Bubble Riders Battle to Qualify for Finals

ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Robson Palermo stood outside the PPL Center locker room on Friday night and let out a sigh of relief following his first qualified ride since undergoing shoulder surgery six months ago.

But the three-time World Finals event winner doesn’t have much time to enjoy the moment of riding Texas Red for 83.5 points. In his mind, if he wants to be in Las Vegas in less than a week and a half for the World Finals, he has to treat this weekend like it is the Finals.

There is no question that he has to ride, said Palermo, who is ranked 34th in the world standings entering Round 2 on Saturday night at the Built Ford Tough Series Cooper Tires Take The Money and Ride.

“Today is my first day of Finals,” Palermo said on Friday. “I have been not sleeping at night, because I want to go to Finals after missing last year because of my shoulder. I hope this helps me jump up a little bit more and tomorrow I will get on more bulls and I want to stay on.”

Palermo was one of the seven riders – Josh Faircloth, Nathan SchaperKody Lostroh, Jason Malone, Jordan Hupp and Harve Stewart – ranked between No. 31 and No. 39 in the world standings that recorded a ride on Friday night. He finished 10th in the event average to earn an additional 20 points toward the standings.

There are only 465.84 points separating Palermo from No. 39 Stewart.

This weekend is the final BFTS regular-season event for riders not ranked inside the Top 15 of the world standings, and it is their best shot of gaining valuable points to try and qualify for the Built Ford Tough World Finals on Oct. 22-26. Following this weekend, there will be an opportunity to gain additional points – 25 percent of points earned at Touring Pro Division events count toward the world standings – from next weekend’s two-day Touring Pro Division event in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Palermo was the second of the bubble riders to earn a score. Malone, who holds the 36th spot in the world standings, set the bar first by covering Spitball for 82 points.

“I am 30 years old and have been riding for most of my life,” Malone said. “I want one of those (World Finals) jackets already.

“I would rather be No. 1, but it isn’t any different if I am 36th, 20th or whatever coming into this last event here. I am going to try just as hard either way. You have to separate and look at this weekend as just this weekend instead of the end of the year.”

Malone is double-entered in next weekend’s TPD event and says regardless of what happens in the standings in Allentown, he will still compete in Little Rock.

Lostroh, who concluded Round 1 ranked 33rd in the world standings, finished the highest in the event average with a fifth-place ride of 86 points on Pain & Suffering, but his season is now in jeopardy after breaking his left ankle.

Therefore, Saturday night will provide further opportunities for No. 35 Robinson, No. 36 Malone, No. 37 Hupp and No. 39 Stewart.

Robinson fell to 35th in the standings as the only bubble rider not to make 8 seconds, but it certainly wasn’t without a good effort. Robinson was bucked off at the 7.64-second mark by Spin City.

Hupp and Stewart are amidst a friendly, family feud as the brother-in-laws are battling for potentially one of the final remaining spots at Finals. Hupp married Stewart’s sister, Philicia, in June 2010 and Harve babysits for his brother-in-law and sister, occasionally.

Both are entered in next weekend’s TPD event.

“Yeah, we are right there neck and neck fighting for Finals,” Stewart said. “You have a job and that is to stay on your bull. That is the only one you are competing with. That’s what I keep in mind and focus on. That is my plan anyway. There is a lot of support there, shoot that is family.”

Stewart turned down a re-ride option following his 72.75 points on Squirrel Grove. It was Stewart’s first ride in 12 attempts during the second half.

“Everything just felt good. I needed one of those under my belt,” said Stewart, appearing much more relaxed compared to at the start of the event. “It felt good. I wouldn’t mind a couple more tomorrow.”

Hupp earned the last spot in the draw last weekend in Biloxi, Mississippi, which led to Stewart being stuck at home.

The 29-year-old said it is never easy this time of year when you are battling with all of your buddies for the remaining spots.

“In a perfect world, we would both go out there and do awesome and get a spot, but at the same time, everybody at that bottom I really like,” Hupp said. “Jason is in there, Lostroh is in there. They are all my buddies. I don’t want to bump anybody and I don’t want to get bumped myself. I just have the attitude of worrying about myself and letting everything fall where it may.”

It is why it was no surprise to see Hupp minutes following his 82.5-point ride on Big Kahuna right there on the chute cheering on Lostroh from the moment the 2009 World Champion nodded his head.

Faircloth echoed Hupp’s mindset and agreed with Palermo that in a way, Finals has already begun for the bubble riders. Faircloth has been in this situation before and is closing in on potentially qualifying for his first World Finals after riding Little Bit Wicked for 80.75 points in Round 1.

“It’s just all about riding your bulls and showing up and staying on,” Faircloth said. “I have been there to make the Finals a bunch and I always kept looking at the points and what I have to do to win.

“I quit doing that and just show up and stay on one bull at a time. You can’t worry about nobody else or if they stay on.”

Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko.

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