_Atlanta’s speedy, horsepower-driven oval typically doesn’t lend itself to underdog miracles. But at one point Tuesday, the perfect blend of Mother Nature combined with late-race fuel strategy nearly produced NASCAR’s upset winner of the decade. Who benefited most from the mist that just wouldn’t go away? Find out as we break down the days of those underdogs battling for their own personal victory: a spot each week within the sport’s top-35 teams “locked in” before weekend qualifying starts._
*LOCKED IN TO RICHMOND*
*No. 34 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+100 points ahead of 35th)
*Tuesday’s Finish: 37th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+92 points ahead of 35th, lost 8 points)
Front Row Motorsports was a tale of two extremes Tuesday; unfortunately, for Gilliland his team was on the wrong end of that seesaw. Entering Atlanta with high hopes, 20th in the race last Fall this FRM entry ran well to start. But by the race’s midpoint, Gilliland had started sliding backwards, complaining about the handling of the car before an untimely mistake on Lap 175 cost him dearly. Diving onto pit road, the driver simply lost it, burning out the transmission during a spin that saw him lazily trapped near the entrance of pit wall by its conclusion. The bigger story surrounding Gilliland then was NASCAR’s inability to throw the caution flag; the No. 34 car sat helpless, clearly in harm’s way for several laps until a green-flag cycle of stops had been completed – that way, no one else would be inconvenienced by the caution. So much for safety first…
*No. 13 – Casey Mears (Germain Racing)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+22 points ahead of 35th)
*Tuesday’s Finish: 28th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+23 points ahead of 35th, gained 1 point)
Mears had one of those ho-hum days behind the wheel of a GEICO Toyota that’s recently been boosted by outside investment money, allowing him to eliminate those nasty start-and-parks we had seen through much of the summer. Finishing four laps down, on a lap by himself in 28th the car never really performed up to its full potential; Mears battled a loose condition throughout the race and appeared down on horsepower compared to the other Toyota bigwigs like Busch, Hamlin, and Logano.If one of those three slumped to this finish, there would be team meetings at the shop almost immediately trying to figure out how to fix some ailing problems. But for Mears? This run is actually a building block, the back end of his first consecutive top-30 finishes since Dover and Charlotte back in May.
*No. 36 – Mike Skinner (Tommy Baldwin Racing)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+15 points ahead of 35th)
*Tuesday’s Finish: 27th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+18 points ahead of 35th, gained 3 points)
For Skinner, this race was like an unexpected gift once regular driver Dave Blaney was diagnosed with health issues. Scheduled to run already as a start-and-park entry, Skinner jumped out of that No. 60 and right into the No. 36 to have a shot at a full 500 miles. It was his first opportunity to run the distance since Las Vegas, and while the car understandably struggled early – it was Skinner’s first seat time in a Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy all weekend – the team seemed to hit upon a stronger combination as the race went on. Earning not one but two consecutive Lucky Dogs during the midrace rain delay, it looked like those breaks could leave the team battling on the lead lap by race’s end. Skinner’s handling, though, went away after the final round of pit stops to leave the No. 36 car in 27th place, two laps back and without a scratch on it. What more can you ask of a last-minute sub?
*No. 32 – Mike Bliss (FAS Lane Racing)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+8 points ahead of 35th)
*Tuesday’s Finish: 26th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+11 points ahead of 35th, gained 3 points)
For Bliss, his return to FAS Lane Racing followed a similar tone as Skinner; struggle early, grab some Lucky Dogs late and make the most of it during a final, 71-lap sprint to the finish. Bliss got two consecutive Lucky Dogs over the race’s final two cautions, and was clearly at his peak handling-wise during the last 100 miles. This Ford team, though, always seems to be at a horsepower disadvantage and Bliss could be seen getting blown by down the straightaway by teams like his Roush-Fenway rivals. New sponsor Heil Trailer got their money’s worth, with a 26th-place finish but you know where the investment needs to be for this team to keep improving.
*No. 71 – Andy Lally (TRG Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)
*Tuesday’s Finish: 30th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble, lost 5 points on 36th place)
For Lally, it was a workman-like performance after an excellent day at Bristol’s Thunder Valley last Saturday night. Falling six laps off the pace by race’s end, the rookie’s learning experience at the 1.5-mile oval cost him five points to Front Row Motorsports but the team still comfortably remains inside the top 35. For Lally to lose his spot at Richmond, Yeley would have to win, lead the most laps and TRG Motorsports would still need to finish 40th or worse.
*ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN*
*No. 38 – J.J. Yeley (Front Row Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-49 points behind 35th)
*Tuesday’s Finish: 25th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-44 points behind 35th, gained 5 points)
For Yeley, this race was a tale of what might have been after the No. 38 VAMPT Fusion executed brilliant pit strategy. During a caution for rain, on Lap 202 crew chief Jay Guy kept Yeley out while the rest of the cars in front dove down pit road. Hoping the race would get called, for awhile it looked like the strategy had a small chance of working; every time the dryers would finish, a new light drizzle would follow that sent everyone back to square one. It got Yeley some crucial TV time, though, some sponsor awareness during not only their first appearance on the car but his first time running the distance since Loudon in July.
Sadly, in the end the race went back green, forcing Yeley to pit and fall towards the back of the lead lap. It was all downhill from there, as the car faded to a 25th-place finish; but oh, what might have been. So far during his time running with Front Row Motorsports, Yeley has taken this No. 38 car to its two best finishes of the season. Does that mean Travis Kvapil, who start-and-parked the No. 55 this weekend may get pushed back to No. 3 on the depth chart? We’ll have to wait and see.
*No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-53 points behind 35th)
*Tuesday’s Finish: 39th*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-63 points behind 35th, lost 10 points)
For Gordon, whose team only has funding for three more races this season the mission was simple Tuesday: keep his nose clean, run at three-quarters speed and park at his earliest convenience. A 39th-place finish, after 34 laps for “rear gear” issues pocketed Gordon a cool $82,700. In comparison, David Starr ran the whole distance, used up at least eight sets of tires and only won $1,550 more. You wonder why some of these unsponsored teams pull in early…
*No. 21 – Trevor Bayne (Wood Brothers)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-84 points behind 35th)
*Tuesday’s Finish: DNS*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-99 points behind 35th, lost 15 points)
For the Woods, it was another week sitting on the sidelines after a jam-packed first half schedule to start the year. A “locked in” spot virtually impossible to earn based on their “halftime” schedule, they won’t return to the track until Chicagoland the weekend of September 18th.
*No. 37 – Tony Raines (MaxQ / Larry Gunselman)*
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-156 behind 35th)
*Tuesday’s Finish: DNQ*
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-171 behind 35th, lost 15 points)
Raines, back behind the wheel of Larry Gunselman’s car as of late has struggled to simply put the car in the field. Atlanta marked a second straight DNQ for the No. 37 car, now owned by Gunselman alone but without the necessary funding to compete: the team hasn’t run the distance in any race since Sonoma in June.
*Leavine Family Racing (Driver: David Starr):* For Starr, it was a second straight learning experience as the limited-schedule, No. 95 Ford finished the race five laps down in 29th place. But for Jeff Gordon and others, they would have preferred the rookie get his education elsewhere as complaints about the line Starr was running lit up NASCAR radios throughout the day. Gordon nearly spun out when a much slower Starr moved up into his line midway through the race; Four-Time, frustrated quickly relayed to his spotter to have the No. 95 “move over” if he was running that slow the rest of the day. NASCAR’s control tower also had issues with Starr during a restart; staying out under an early caution, the car never came fully up to speed and caused a huge bottleneck while Starr tried to keep control during a restart.
*Whitney Motorsports (Driver: Scott Speed):* For Speed, Tuesday was momentous as it was the first Cup race he’d tried to run the distance since leaving Red Bull Racing. But electrical problems ruined that opportunity; retiring to the garage with just ten laps left, the No. 46 was never a factor and ran at or near the back of the field all day.
*Additional Start-And-Parks This Week:* *HP Racing* (Driver: Michael McDowell), *NEMCO Motorsports* (Driver: Joe Nemechek), *Front Row Motorsports* (Driver: Travis Kvapil), *Germain Racing* (Driver: Dave Blaney post-kidney stone swap)
*2011 Bubble Chart After Atlanta:*
|*Pos*||*Owner*||*Car #*||*Driver*||*Points*||*Points +/- of 35th Place*|
|*31*||Front Row Motorsports||34||David Gilliland||429||+92|
|*32*||Germain Racing||13||Casey Mears||360||+23|
|*33*||Tommy Baldwin Racing||36||Dave Blaney / Mike Skinner||355||+18|
|*34*||FAS Lane Racing||32||Mike Bliss||348||+11|
|*35*||*TRG Motorsports*||*71*||*Andy Lally*||*337*||*0*|
|*36*||Front Row Motorsports||38||Travis Kvapil||293||-44|
|*37*||Robby Gordon Motorsports||7||Robby Gordon||274||-63|
|*38*||Wood Brothers||21||Trevor Bayne||238||-99|
|*39*||Max Q Motorsports||37||Tony Raines||166||-171|