Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Regan Smith Smashes Streak While John Andretti Extends Lead on 35th

With NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup upon us and 12 of the sport’s top drivers locked in and ready to battle for the championship, the chase just to be in the Top 35 has boiled down to pretty much two teams: John Andretti (No. 34) and Scott Speed (No. 82). Andretti’s once comfortable margin in Front Row’s car had dwindled to less than 100 points heading into Richmond last Saturday night, as Speed had strung together a number of decent runs while Andretti struggled to even crack the top 30.

So was Speed able to keep narrowing the gap at Richmond, or was Andretti able to stabilize his lead? Read on to find the fate of that duo, as well who’s mourning the end of an impressive streak in this week’s edition of the Bubble Breakdown:

Focusing on the Bubble

Speed again won the qualifying battle in the race for 35th, beating Andretti with a 20th-place qualifying effort for Red Bull Racing as compared to a 39th-place starting spot for Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 Chevrolet. But qualifying pays no points and Speed’s advantage evaporated almost immediately as he was tapped and spun into the wall on lap 6.

The team then lost several laps in the pits and struggled all night to get the car drivable for Speed. To add to the team’s frustrations, they were penalized by NASCAR twice: once on lap 8 for being too fast off pit road and once again on lap 59 for pitting before pit road was open. The team eventually ended the night in 36th place, four laps down, never really able to recover from their crash.

That left the No. 34 team with an opportunity to extend their lead; however, Andretti really didn’t take all that much advantage of it. Also fighting an ill-handling car, the veteran found himself a lap down just 41 laps into the event. After a number of multi-adjustment pit stops and a pair of wave-arounds, Andretti was able to rebound a bit, mustering a 29th-place finish for the FRM team. The run extends the team’s lead over Red Bull to 115 points with just 10 races to go.

Around the Bubble

Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 driven by Regan Smith: It was a rough weekend for the second-year driver, to say the least. After a poor qualifying effort saw the team roll off in the 35th starting position, Smith brought out the third caution of the night when his car stopped on the track on lap 57. Then, things got worse for the youngster from Cato, N.Y. as he had a tire blow out and his No. 78 Chevrolet piled into the wall. The damage was severe enough to shelve the car for the night, giving the young driver his first career DNF.

Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 driven by Michael Waltrip: Waltrip continued to slide back in the standings with a very poor 32nd-place finish at Richmond. The team hasn’t posted a top 20 since Michigan in June and this run was their third straight finish of 30th or worse. Waltrip did get some TV time, though, when his spin brought out the night’s ninth caution on lap 327. The struggles probably have you wondering whether their spot in the Top 35 is in jeopardy; but with a 403-point cushion over Speed’s No. 82, it’s safe to say that Martin Truex Jr. will have a guaranteed starting spot when he takes over the ride in 2010.

NEMCO Motorsports’ No. 87 Toyota driven by Joe Nemechek: While a 35th-place finish isn’t much to shout about, Nemechek picked up a sponsor (Washington Music Center) and was actually able to run the whole race, completing 396 laps. In his last 11 races prior to Richmond, Nemechek had completed a total of 409. The 35th-place finish was also Joe’s second-best finish of the season, paired with a 14th at Talladega back in April.

Bubble Chatter

“Let’s make this look like Bristol. We started in the back there and moved to the front. Tonight’s gonna be a good, good night.” – Michael Waltrip before the green flag

“You’re running top-15 times when you are running by yourself.” – Brad Keselowski‘s crew chief trying to encourage his young driver on lap 146

“These guys in front of me are trying to wreck each other.” – Joe Nemechek on lap 188

“Hell we may as well experiment, we ain’t got nothing to lose.” – Joe Nemechek to crew chief on upcoming pit stop on lap 195

“It’s so frickin’ loose, I can’t drive it.” – Michael Waltrip on lap 321 to crew chief shortly before spinning out

“Let’s gamble and stay out.” – John Andretti to crew chief on lap 322

“Make sure you guys get all the grass out of it.” – Waltrip’s crew chief to crew after Mikey slid through the grass and plugged up the front end with sod on lap 327

What to Expect at Loudon

NASCAR heads to Loudon, N.H. next Sunday, hoping to avoid the rain that plagued the last race in New England. Assuming the bad weather stays away, I would think we won’t see Andretti posting another 16th-place run as he did in the team’s last trip. I am guessing he will be back in the mid-30s, along with Paul Menard as they both have historically struggled at the 1-mile oval.

Meanwhile, Bobby Labonte moves to the No. 71 TRG Chevrolet and Robby Gordon returns to his own team (David Gilliland filled in at Richmond); both will post top-25 finishes, as they normally do at this venue. And I would say Speed bounces back as well, posting a top 25 and closing the gap to the 35th spot in the owner standings.

So there you have it, your Bubble Breakdown for Richmond. Check back next week to see how your favorite bubble dwellers did at Loudon, and don’t forget to also check out the newsletter on Friday for the head-to-head spoiler picks. So until next Monday, so long from the bubble!

2009 Bubble Chart After Richmond

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
31 Hall of Fame/Yates Racing 96 Bobby Labonte/Erik Darnell 2,263 +339
32 Michael Waltrip Racing 55 Michael Waltrip 2,212 +288
33 Yates Racing 98 Paul Menard 2,207 +283
34 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 David Gilliland/Robby Gordon 2,106 +182
35 Front Row Motorsports 34 John Andretti 1,924 0
36 Team Red Bull 82 Scott Speed 1,809 -115
37 TRG Motorsports 71 Various Drivers 1,529 -395
38 Phoenix Racing 09 Various Drivers 1,378 -546
39 NEMCO Motorsports 87 Joe Nemechek 1,214 -710
40 Furniture Row Racing 78 Regan Smith 1,145 -779
41 Prism Motorsports 66 Dave Blaney 1,062 -862
42 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Various Drivers 1,045 -879

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