Rain washed out qualifying for Daytona last Friday, meaning the field was set by owner points. This was not good news for our bubble drivers, as the teams outside the Top 35 not only had to start at the rear of the field – they also had to do so in their qualifying setup, as Daytona marked the second of five impound races this season.
However, the good news is that back in February, Matt Kenseth proved that you can come from the back to the front and win at Daytona. So with that in mind, read on to see which of our bubble drivers tried to follow his lead, which ones didn’t, and which ones never even made it to the checkered flag in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown.
Focusing on the bubble
Just 239 points separated John Andretti in his Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Chevrolet, which sits in 35th place, from TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 Chevy driven by David Gilliland in 37th. Sandwiched in between sits the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota piloted by rookie Scott Speed. All three drivers were able to make some progress up through the field in the early stages, getting themselves into the top 30.
However, the forward progress abruptly stopped for Gilliland’s Chevrolet on lap 77. Up in front of him, David Stremme got turned into the wall, collecting Kasey Kahne and triggering a wreck that involved 13 cars when all was said and done – including Gilliland. The damage proved to be too much to fix, relegating the TRG Motorsports car to a disappointing 40th-place finish.
As the race continued, the remaining two bubble cars continued to move up, missing small incidents and getting solid pit stops to keep themselves within striking distance of the front. With just 15 laps to go, Andretti was running 24th while Speed was having a great run, sitting in 16th. But then, like Gilliland, Speed’s night came to an early conclusion through no fault of his own.
On lap 152, Jamie McMurray slid up the track, pinching Speed’s Toyota into the wall and doing enough damage to send him straight to the garage. In an instant, a promising top-15 run was turned into a dismal 31st-place finish, with a wadded-up racecar to go with it. This left just Andretti, who – without a great car – did his own version of points racing.
Realizing the opportunity to stretch the lead over 36th place, he faded to the back of the pack and rode out the rest of the race, finishing 27th. That run, while mediocre, was good enough to extend his advantage over Speed to a very comfortable 172 points – with the distance back to Gilliland now a daunting 283 markers.
Around the Bubble
Regan Smith and the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 again put together a strong run, making a case for smaller teams running a limited schedule and being better prepared for the races they do run. Smith was able to start because for the second week in a row the Gunselman Motorsports team was a late entry and rain washed out qualifying, giving the spot to FRR despite having fewer qualifying attempts. And once again, FRR made the most of their opportunity. The team started slowly before finally hitting the handling on their racecar, having to make some stops to undo qualifying setup mode and get in something resembling race trim.
Once they made the adjustments, though, Smith moved through the field, rising into the top 10 during the race’s latter stages. However, they couldn’t get a lot of drafting help and the drive wound up stalling, leaving Smith coming to the checkered flag in 12th place – still a career-best finish for the sophomore. With the run, he extends his streak of no DNFs to 51 races, while the team slides up to 39th in the owner standings – despite having eight fewer starts than several teams behind them.
It’s just a matter of time before Roush Fenway Racing’s David Ragan wins one of these plate races in NASCAR’s top series, as not even a lap 121 dustup with Kurt Busch could derail his night. While running 10th, David and Kurt came together, sending Ragan’s No. 6 Ford Fusion sliding through the grass. The team pitted, made some repairs to the body, and while the car wasn’t as good as it was before, it was good enough to come home in 13th position. The UPS Ford now sits 30th in the owner standings, with three of their four top-15 finishes to date coming in restrictor-plate races.
If nothing else, Stremme’s night was exciting. On lap 28, he got loose and into the No. 07 of Casey Mears, sending him spinning off into the grass. Then, on lap 77, he was part of the first Big One that involved 13 cars. In between, Stremme also managed to clip the front tire carrier from Paul Menard‘s team, knocking the tire out of his grasp. After posting five top-20 finishes in the season’s first eight races, Stremme hasn’t had one since. Penske’s No. 12 Dodge team has slid all the way to 33rd in the owner standings and if Robby Gordon gets his pit crew straightened out, they’ll be looking at 34th – or worse.
Speaking of Gordon, his team never ever got the handling right on Robby Gordon Motorsports’ No. 7 Toyota, and the result was a disappointing 22nd-place finish with a damaged car. A major part of the handling issue was a strange one I hadn’t heard of before. Apparently, earlier in the race a tire corded on the No. 7 Toyota. But instead of the debris flying all over, it got wrapped around the ball joint of the racecar. T
he crew finally found this and fixed it during a lap 106 pit stop to get Gordon going again. But by then, Robby’s team had made so many adjustments that fixing that problem actually made the car worse. The final straw came as the team got caught up in the second Big One crossing the finish line at the end of the race. At least the team had already decided not to use this car again.
“They all wrecked there – they just didn’t hit anything.” – Robby Gordon to his spotter on lap 38
“I checked up and they just kept coming.” – David Gilliland to his crew chief after being involved in a lap 76 wreck
“I can see the moon over here; are you sure it’s gonna rain?” – Robby Gordon to his crew chief after staying out on lap 78
“I got a good car… I just need someone to give me a little help.” – Regan Smith on lap 92
“We’re building a new speedway car – this thing’s a piece of (expletive).” – Robby Gordon to crew chief
“The [No.] 26 just came up into us and I had nowhere to go.” – Scott Speed to crew chief on lap 152
What to look for at Chicago
Ragan and AJ Allmendinger are both coming off good runs at Daytona. Considering the duo had top-15 finishes last year at Chicago, both are poised to repeat this success in 2009. These were two drivers expected to be at least in the top 25 in points, not hovering around 30th at this point in the season. I say both finish inside the top 20 and begin a midseason run up the standings.
As for who’ll struggle, Stremme is going the other way down the points ladder. David has five straight finishes of 28th or worse, and his No. 12 Dodge has plummeted to 33rd in the owner standings. Look for another finish of 30th or worse and – combined with a top-25 run by Gordon – Roger Penske will find his third team falling another spot to 34th.
So, that’s it for the Bubble Breakdown from Daytona International Speedway. Check back next week to see if Gilliland or Speed can start chipping away at Andretti’s lead, if James Finch’s No. 09 Chevy/Dodge can make a move with a driver other than Brad Keselowski, or if maybe Stremme just works his way back to them all.
So, until next Monday, so long from the bubble!
2009 Bubble Chart After Daytona
|Points +/- of 35th Place
|Michael Waltrip Racing
|Robby Gordon Motorsports
|Front Row Motorsports
|Team Red Bull
|Furniture Row Racing
|Tommy Baldwin Racing
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