Less than a week after Kevin Conway and sponsor ExtenZe left Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 team, drivers Travis Kvapil, David Gilliland and Tony Raines quietly salvaged finishes inside the top 30 at Bristol to move all three of their teams more than 20 points away from the bubble.
Sliding closer to trouble was none other than Conway himself, who climbed aboard Robby Gordon’s No. 7 in the unenviable 35th spot in owner points. By the halfway mark, Conway’s Toyota was behind the wall with a vibration, joining Landon Cassill in the No. 71 as two teams struggling to stay afloat.
All the while, Jeff Green made the most of his first Cup start in three years by bringing the No. 26 home 25th, moving Latitude 43 Motorsports within just 125 points of the bubble with 12 races still to go. But the No. 26 team would have to keep its eyes in the rearview mirror, for as Patrick Carpentier returned to the team, another new face would enter the bubble battle by climbing into No. 38.
After taking the season’s final off weekend to regroup, would the Top-35 battle grow tighter still under the Atlanta lights? Read on to find out!
LOCKED-IN AT RICHMOND
No. 82 – Scott Speed (Team Red Bull)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 28th (+438 points ahead of 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 34th
Current Owner Points Ranking: (+447 points ahead of 35th)
Speed’s Atlanta weekend began on a high note when he qualified a respectable 20th; his previous best at the track was 26th in the spring race last year. Hopes were high that Speed would regain his early-season momentum at the 1.5-mile track, where he finished 10th just six months ago.
Unfortunately, the night proved to be more of the same – his second engine failure in three races. While hanging onto a top-20 run, Speed’s car erupted in first smoke, then fire, forcing a hurried evacuation on pit road. Though Speed was uninjured and his team actually gained nine points of cushion, bad luck continues to snake bite both Red Bull teams.
No. 77 – Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+420)
Sunday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+441)
Hornish gained 21 points on Sunday (Sept. 5), but like Speed was nowhere near as competitive as he had been in the spring race. Pit strategy proved Hornish’s biggest problem as he was forced to short-pit from the very first green-flag cycle, perpetually keeping his No. 77 outside the top 25. At race’s end, Hornish came across the line three laps down, the third-to-last car to finish the race under power.
No. 19 – Elliott Sadler (Richard Petty Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+396)
Sunday’s Finish: 41st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+384)
This week’s gains by Speed and Hornish were the result of a much worse night for Sadler, victim of a multi-car crash that chose his No. 19 out of a herd of scattering cars. From the 22nd starting spot, Sadler enjoyed a quiet, though unremarkable run around 25th spot for much of the night. This kept the Stanley Ford mired in traffic for the lap 151 restart, during which Ryan Newman spun Greg Biffle out of 11th entering the third corner.
Sadler followed Kevin Harvick to the apron to try and squeeze by, but was blocked by Harvick’s No. 29, causing the careening Biffle to clobber Sadler and send him into the outside wall. Despite the apparent viciousness of the head-on impact, Sadler was unhurt, but became one of only two drivers to lose points of cushion this week.
No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+238)
Sunday’s Finish: 17th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+298)
The team that gained the most points – 60 in all – was Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78. Driver Smith’s intermediate track skills continued to develop Sunday as Smith backed up his season-best 14th-place finish in the spring race with a 17th-place run in the fall. From the 27th starting spot, Smith inched closer to the front in spite of the race’s early green-flag run.
After taking the wave-around, he was up to 13th with just 84 laps remaining. A decision to stay out during one of the last cautions moved him up to 11th, then dropped him to 20th soon after the restart, but he was still able to pick off a few more spots in the closing laps.
No. 34 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+62)
Sunday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+86)
For the second consecutive race, all three Front Row Motorsports teams gained points on the bubble – no small accomplishment for a team that has been wracked with sponsor troubles and driver changes in that brief time. Kvapil’s No. 34 was the lowest-finishing of the three, two laps down at the finish, but the team still gained 24 points on 35th for the fifth-highest gain this week.
No. 37 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+31)
Sunday’s Finish: 20th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+82)
The best-finishing FRM car was driven by Gilliland, who fulfilled the promise of his crash-aborted top-15 finish in the spring Atlanta race with a lead-lap finish in 20th. Gilliland secured 51 more points for the No. 37 team – the second-biggest gain to Smith’s 60 – and is now just four points away from taking the 32nd points position from his teammate Kvapil in the No. 34. Too bad the only time ESPN showed him was when the camera was looking over his top-20 car to talk about Bill Elliott.
No. 71 – Bobby Labonte (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+35)
Sunday’s Finish: 31st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+53)
Gilliland’s gain was owner Kevin Buckler’s loss as the team is now its lowest in points since after the August Pocono race. Even though Labonte and full TaxSlayer sponsorship returned to TRG Motorsports for Sunday’s race at Labonte’s best track, the No. 71 team’s results were less than stellar. Labonte ended up five laps down at the finish as the next-to-last car to finish under power, ten laps ahead of the crash-damaged Kasey Kahne. Still, the team ironically gained 18 points of cushion thanks to the struggles of a certain rookie driver.
No. 7 – Kevin Conway (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (on the bubble)
Sunday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (on the bubble)
Conway and sponsor ExtenZe finalized their sponsorship agreement with Robby Gordon Motorsports over the off week, adorning Gordon’s No. 7 in full sponsorship colors for the first time since Sonoma. With his new driver and sponsor now set for the rest of the season, Robby left for the TORC Off-Road Series season finale in Wisconsin instead of entering the No. 07 at Atlanta.
Conway flew the flag for RGM at the Georgia track, but did so again at a reduced pace. He was nearly 10 full mph slower than polesitter Denny Hamlin in qualifying and made nearly a half-dozen trips behind the wall on race day, keeping him 43rd for much of the night. More than 50 laps down past the halfway point, Conway finally called it a night after completing 162 laps with transmission problems as the listed cause.
Meanwhile, nearly 10 spots in front of Conway, two more teams turned up the heat on RGM.
NOT LOCKED-IN AT RICHMOND
No. 26 – Patrick Carpentier (Latitude 43 Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-125 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-98 points behind 35th)
After his solid performance at Michigan, Carpentier returned to Latitude 43 Motorsports and again gave the team a finish on the correct side of 30th place. Combined with the exit of Conway, Carpentier’s 28th-place run was worth 27 points and the fourth-highest gain in owner points. If owner Bill Jenkins can somehow repair the ongoing problems with the team’s infrastructure while Conway continues to leave races early, there may still be enough time for the No. 26 to again lock itself into the field at Daytona.
As the team continues to fight its way into each race, the team may benefit by keeping Carpentier for the next couple races: the Canadian qualified fourth at Richmond in 2008 and won his only career pole that year at New Hampshire. Carpentier will need to be just as good, if not better, however, for the No. 26 is just seven points away from having one more team to pass.
No. 38 – Dave Blaney (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-144 points behind 35th)
Sunday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-105 points behind 35th)
After a year-and-a-half of churning out qualifying run after qualifying run for PRISM Motorsports, Blaney finally has a more desirable task at hand: get FRM’s No. 38 back into the Top 35. After qualifying the team’s third car 37th, Blaney went to work Sunday and rewarded the team with its best finish since Gilliland finished 19th at Sonoma. In the races to come, Blaney’s arrival may be just the spark that can re-ignite the three-team battle for 35th.
Like Carpentier, Blaney should be a good fit for the team at Richmond and New Hampshire, two tracks where the Ohio driver has also qualified well.
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