Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Michael Waltrip & Scott Riggs Continue Push Into Top 35

Martinsville, Va. played host to NASCAR’s field of 43 this past Sunday for the running of the TUMS QuikPak 500. The half-mile paperclip-shaped oval makes for some exciting beating and banging throughout the event. If you ever questioned how tough this track was, NASCAR veteran Kurt Busch came on his radio three-quarters of the way through the event, crying that he wanted to park his car and go home because he was afraid he may get hurt. Now, if a veteran struggles like that, just imagine how tough it was for a rookie like Scott Speed, making his NASCAR debut!

Overall, the bubble dwellers didn’t have a half bad showing, as they put seven cars in the top 30. Not an astounding accomplishment, but let’s face it, these are the teams in 30th place on back in the standings. So, who made a move away from the bubble and who’s still near it? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.

Biggest Winners

Again this week, Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 NAPA machine driven by none other than Michael Waltrip himself and Haas CNC Racing’s No. 66 State Water Heater Chevrolet driven by Scott Riggs take the top prize. With Mikey and Scott finishing 18th and 21st, respectively, they have both removed their teams from any real immediate danger of falling out of the Top 35 in the owner standings. With the next two tracks being Atlanta and Texas, where you can get some room around yourself and race, both could lock up Top-35 spots over the course of the next two weeks.

With his 18th-place finish, Waltrip moves to 29th in the owner standings, 170 markers ahead of the cut-off. Riggs posted another top 25 with another workman-like effort, finishing 21st, and moves up one spot to 31st. His margin over Robby Gordon, who sits in 35th, is 149 points.

Biggest Losers

Now, I have no problem admitting when I’ve obviously been wrong about something, and I’ll admit it right here. Apparently, MWR’s No. 00/47 is going to have all kinds of opportunities to squander the last few races of the season. Robby Gordon had another awful race, even incurring a safety violation pass-through penalty from NASCAR and finished a dismal 40th.

So, with another golden opportunity to get back into the top 35, the No. 00 team, led this week by driver Mike Bliss, went out and finished 39th, picking up a whopping three points on Robby Gordon Motorsports’ No. 7 Dodge. As poorly as these two teams are running, along with the No. 77 Penske Dodge driven by Sam Hornish Jr., I’m saying right here right now that when the checkered flag falls at Miami in a month, the car sitting in the 35th place in the owner standings is going to be GEM’s No. 10 driven by AJ Allmendinger, who currently sits 271 points out and in the 38th spot.

Bubble Spotlight

Riggs continues to click off top-25 finishes in his quest to overcome a huge NASCAR penalty of 150 owner points and keep his No. 66 Chevrolet in the Top 35 in the owner standings. He did it again Sunday at Martinsville with a 21st-place effort that has them on the verge of locking up a Top-35 spot, thus ensuring that Ryan Newman is guaranteed to make the first five races of 2009. And again, it was a grind-it-out, workmanlike effort that got the team to the finish. In general this year, Riggs has qualified well when given the opportunity.

However, once again rain washed out qualifying for NASCAR’s top series, and the field was set by owner points. This time, though, the rain may have benefited the No. 66, as the team really never got it together in practice. The first practice saw them top out at a 20.440, 42nd overall on the speed charts. The final practice wasn’t much better; a 20.350 was all they could muster, putting them in the 40th slot. But Riggs and crew chief Bootie Barker are no quitters, and they came up with some changes to the car that paid immediate dividends.

By lap 125, the team had picked up nine positions and even managed to lead a lap during a round of green-flag pit stops. The progress leveled off, though, as the race wore on. The car began to push in the corners… then it lacked forward bite off. When one problem was adjusted, another got worse. This forced the team to basically ride around, as it’s already difficult to pass with the new cars – never mind the fact that the car was pushing and having the normal brake issues at Martinsville.

When the checkered flag flew after a long afternoon, a tired Riggs climbed from his car and headed back to his motor coach with another top-25 finish in hand… and not much else. The rumor is he’s been offered a ride for 2009, but nothing has been officially announced. If any owners out there are looking for a solid driver who isn’t all that flashy but finishes races in one piece and in the top 25, Scott’s in his motorhome, probably waiting by the phone.

A Look Ahead

NASCAR heads down south to Atlanta Motor Speedway next week, where the bubble teams did fairly well overall last time there. As I’ve stated before, I like momentum and Waltrip is getting some. Mikey has posted some solid runs of late and looks poised to leave the bubble next week with a good run in Georgia. Waltrip also has the added motivation of running for a spot in the Bud Shootout in 2009. While Gordon does not have momentum on his side, he does have a good history at the A-T-L.

Robby has finished 24th or better the last three trips, and needs another to put a little more distance between himself and MWR’s No. 00 Toyota. A third team I see another good run coming from is GEM’s No. 10 Dodge driven by Allmendinger. They are coming off one of the team’s best runs at Martinsville, where they finished 15th. With the way some teams are struggling, do not count Ray Evernham’s boys out just yet.

Who’s gonna struggle? I’m guessing Roger Penske’s No. 77 and MWR’s No. 47 (formerly 00). The No. 47’s finishing position of 12th at Talladega looks more like a fluke now, and Hornish has struggled ever since he strapped into the Mobil 1 Dodge. There’s no reason to think either will amount to anything better than a 30th-place finish.

Well, that’s it from the bubble for this week. Tune in next week to see if anyone locks up a Top-35 spot for 2009 or gets eliminated from having any chance at it.

Until next week, so long from the bubble!

Breaking Down the Bubble

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Haas CNC Racing 66 Scott Riggs 2,594 +149
32 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. 01 Regan Smith 2,583 +138
33 Bill Davis Racing 22 Dave Blaney 2,566 +121
34 Team Red Bull 84 Scott Speed 2,460 +15
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 2,445 0
36 Michael Waltrip Racing 00 Various Drivers 2,370 -75
37 Penske Racing 77 Sam Hornish Jr. 2,305 -140
38 Gillett Evernham Motorsports 10 AJ Allmendinger 2,174 -271
39 Hall of Fame Racing 96 Ken Schrader 2,124 -321
40 Petty Enterprises 45 Chad McCumbee 2,081 -364
41 Wood Brothers Racing 21 Bill Elliott 1,974 -471
42 Furniture Row Racing 78 Joe Nemechek 1,920 -525
43 Haas CNC Racing 70 Tony Raines 1,846 -599

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