No more qualifying free rides

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

The free ride is over for last year's top 35 in owner's points. It's now time for drivers to stand on their own merits — or stand on the gas. When the Nextel Cup tour rolls into Martinsville Speedway for this weekend's Goody's Cool Orange 500 — and for the rest of the season — the top 35 teams will be guaranteed starting positions based on points from the week before. That means a lot of sleepless nights before time trials begin on Fridays for teams on the fringe. Who are the most likely candidates for a weekly Tums commercial? The entire Toyota fleet, first and foremost: Dave Blaney was locked in at the start of the season and has competed in every race, but bad luck at Daytona, California and Las Vegas has knocked him into no-man's land. Still, of all the Toyota teams Blaney has shown the most promise. That's understandable since his team has been in existence longer than any in the Toyota stable. Along with Blaney, Dale Jarrett is the only other Camry to qualify for the first five races. But once DJ's final formal champion's provisional expires — and that could happen any week now — he'll be able to spend his weekends at the beach. That's because there are young guns nipping at the old man's driving shoes. Red Bull's Brian Vickers, 23, has started two fewer races than DJ but leads the 50-year-old by two points. David Reutimann has also qualified for three races, but he can pretty much forget climbing into the top 35 in owner points for 2007. Jeremy Mayfield, A.J. Allmendinger and Michael Waltrip don't have a prayer of their Camrys cracking the top 35. On the edge: At 36th in points, Ward Burton tops the "go-or-go-homers" after Morgan-McClure struck a deal with James Finch for his owner points at Atlanta. Burton has just two starts this season, but if the car's dialed in he'll be able to qualify well at his home track this weekend. But as a single-car team, the No. 4 is fighting an uphill battle.

Cup owner standings
Pos. Driver +/- 35th
31. Sterling Marlin +35
32. Kyle Petty +17
33. Ricky Rudd +9
34. Kasey Kahne
35. Johnny Sauter
36. Ward Burton -34
37. Dave Blaney -40
38. Brian Vickers -43
39. Dale Jarrett -45
40. Ken Schrader -45
41. Mike Bliss -78
42. Paul Menard -84
43. Scott Riggs -100

Following the Nos. 22, 83 and 44 Toyota Camrys is the No. 21 Ford of the Wood Brothers. The Stuart, Va.-based Woods are also at their hometown track this weekend with Ken Schrader behind the wheel. Schrader qualified 10th at Martinsville in the fall, but that was before the Car of Tomorrow. But in the first 21 car former Hendrick Motorsports chassis manager Eddie Dickerson built for the Woods, Schrader qualified 15th last week at Bristol. A little luck will turn this team around. Mike Bliss' Bam car is 41st in points, but again, with two starts and as a single-car team, it won't be easy. The next two cars, Nos. 15 and 10, shouldn't be in this position. Yes, Paul Menard is a rookie and the team is struggling while making the transition to Cup, but he's much better than what his 42nd-place in owner points shows. Sans a provisional starting spot, Menard has missed two races and dug a huge hole early. DEI is undergoing extensive testing with Menard. Scott Riggs' performance is nearly as curious as his Evernham teammate Kasey Kahne (who is hanging on at 34th in owner/driver points). Of all drivers with at least five starts, Riggs is currently 39th in driver points and his owner, James Rocco, is 43rd. Yes, Riggs experienced two DNFs, but the driver is much stronger than his numbers would indicate. The Bubble Boys: Living on the edge are Sterling Marlin, Kyle Petty, Ricky Rudd, Kahne and Johnny Sauter. If the points had been reset after Atlanta, Sauter would have been golden. Until Bristol, Sauter had qualified for every race on time and this team will only improve as the season goes on. Kahne, however, is the mindblower on this list. Last year he was a weekly contender. This year he can't find his rear spoiler. Like Riggs, this Evernham racer has had his share of bad luck, but this A-lister has no business among the NASCAR dregs. Rudd was on sabbatical last season and is still assisting with the Robert Yates revival. Marlin and Petty have made a home on the points perimeter. Both veterans are admittedly in the twilight of their careers but are still doing an admirable job of holding on. Lee Spencer is a senior NASCAR writer for Talk racing with Lee at her NASCAR blog.

Tagged: Kyle Petty, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Dave Blaney, Ward Burton, Johnny Sauter, Jeremy Mayfield, Ken Schrader, Michael Waltrip, Brian Vickers

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