Tom Bowles
Tuesday October 27th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
NASCAR's Chase leader continued his playoff dominance at Martinsville, leading 164 of the first 362 laps before losing the lead to Denny Hamlin. But while the No. 48 could never get back by the No. 11, a runner-up finish was good enough to extend his point lead for the third straight week. Carrying a record-setting 3.0 average finish through six Chase races to date, the three-time champ seems all but predestined to make it four. "I'm so tired of answering this question. I think you guys can all figure it out," he said when asked if a 118-point margin over Mark Martin was good enough for him to feel safely ahead with four races left. "Talladega, there's no telling [what might happen], and I feel good with the other tracks after that as long as we don't have any mechanicals." He's not the only one who feels that way...
2Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 4
Jeff Gordon
The man who recommended Johnson to Rick Hendrick must be getting sick and tired of watching him capture championships this 38-year-old might otherwise have won. With a fifth-place run at Martinsville, he has four consecutive top-five finishes, which have launched him to third in the standings. But despite an average finish of 3.3 during that span, he's actually LOST 38 points to Johnson, falling 150 back and all but out of it unless Lady Luck starts frowning on the No. 48. In fact, Gordon needs to be concerned with who's behind him in fifth, as Juan Pablo Montoya is just 50 points back and unafraid to mix it up on the track. "I thought I did something to make him mad because I didn't understand why he was just driving into me for no reason," Gordon said after the two collided several times on Sunday. "But hey, that is Martinsville. That's kind of the way he drives. And I just tried not to make him mad anymore and raced him as clean as I could."
3Mark Martin
Last Week: 3
Mark Martin
Never Martinsville's biggest fan, Martin knew he'd be losing some serious ground to Johnson on Sunday. Struggling with getting a good forward bite off the corner, he was solid but never spectacular, coming home eighth. The four-time championship runner-up knows he needs to step it up to have any shot of overtaking his teammate on top of the charts. "You know, eighths, sevenths, doesn't look like that's going to be enough to go out here and win this championship," he said. "But there's still some racing left, and a lot of things can change at Talladega. We're going to go there and race like there ain't no way we can wreck." That's a hard sell, as it's been more famine than feast there for stock car racing's 'hard luck' driver: he's crashed there in four of his last five starts.
4Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 6
Juan Pablo Montoya
With the title now out of reach, this first-time Chaser will reach out for Victory Lane any way he can. Using his No. 42 Target Chevy like a battering ram at Martinsville, he stepped up the aggression and fought hard for a win with a car that came close, but didn't quite have enough for the longer runs. "If somebody races hard, you're going to race hard," he said of his fender-banging tactics that angered other racers -- Gordon, in particular. "People have got to respect you." Yet, while insisting he did nothing wrong in finishing third, the open-wheel champ worked to quickly squelch any bad blood between he and Cup racing's winningest active driver. "We're good," he clarified. "I talked to [Jeff] afterwards. And it got to a point, it's like, 'Hey, I'm here, and you're not going to push me around; you know what I mean?' If you give me room, I'll give you room. He wasn't giving me any, so I played the same game."
5Tony Stewart
Last Week: 5
Tony Stewart
Back when the Chase began, the driver/owner insisted on two things: that he didn't care about the old points system (which would have given him a 179-point lead over Gordon with 10 races left) and that his Hendrick chassis and engines would run the same. Still, one has to wonder if his thoughts have changed after a ninth at Martinsville left him fourth in the standings, a distant 192 behind a No. 48 team that would still be 80 points BEHIND him under the old system. To add insult to injury, the No. 14 team ranks fourth among the Hendrick-supported cars in the Chase, with only teammate Ryan Newman behind him. That's a tough pill to swallow for a guy who looked to be the first true title contender as a driver/owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
6Denny Hamlin
Last Week: NR
Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's roller coaster ride through the Chase continued Sunday as he rebounded from two straight DNFs to dominate at Martinsville. Leading the final 138 laps, he took his third win of the season, which eased the pain of a championship bid that never seemed to get off the ground. "We reassessed our goals after Charlotte to get back in the top five [in points]," he said, and his win bumped him up from 11th to ninth. "I have a lot of confidence in this team, and I think that's feasible for us." Maybe the No. 11 team should petition to hold all 10 Chase races in Hamlin's home state of Virginia. He's now collected three wins and an astounding 13 top-10 finishes in 17 starts at his hometown tracks of Martinsville and Richmond.
7Ryan Newman
Last Week: NR
Ryan Newman
Capping a banner year on the bullrings, Newman turned a pole on Friday into a seventh-place run on Sunday to quietly move up to seventh in points. The run also capped an impressive sweep: he and Martin are the only drivers to score six top-10 finishes in six short track starts this season. Just one of his 13 career wins has come on those three ovals -- Bristol, Richmond, and Martinsville -- but they've been a bright spot for the No. 39 team as it looks to grow in the future. Considering his last win came at a restrictor plate race (the 2008 Daytona 500), Newman should be a dark horse contender at Talladega, where he ran third in the spring.
8Kurt Busch
Last Week: 4
Kurt Busch
Penske officials have said that No. 2 crew chief Pat Tryson, who is leaving at the end of the season for Michael Waltrip Racing, could be replaced a few weeks early if Busch falls out of championship contention. At this point, I'm sure he's gotten busy packing his bags. A 17th place at Martinsville was the duo's worst in the Chase, leaving them sixth in points and over 200 points behind Johnson with four races remaining. Now, it's not a matter of if there'll be a new head wrench at the No. 2 in 2009... but when. "On a pit stop with about 200 laps to go, I had to get too close to the wall to squeeze into our pit box and that really did us in," Busch explained. "We lost about 15 spots and got caught up way back in the pack." That left a terrible streak intact, as this short track specialist has yet to score a top 10 at Martinsville in his eight starts behind the wheel of the No. 2.
9Kyle Busch
Last Week: NR
Kyle Busch
The younger Busch bested his big brother at the half-miler and the fourth-place finish was the team's best since winning Bristol in August. So why did Steve Addington still get replaced? It's because the short tracks seem to be the least of his problems, as five of his nine top-10 finishes have come in six starts on the bullrings. "The Joe Gibbs [Racing] cars seem to be a little bit off [on the Cup side]," says the driver, who's coasting to the Nationwide title in Gibbs equipment. "But Denny [Hamlin] has been doing an awesome job with them. I have been trying to get there and trying to get a little bit better. It seems like the past couple weeks, we've done some improving. [But] we've got a lot more to go."
10Matt Kenseth
Last Week: 7
Matt Kenseth
Bringing out Martinsville's first caution of the day on Lap 9, the No. 17's early scuffle left it fighting from the back of the pack. But while that might have ruined Kenseth's day on another track, the length of the race and the slower speeds at Martinsville minimized the damage as he slowly worked his way up to 14th by the finish. "I'm happy with the final result," he said after also battling the flu for most of the weekend (Erik Darnell was standing by but never relieved him). "For us, that's pretty good here. We didn't run particularly well, and I wasn't at my best today. I thought I did a bad job and thought I ran into about everything. I had some issues on a couple of restarts and we struggled on our last pit stop, so with all of those things considered, to finish 14th is really good."

Dropped Out: Kasey Kahne (8), Casey Mears (9), Clint Bowyer (10).

Underdog of the Week: Bobby Labonte is a free agent for 2010 and the 45-year-old is desperate to prove to car owners he can still drive. That burning desire came to the forefront at Martinsville, a track that's far more driver than equipment and a place where underdogs like his Hall of Fame Racing team have a true chance to compete. Seizing the moment, the 2000 Cup Series champ ran hard from the drop of the green and didn't give an inch on the track, making his final start in the No. 96 a memorable one (Erik Darnell will replace him for the final four races). Running 13th at the finish, Labonte had his best performance since Memorial Day weekend and an added line on his resume to peddle to perspective sponsors and owners. "I was pleased with the way the day went," he said. "The guys did a good job." Now he's the man who has to go out and find a job.

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email with your driver and the reasons he should be featured. If you're lucky, we'll include your fan comments in this very space next week!

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