||Tommy Baldwin Racing||36||Dave Blaney||1,695||-778|
|41||NEMCO Motorsports||87||Joe Nemechek||1,470||-1,003|
|42||Whitney Motorsports||46||Michael McDowell||1,362||-1,111|