Race Weekend Central

Bubble Breakdown: Track Too Tough to Tame Mixed Bag for NASCAR Underdogs

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out this week’s big story from NASCAR Bubbleland: Regan Smith pulling himself out of any conceivable Top-35 danger while earning an upset Darlington victory along the way. But it’s a good thing for these other teams Smith’s single-car, underfunded effort pulled off a stunner as the rest of the lot simply struggled to make it to the end of Saturday’s Southern 500 in one piece.

Which team left the Lady in Black with the biggest black eye? Let’s jump on the Bubble Breakdown train to find out, tracking the race for the Top 35 in owner points now 10 races deep into the regular season:


No. 78 – Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 29th (+37 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 1st
Current Owner Points Ranking: 27th (+72 points ahead of 35th)

How ironic that on a weekend where Smith and his Furniture Row team reached victory lane, his Darlington destiny began with the worst starting spot of their season. The No. 78 car, which had been averaging around a seventh-place qualifying spot, rolled off the grid 23rd for the race, leaving its driver spending much of the early going fighting through traffic and sticking around the top 15. It was only in the race’s second half that a strong setup for this Chevrolet took hold, quietly catapulting Smith inside the top 10 by lap 240 and keeping him there through a final round of green-flag pit stops.

By the final few circuits, Smith had one of the fastest cars on track but would have been destined for only a sixth-place finish if Jeff Burton‘s blown engine hadn’t brought out a caution flag on lap 359 of the scheduled 367. After that, crew chief Pete Rondeau’s decision to stay out on old tires, once the kiss of death at Darlington, made history under the new, repaved version.

Inheriting the lead, Smith survived a stiff challenge by Carl Edwards and the overtime of a green-white-checkered finish to pull through, the first top five and victory of his four-season plus Sprint Cup career. For the No. 78 car, it was the culmination of a six-year quest that’s included 137 starts but zero top-10 finishes until this year’s Daytona 500; this time last year, they were simply struggling to stay above the Top-35 cutoff.

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At least that’s one thing Smith and Co. can count on going forward; bid them goodbye from making the list as the No. 78 has climbed to 84 points ahead of the next full-time team outside the Top 35 in owner points, Andy Lally and TRG Motorsports.

No. 34 – David Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+36 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 32nd
Current Owner Points Ranking: 30th (+36 points ahead of 35th)

As Smith wheeled into victory lane, Front Row Motorsports could only look on with envy while sorting through their own Darlington, leading a contingent of teams who never got a grip on the 1.366-mile oval. Gilliland, much like teammate Travis Kvapil was tight early in the going while wheeling his FRM Ford entry, a handling problem that put him a lap down early. But as the race developed, handling gremlins once again proved to be the least of his worries as Lady Luck shined the wrong way.

Gilliland blew a right front tire in turn 2 on lap 74 in what has been a recurring problem in 2011 for the No. 34 team. The fourth major accident in 10 races for the program, FRM’s flagship ride was crippled the rest of the way and came home 32nd, eight laps off the pace. Gilliland was lucky not to lose ground on the bubble but still faces a bigger problem of broken momentum heading to Dover: outside of two top-10 finishes at plate tracks, including a third in the Daytona 500, his Taco Bell ride hasn’t run better than 22nd.

No. 09 – Landon Cassill (Phoenix Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+23 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 29th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 31st (+26 points ahead of 35th)

For Cassill, Saturday night consisted of one goal and one goal only: survival. Making his 66th career start in any of NASCAR’s top-three divisions, the Southern 500 marked his first at Darlington, often an ugly experience when it comes to rookies at the Lady in Black. To his credit, the No. 09 car stayed out of trouble, finishing the race in one piece which allowed Cassill to gain valuable experience.

But many times, his James Finch-owned Chevrolet was one of the slowest cars on track, falling laps down early and needing attrition late to climb inside the top 30. An end result of 29th, six laps off the pace wasn’t a bad first-time effort but this team and driver have run much better at the Cup level.

No. 21 – Trevor Bayne (Wood Brothers Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+8 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: DNS
Current Owner Points Ranking: 36th (-4 points behind of 35th)

The Wood Brothers fell out of the Top 35 in owner points after choosing not to attempt Darlington this week (the team is only running a limited schedule of 18 races this season.) However, their future driver remains in question as Bayne continues to battle health issues; his recent release from the hospital after a week of tests has not led to a final diagnosis. Bayne, who was complaining of fatigue, nausea and blurred vision, has seen the first two conditions dissipate while medication is helping the vision problem.

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The hope for the team is that he’s better in time for their next scheduled event, the All-Star Race May 21 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway as the illness is not career-threatening; the driver’s status appears like it will remain a week-to-week decision for some time. Meanwhile, as they sat on the sidelines the Woods’ absence at Darlington locked in the 36th-place team in owner points, Germain Racing’s No. 13, into the Top 35 for this event.

No. 7 – Robby Gordon (Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+5 points ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 37th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble)

Gordon, who already had just limited track time after turning no laps in practice on Friday, lasted only 87 laps on Saturday before transmission problems parked the No. 7 car 37th in the final running order. It’s the latest in a series of tough results for the driver/owner, whose organization remains without a top-15 finish and hasn’t run better than 23rd without a restrictor plate.

That’s troubling considering sponsorship money is apparently on the wane (Gordon earlier this season remarked that May would be about the time his team would start running out of money should additional backing not be secured); and now, RGM now sits squarely on the bubble heading into Dover.

No. 36 – Dave Blaney (Tommy Baldwin Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+4 ahead of 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 24th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 32nd (+12 ahead of 35th)

It was a quiet night at Darlington for Blaney, fading back down to earth after two overachieving weeks at Talladega and Richmond. The No. 36 car was strong early, charging forward eight spots from Blaney’s 41st qualifying position but stalling out once the Chevy got to 30th. From there, the Golden Corral car spent the rest of the night trying to minimize their laps lost to the leader; for most of the night, they were only one lap down through the help of two Lucky Dogs, but a late-race green-flag run left them three back by the finish.

It was definitely a disappointing ending for Blaney, whose Darlington track record included a ninth-place finish the last time he didn’t go there to start-and-park (the Caterpillar team for Bill Davis in 2008). But hey, survival at the Lady in Black comes with a bright side: the team gained two positions in the owner standings and now sits 24 in front of the Lally/TRG combo.

No. 32 – Ken Schrader (FAS Lane Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 35th (On The Bubble, wins tie-breaker over the 13 and 71)
Saturday’s Finish: 28th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 33rd (+5 ahead of 35th)

FAS Lane’s team nickname has been a bit deceiving this season; after all, they’ve yet to qualify better than 29th for a 43-car field. This weekend proved no exception, with Fenton, Mo.’s Schrader slotting in 40th with a machine that seemed to lack both horsepower and grip.

During the night, the team slowly improved but there’s only so much you can do with old tires, even older chassis and not enough muscle under the hood; other than leading two laps during the race’s competition caution from laps 39-40, the No. 32 Ford was scarcely visible on television all night. Six laps back by the checkered flag, it’s clear there’s plenty of work to do – and funding needed – to make the program more competitive, although for one week, at least a survival-type finish bumps them up two spots inside the Top 35.


No. 13 – Casey Mears (Germain Racing)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 36th (tied with No. 32 & No. 71, but lost tiebreaker to No. 32 for 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 30th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 34th (+3 ahead of 35th)

By virtue of the No. 21 electing not to race at Darlington, Mears, who was in 36th place in owner points, was automatically moved into 35th position and locked in the race. It was a sigh of relief for a program who’s struggled with qualifying ever since missing the Daytona 500 to start the year.

But an automatic starting spot doesn’t mean an automatic good finish. Within five laps after the drop of the green flag, Mears was having problems with the car being really tight and difficult to handle. On the first caution, the team made adjustments with the hope they could free the handling up but the change was unsuccessful. In fact, Mears complained the back end was worse and the car wouldn’t turn at all.

Still, the team continued to work hard, moving Mears up to 23rd place with an outstanding pit stop that gained the No. 13 six positions for the restart on lap 128. Unfortunately for the Germain camp, a “different type” of restart would put their driver in harm’s way; with a stackup occurring in front of him, Mears would suffer crash damage later in the event and eventually finish 30th.

Nonetheless, the evening was a success. With the team hovering on the bubble, the team also earned a bonus point for leading a lap to add to the 15 points earned for their finish. Leaving Darlington, the team is now back inside the Top 35 (no longer depending on help) and hopes to stay there after next week’s race in Dover.

No. 71 – Andy Lally (TRG Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 37th (tied with No. 32 and No. 13 but lost tiebreaker with both for 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: Did not qualify
Current Owner Points Ranking: 37th (-12 behind 35th)

After Lally and the No. 71 had clawed themselves to a three-way tie for the 35th position the team had a very disappointing Friday at Darlington. Lally was a victim of the rain-shortened practice, battling a really tight handling car with precious few laps to get it ready for qualifying. That proved costly, as his No. 71 was the slowest off all the cars that circled “The Lady in Black,” nearly three mph off the pace.

The team did their best, but the results yielded a significant blow to Lally and the team when they failed to make the race. Again, Lally was nearly three mph off in his lap speed when compared to Blaney, who qualified 42nd.

No. 37 – Tony Raines (Front Row/Max Q Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-34 behind 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 38th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-38 behind 35th)

Raines had another disappointing weekend for Front Row/Max Q Motorsports that dropped the team another position this week in the owner points standings.

The No. 37 ran just seven laps during practice on Friday, winding up 33rd on the depth charts. Not surprisingly, that meant his qualifying run placed him deep in the field, as usual, with the team starting in 35th position. Unfortunately for Raines, he struggled with handling early and never moved higher than his starting position in the field.

The evening would be cut short for Raines, too, when the team had brake problems after just 172 laps. The finish dug the hole a little deeper in owner points with little remaining hope of making the Top 35 this season.

No. 38 – Travis Kvapil (Front Row Motorsports)
Incoming Owner Points Ranking: 39th (-41 behind 35th)
Saturday’s Finish: 26th
Current Owner Points Ranking: 38th (-35 behind 35th)

Kvapil said his car was so loose when they unloaded off the truck that he couldn’t even make two laps around the track at Darlington. With rain cutting the first practice and Happy Hour cancelled, the No. 38 team didn’t get many laps to test any adjustments made to tighten the car up before qualifying.

But the wait paid off. When it was time to go out there, Kvapil surprisingly timed in well above his average with a solid run that put him in 21st position on the starting grid. Early in the race, Kvapil complained of no grip and difficultly going through the turns. A number of adjustments helped improve the handling late, moving Kvapil up as high as 17th position in the race.

Finishing 26th at Darlington, Kvapil did move ahead of the No. 37 team in the owner points standings. Perhaps Saturday night becomes the boost the team needs to help move them towards the Top 35?

We’ll have to wait and see.

2011 Bubble Chart After Darlington

Pos Owner Car # Driver Points Points +/- of 35th Place
30 Front Row Motorsports 34 David Gilliland 180 +36
31 Phoenix Racing 09 Landon Cassill 170 +26
32 Tommy Baldwin Racing 36 Dave Blaney 156 +12
33 FAS Lane Racing 32 Ken Schrader 149 +5
34 Germain Racing 13 Casey Mears 147 +3
35 Robby Gordon Motorsports 7 Robby Gordon 144 0
36 Wood Brothers 21 Trevor Bayne 140 -4
37 TRG Motorsports 71 Andy Lally 132 -12
38 Front Row Motorsports 38 Travis Kvapil 109 -35
39 MaxQ Motorsports / Front Row 37 Tony Raines 106 -38

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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