One week ago, Johnny Sauter was headed straight towards the edge of a cliff. Sauter set the pressure cooker on high by struggling to 30th in Fontana. That disappointing finish dropped the No. 70 into a tie for 34th in car owner points, just 52 ahead of the 35th and final locked in spot and in serious danger of falling out altogether. It was the closest Sauter had been in quite sometime to losing the team’s automatic exemption, and with seven consecutive runs outside the top 20, it was clear that both he and his crew needed a spark.
Hot temperatures and consistently high rpms took its toll on a number of engines Sunday night in California. The heat’s biggest victim came when Dave Blaney’s motor expired on lap 201, allowing the No. 21 Wood Brothers team the opportunity to jump back into the Top 35. This secured Bill Elliott a spot in the field next week in Richmond. The two teams have shuffled back and forth numerous times in the past month, with neither team capitalizing on the benefit of a guaranteed spot.
Did You Notice? That in the final restarts of Saturday night’s race at Bristol, Carl Edwards had none other than Elliott Sadler – Kasey Kahne’s teammate – lining up beside him on the inside every time. But even though Sadler could have made himself a roadblock – opening the door for second-place Kahne to make a move – he instead bowed out of the way, a remarkable statement of a class for the Virginian who’s had a tough year himself on the Nextel Cup circuit.
The two-car battle for the 35th and final position in owner points is close to becoming a three-team race – and that new third team is a team that’s slumping rather than one stepping up as the season nears its stretch run. While its sister car streaked to a second straight top 10 finish at Bristol, the No. 45 from Petty Enterprises seems to have been left behind. The Dodge continues to struggle each and every week, whether it’s Kyle Petty, Chad McCumbee, or Kenny Wallace behind the wheel – a 32nd-place run for Wallace at Bristol is the team’s best finish in five weeks, with results of 41st, 42nd, 33rd and 41st coming in the previous four races. That has left the team dangerously on the edge of falling into the grasp of teams below them.
The Haas CNC Racing entries of Johnny Sauter and Jeff Green have flirted with dropping out of the Top 35 in car owner points for much of the first half of the season. But after a strong run this week in New Hampshire, both teams finally have some breathing room heading to Daytona. Inconsistency has plagued the two Chevrolets, but one week after they finished outside of the top 30 at Sonoma, both cars came out of the hauler up to speed this weekend, with both teams qualifying and finishing the race in the top 15. A poor performance by polesitter Dave Blaney, 37th in car owner points with the No. 22 team, as well as another DNS by the No. 10 car and Scott Riggs, 36th in points, were also major factors in what turned out to be a great week for the entire Haas CNC team… for now.
Whether you like it or not, the Top 35 in car owner points from last season are now locked into the field for the 49th Annual Daytona 500. While those teams can rest easy, the rest find themselves a nervous wreck from the minute they arrive in Florida. With Toyota stepping into the NASCAR’s elite series, Thursday’s Gatorade Duel 150s may end up being more important than the Great American Race itself for them and a number of other teams, all of whom are just trying to start the season with their heads above water.