Last week at Phoenix, disaster struck TRG Motorsports when a blown right-front tire sent Brendan Gaughan’s fully-funded No. 71 hard into the turn one SAFER barrier, resulting in the team’s first last-place finish of 2010. 101 points out of the Top 35 heading into the 312-lap race, the No. 38 team and driver Travis Kvapil tried to seize the opportunity, but climbed no further than 34th with his two struggling teammates not far behind. So although Gaughan’s early exit earned double-digit point gains for an entire group of bubble drivers, his incident did little more than solidify each team’s spot in the rankings.
With the bubble points battle all but locked up, it was time for the teams to let it all hang out and end their 2010 campaigns on a high note. It was time for Elliott Sadler to get us ready for his upcoming Nationwide Series campaign with KHI, time for Sam Hornish Jr. to take a step toward a new sponsorship deal and time for Scott Speed to defend his place in the Cup Series. And it was one last 267-lap chance for Regan Smith to cap off his superb series of runs in the Chase with a bid for an elusive top-10 finish.
Which of these 10 stories became something to remember? Read on in this final installment of the Bubble Breakdown for 2010!
LOCKED-INTO THE FIRST FIVE RACES OF 2011
No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+682 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+685 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday marked Sadler’s final start for Richard Petty Motorsports, where late misfortune kept the No. 19 team from a top-20 finish in its final outing. The Nationwide Series-bound driver was able to snag the 12th starting spot in qualifying, which allowed him to hover around 15th throughout the midpoint of the race. Running around the 20th spot with 74 to go, Sadler broke loose up high in turn two and rode the outside wall, causing damage that left his Ford the final car on the lead lap at the end of the race. The run netted the team three more points of cushion on the bubble, fifth-most this week, maintaining a valuable spot in the Top 35 that may go to the highest bidder in 2011.
No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+644)
Sunday’s Finish: 17th
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+680)
For the fifth time in this Chase, Smith scored more points of cushion than any other bubble driver, jumping 36 points and one position up the standings. Determined not to make any excuses in the aftermath of a costly freeway pileup on Monday, the No. 78 team ran 11th-fastest in the opening practice and qualified 10th, the team’s third-straight top-10 start. Even when Smith slapped the wall in the Saturday morning practice session, repairs were made quick enough for the team to run 14th in Happy Hour, done in the background of a replacement hauler donated by Richard Childress. It was charity warmly accepted after their old one was decimated in that early-week accident, and Smith made the most of his latest opportunity to succeed.
After the drop of the green flag on Sunday, the No. 78 Chevy eased back to 16th and ran within six positions of the spot for the rest of the race. He rallied from 24th to 17th in the final 27 circuits, winding up just three positions behind championship contender Denny Hamlin. Though Smith fell short of his first (official) top-10 finish in 2010, driver and team carry impressive momentum heading into the offseason.
No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+650)
Sunday’s Finish: 24th
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+665)
Hornish and sponsor Mobil 1 parted ways when the checkers fell in Homestead, and barring a new sponsor signing with the No. 77, its former open-wheel driver may be headed back to the Nationwide Series next season. Hornish’s final weekend of the 2010 season bumped his team 15 points away from the bubble for the week’s third-highest gain, but those three days in Florida left much to be desired. One day after he qualified 26th, Hornish lost control of his Dodge in Happy Hour and slammed the outside wall, crunching the nose and right-rear enough to require rolling out the backup car. In the race, the backup was sluggish, and a lap 141 penalty for too many crewmen over the wall trapped him outside the top 30 for most of the event. Only when Kyle Busch’s wreck interrupted the final pit cycle with 25 to go did the No. 77 find itself 13th, from where the team sank back to 24th in the final 17 green-flag laps.
No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+611)
Sunday’s Finish: 23rd
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+629)
One position ahead of Hornish on the track came Speed, who faces an even more uncertain future next season. Having qualified on the front row in both his previous Homestead starts, Speed left Friday with a disappointing season-worst 41st starting spot. His No. 82 the first out to take a timed lap, Speed slipped in the high groove in turn one and slapped the outside wall, then was unable to pick up enough on his second trip around the track. Like Hornish, Speed found the 30th position to be a glass ceiling for the race’s first half, then after he scored the Lucky Dog on lap 140, made his move up to 16th with 72 to go. Likely caught on the track during the final caution with 25 remaining, Speed made his final stop and remained outside the top 20 heading to the finish. The 18 points of cushion was the second-biggest jump of the week, trailing only Smith’s 36, but proved small consolation for a weak potential audition for future employers.
No. 7 – Kevin Conway (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+41)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+38)
After a judge in California granted an injunction to Specialized Bicycle Components on Friday, at least temporarily prohibiting owner-driver Robby Gordon from using his controversial “S” logo, Conway returned to the No. 7 for the first time since Fontana with the car repainted in ExtenZe blue and white. This change allowed Conway to claim his uncontested Rookie of the Year title on the track, not on the sidelines, though his Toyota was again the slowest car in the field.
From the 42nd starting spot, the rookie only crept up through the field when his other competitors fell out, struggling to find the handle and the speed inside his racecar. The effort was hampered by an early pit-road speeding penalty, followed by a single-car spin off turn 4 on lap 164 where the progressive banking wrenched his splitter upwards. Multiple laps down in the final run to the checkers, Conway ran out of fuel on the final lap and failed to cross the finish line, a problem which brought his inaugural season to a frustrating end. Still, with just three points of cushion lost on the day, RGM will have a starting spot in the first five races of 2011. Will they use them? Early reports indicate that Gordon and Conway may run as teammates for the Daytona 500, but it is anyone’s guess as to what will happen with the team from there.
No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+18)
Sunday’s Finish: 25th
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+30)
This week’s top-finishing FRM car belonged to Gilliland, who earned the fourth-biggest jump up the standings with a gain of 12. The Californian began Sunday’s race flanking then-points leader Hamlin in Row 19, but ran no higher than 31st through the first 150 laps. Then, as he tried to lead during the final round of green-flag stops, Gilliland was trapped in fourth when Kevin Harvick spun Kyle Busch. Like Speed, Gilliland likely made his last pit stop under the ensuing caution flag, dropping him back to the rear of the field for the final laps.
No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+30)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+15)
Gilliland’s two teammates failed to finish Sunday’s race, ending FRM’s 2010 season on a troubling note in spite of the team’s rumored plans to scale back to a two-car operation next season. Kvapil was taken off “go-or-go-home” duty at Homestead and returned to the team’s flagship No. 34, which only managed a 39th-fastest time in qualifying. Running 34th on lap 51, his was the final car on the same lap as the leaders until the race’s middle stages, after which point he became the next-to-last Lucky Dog recipient with 67 left to run. Still stuck running no higher than 30th, Kvapil burned the rear gear and fell out for good, having completed 231 laps of 267 on the day. Though Kvapil’s misfortune halved the team’s cushion on 35th place, Bob Jenkins’s underdog organization will still have its two cars in the 53rd running of “The Great American Race.”
No. 71 – Andy Lally (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On the Bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On the Bubble)
Bouncing back from a disastrous last-place finish at Phoenix, Lally returned to TRG with a patchwork of food-related sponsors on Kevin Buckler’s No. 71 (Anderson’s Maple Syrup and CustomPak Tomatoes). 35th on the starting grid, but 20th in Saturday’s morning practice session, Lally went on to round out TRG’s difficult 2010 with a quiet finish in South Florida. He climbed to 26th by lap 105, but slipped outside the top 30 when he ran the stop-and-go lights at the exit of pit road in the final 70 circuits and had to stop to give the spots back. In the end, he finished as the only car one lap down, securing TRG the final spot in the Top 35 – for now.
NOT LOCKED-INTO THE FIRST FIVE RACES OF 2011
No. 38 – Dave Blaney (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-74 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 36th
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-95 points behind 35th)
Front Row’s struggling third team lost another 21 points on the bubble after a single-car accident sent the No. 38 to the garage area more than 20 laps before Kvapil’s No. 34. Blaney returned to FRM for the sixth time in 2010, qualified 36th, and climbed to 27th by lap 120. From there, however, the Ohio driver’s day went downhill. He slipped to 34th just 15 circuits later on Lap 135, then smacked the turn three wall with 74 to go hard enough to tear up the right-rear of his white A&W Ford. Repairs allowed Blaney to limp around the track for less than 10 laps after that, not enough for him to pass Kvapil before he called it a day.
No. 26 – Patrick Carpentier (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-172)
Sunday’s Finish: DNQ
Final 2010 Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-220)
Latitude 43 Motorsports failed to qualify for the ninth time of the year (and the fourth time in the Chase), dropping the team another 48 points below the Top 35. Carpentier, who turned in some of the team’s best runs on the ovals in the season’s second half, scraped the wall in practice and was unable to find enough speed in qualifying, joining Michael McDowell and the Whitney Motorsports team on the early ride home. However, in spite of the team’s persistent financial woes, the former fifth Roush Fenway team is apparently gearing up to return in the 2011 season. This optimism may pay out: depending on how the RPM and FRM downsizings work out during the offseason, the No. 26 may once again move into a guaranteed starting spot for the Daytona 500.
So, that’s it, everyone! Thank you all for sticking with me during this rookie campaign of mine. Bar studies permitting, I plan on being back here in 2011 to pick up where this ongoing “Battle for the Bubble” has left off. Have a happy holiday season and I’ll see you in Daytona!
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