Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Late-Race Trouble Negates Good Efforts from Paul Menard & Brad Keselowski

News from the bubble this past week was dominated by the announcement from Michael Waltrip Racing, who not only re-signed primary sponsor NAPA to a multi-year deal but also upgraded the cockpit of the car by signing two-time Busch Series champion and one-time Chase participant Martin Truex Jr. for 2010.

Waltrip will drive up to 12 races next season in a No. 55 Toyota, cutting back his schedule, while Truex will drive the full slate in a newly-renumbered No. 56 NAPA-sponsored car. Truex will also get the owner points that the No. 55 team earns in 2009, which means he will almost certainly have a guaranteed starting spot in the season’s first five races in 2010.

See also
Voice of Vito: Michael Waltrip, Motorsports Motormouth Finally Focusing Full-Time on Owner Role for 2010

So, with one of our bubble teams making improvements for next year, would any others step up and try to grab the limelight? Read on in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown for the Lifelock.com 400 from Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

Focusing on the Bubble

John Andretti and his Front Row Motorsports No. 34 team rolled into Chicago with a real good feeling about where they were at. The team had a comfortable 172-point cushion over Scott Speed, coming off two decent runs and were at a track where, in four career starts, Andretti had finished all but two laps and had never finished worse than 23rd. But Speed and his No. 82 Red Bull Toyota team started putting pressure on right off the bat by posting a front-row starting spot alongside his teammate, while Andretti found himself rolling off in the 40th position.

When the green flag flew on Saturday night, Andretti went nowhere, finding himself a lap down just 50 laps into the event. The team struggled with the handling in the middle of the corners, which was screwing up the car when it came off the exit of the turns. Those handling issues kept the No. 34 Chevrolet from passing anybody on the track, but they were able to pick up positions as the start and parkers bowed out and cars began getting damaged and spending time in the pits or garage.

By the time the three-hour race had come to an end, Andretti had moved up 10 spots to 30th. More importantly, John finished ahead of everybody chasing him for the 35th spot as well as a few teams directly ahead of him.

The man chasing Andretti, Speed, would have done well to have gone nowhere like Andretti did when the green flag waved. But instead – he went backwards. Speed had fallen about 10 positions by lap 39 and then lost several more during a pit stop that not only was slow but made the car worse. Speed had fallen all the way back towards the 30th position when he was caught up in a wreck on lap 226 which started when Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into Paul Menard, cutting down his left-rear tire. Speed got collected and slid down the track, slamming hard into the No. 31 car of Jeff Burton and ending his night.

The 36th-place run was a crushing blow to the team after such a good qualifying run that they hoped to parlay into a solid finish. When all was said and done at Chicagoland, Andretti and his bunch had extended their lead over Team Red Bull to 190 points and had a car that was in one piece, while Speed had a wadded-up Toyota and a team left scratching their heads as to if and when they would be able to turn their luck around.

Around the Bubble

Hendrick Motorsports No. 25 Chevrolet driven by Brad Keselowski: This kid is gonna be a star at some point in the near future. Listening to him over his radio, you realize just how good a track presence Keselowski has of not just himself but those around him. He gives great info to his crew chief and has a positive attitude at all times. Keselowski had driven up from a 32nd starting position to 11th with just 13 laps to go before getting a flat tire that resulted from a few guys getting together and kind of beating their way back to the No. 25.

While the 29th-place run wasn’t what they were looking for, Keselowski raced to the front and showed that his three top-10 finishes, including a win in 2009, are no fluke.

Robby Gordon Motorsports No. 7 Toyota driven by Robby Gordon: Gordon really struggled right from the get go, qualifying 41st and never making any headway. Things then got really bad on lap 191 when the team broke an axle and had to go to the garage for repairs. Gordon returned to make laps, posting a 34th-place finish and maintaining his 34th spot in the owner standings.

Yates Racing No. 98 Ford Fusion driven by Menard: Menard didn’t qualify well, but had a decent run going until a lap 226 incident ended his night. Dale Jr. washed up the track a little bit and got into Menard, cutting down his left-rear tire. As a result, Menard made it about 100 yards before losing control of the car and hitting the wall. The wreck eventually collected fellow bubble driver Speed and Burton, who is on the outside of a different bubble – the bubble to make the Chase for the Cup. Menard wound up 35th, extending his streak of non-top 20 finishes to eight races.

Bubble Chatter

Just a note here if you are a fan of David Stremme, Andretti or Menard – the reason you won’t see them here much is because they don’t really say a lot over the radio, and everything here is taken directly from team radios.

“This team seems to keep getting better and better and better.” – Kyle Petty to Speed during pace laps before the race started. Apparently, no one told Petty Speed’s last six finishes have been 31st, 36th, 32nd and three 37th-place runs.

“We’re gonna go up one pound all the way around to get you a better restart.” – crew chief Kirk Almquist to Gordon before a lap 39 pit stop

“I mean seriously, what happened?” – Speed to his crew after lap 39 pit stop cost him several positions and gave him a poor handling car

“You got one of the fastest cars on the track – we just gotta get you some track position.” – spotter to Bill Elliott while running around 18th place

“Broken Axle! We just broke an axle.” – Gordon to his crew on lap 191, a problem that eventually forced them to the garage for repairs

“I got a bad-ass short-run car.” – Keselowski to crew chief Tony Eury Jr. on lap 212

“No guts, no glory.” – Keselowski’s reasoning to Eury as to why he wanted a wave-around as opposed to pitting late in the race under caution. The decision panned out as another caution came quickly afterwards, allowing them to pit later and still be on the lead lap.

What to look for next week

Nothing. There is no race next week, but the Bubble Breakdown will still be here. Next Monday, we’ll break down and grade the teams teetering on the edges of the Top 35 for the first 19 races of 2009. So until then, so long from the bubble!

2009 Bubble Chart After Chicagoland

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Roush Fenway Racing 6 David Ragan 1,708 +300
32 Penske Racing 12 David Stremme 1,584 +176
33 Yates Racing 98 Paul Menard 1,562 +154
34 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 1,529 +121
35 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 1,408 0
36 Team Red Bull 82 Scott Speed 1,218 -190
37 TRG Motorsports 71 David Gilliland 1,089 -319
38 Phoenix Racing 09 Brad Keselowski 1,062 -346
39 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 943 -465
40 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 922 -486
41 Prism Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney 806 -602
42 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Mike Skinner 786 -622

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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