Tom Bowles
Wednesday November 4th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
The point leader's four-leaf clover worked like a charm at Talladega, and because of it he's now a shoo-in for that fourth straight title. After spending much of the day running at the back of the pack, he not only avoided the wrecks but made a key decision to pit for fuel while other drivers chose to stay out late in the race. That left him in perfect position to capitalize when Ryan Newman's flip added an extra three laps under yellow -- leaving half the teams in front of him running out of gas, including some of his closest title contenders. "[Crew chief] Chad [Knaus] said these guys might run out, and I didn't want to believe too much in that," he said. "But they started running out of gas. There's another car, then the No. 24, then the No. 5 hits pit road and I'm like, 'Man, this isn't Halloween, this is an early Christmas present.'" Now armed with a 184-point lead, all that's needed is three 10th-place finishes in the final three races and the championship is his.
2Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 2
Jeff Gordon
For much of Sunday, the four-time champ looked ready to chip into Johnson's point lead. Fulfilling a promise made earlier in the weekend, the No. 24 did the opposite of the No. 48, leading 12 laps while staying within striking distance of the leader all day. But just when a top five finish looked assured, his fuel tank went dry after Newman's devastating wreck extended the race. Forced to pit and fall to the back, the DuPont Chevy was simply a pinball after that as Talladega's second "Big One" of the day left the car a heap of junk -- a yearly danger he's tired of fighting through again and again. "I certainly didn't think we were going to run out right then but I guess I'm kind of glad we ran out when we did," he said sarcastically. "Because we were at least able to get back out there and destroy our car."
3Mark Martin
Last Week: 3
Mark Martin
The 50-year-old calls this race the "lotto" for its unpredictability and wild wrecks that drivers just can't avoid. Unfortunately for him, Sunday was no exception as the man who loathes restrictor plates the most got caught up in a mess all over again. "It was just a wreck," he said of the last-lap fracas that sent him airborne before thankfully landing right side up. "I hope everybody enjoyed the show there. I don't know what it looked like. It looked pretty exciting from my viewpoint. I don't have a clue. I don't know what happened out there. So, I don't know. Congratulations to Jamie McMurray and that's about all I know about the whole race. I'll find out later I guess, I don't know." Credited with a 28th-place finish, he does have a clue about his title hopes: despite being second in the standings, they're all but gone with three races left.
4Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 4
Juan Pablo Montoya
Running up front late, Montoya seemed positioned for his sixth top five finish in seven Chase races to date. But that's before all heck broke lose on that fateful green-white-checkered finish, leaving him 19th and scratching his head like so many others. Yet the Colombian's frustrations were centered not on the wreck but NASCAR after the race, angry a pre-race meeting to cut down on bump drafting left the majority of the race little more than logging laps, where no one jumped out to pass and stayed in line bumper-to-bumper. "I think that is why you saw so much single-file racing, because you couldn't make anything happen," he said of a strange phenomenon that was all but a driver protest of the rules. "You couldn't do anything. You tired and then every time you would get in to someone's bumper, then you would lift, you would lose that contact, and half of a car length and the whole pack slows down. I wanted to run up front, but you couldn't do anything."
5Tony Stewart
Last Week: 5
Tony Stewart
The two-time champ was also frustrated with NASCAR's crackdown, cracking up on the radio he needed some No Doz to keep himself awake when the cars were running single-file. But when the action heated up, it didn't take long for him to flame out, involved in the very same wreck that saw his teammate launched into the air at a frightening height. Refusing comment after the race, his 35th place finish left him fifth in the standings, 279 points behind Johnson and wondering where his season hit the skids. The driver/owner claims his equipment and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports didn't change come Chase time, but it's interesting to note all of the Hendrick cars -- who finished behind the No. 14 for most of the regular season -- are now running circles around him when it really counts.
6Joey Logano
Last Week: NR
Joey Logano
One of the few left standing after the latest Talladega wreckfest, the rookie scored his second top five in three weeks as he continues to grow up right before our eyes. Who knows, maybe the naiveté of not knowing the danger of the Big One helped where it has soured so many others. "These races are interesting," said the 19-year-old after just his second Talladega start. "You ride around in the first part and you just really make sure you don't wreck, that's the main thing. Just trying to find friends and maybe make decisions you wouldn't make at the end of the race just to make some friends and try to have someone good at the end pushing you. That was my game plan most of the time, and hopefully, that all lined up good." Now up to 19th in points, the freshman's done a nice job to recover the second half of this season after starting out well outside the top 30.
7Jamie McMurray
Last Week: NR
Jamie McMurray
Still looking for a ride in 2010, there's no better thing to put on your resume than a win -- and McMurray did just that at 'Dega. At the right place at the right time, his Ford had both the gas and the momentum to withstand three extra laps and several challenges during a green-white-checkered finish. "It's been a long time since I've won, and I want to assure every fan out there that I appreciate this as much as anybody," he said in claiming his first victory since Daytona in July 2007. "So thanks to all my fans who have stuck with me. I just can't believe it's here again." Two of McMurray's three victories have now come at restrictor plate tracks, but will his knack for running well at four races a year give him a 2010 contract for all 36?
8Kasey Kahne
Last Week: NR
Kasey Kahne
As I've said before, you really have to give this team credit for how they've persevered in the Chase. After losing an engine, enduring a public merger with Yates, and a pending manufacturer change to Ford, the list of acceptable reasons to throw in the towel keeps growing every week. But the No. 9 team keeps fighting, combating two Chase DNFs with a second top five in three weeks to show they're far from giving up. "It unfolded well for us at the end," he said. "If we got back in the pack, we'd lose the draft. We needed to have cars around us, and tried to keep cars behind us mainly. If we were able to do that, we could race pretty decent. The car handled good which I think everybody's car handled good here. We just kind of shot up through there, had great track position on that restart, and ran second. It was good for our Budweiser team."
9Brad Keselowski
Last Week: NR
Brad Keselowski
With a top 10 finish at 'Dega, Keselowski has now scored top 15 finishes in his last three Cup Series starts. And now, he'll get a chance to build for 2010, as Roger Penske's release of David Stremme this week cleared the way for his newest full-time driver to get a head start manning his No. 12 Dodge. But what will communication be like between Kes and the tempestuous Kurt Busch? The rookie didn't do himself any favors by turning the Miller Lite Dodge on the final lap, causing the second melee that left over a dozen cars a smoldering mess. It's not the first time this driver's gotten a little too aggressive ... and it sure won't be the last.
10Jeff Burton
Last Week: NR
Jeff Burton
Want to know how bad a season it's been for RCR's veteran leader? Sunday's top five finish was his first since Richmond -- back in MAY. "It's nice to finally get back in the top five," he said, realistic that one race does not a season make -- especially when a good run comes at Talladega. "Luckily, we weren't involved in the incidents in the last few laps. Things are bound to happen in restrictor-plate events, and luck was on our side today." But rest assured, he'll take any solid finish he can get right now. Trying to avoid his worst points finish since 1995, his third straight top 15 has brought him back up to 17th in the standings as he tries to build momentum with new crew chief Todd Berrier.


Dropped Out: Denny Hamlin (6), Ryan Newman (7), Kurt Busch (8), Kyle Busch (9), Matt Kenseth (10).

Underdog of the Week:Bobby Labonte's solid runs with TRG Motorsports have been well-documented. But this Sunday, the veteran took things to a new level in handing the team its first top 10 finish in the Cup Series. Avoiding the wrecks and deftly maneuvering through the restrictor plate madness, it's a great way for the No. 71 team to build momentum towards acquiring sponsorship for next year -- and perhaps the full-time driving duties of Labonte along with it.

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email tbowles81@yahoo.com 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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