Tom Bowles
Tuesday November 10th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
J.J.'s dominant march to four straight titles took an unexpected turn on Sunday when David Reutimann turned Sam Hornish Jr.'s No. 77 car right into the side of the Lowe's Chevy on Lap 3. The resulting damage left the car in the garage for well over an hour, leading to a 38th place finish and a point lead that shrank from 184 to 73. But for anyone looking for the reigning champ to panic, think again. "It's still a respectable lead," he claimed, confident in his stellar track record at Phoenix (three wins in his last four starts). "We didn't want this by any means, but we're still in a great position." Considering Johnson's average finish in the Chase was a miniscule 3.4 before the wreck, everyone knew the bad luck bug had to bite him at some point. Still, barring a major catastrophe, the title is still his to lose.
2Mark Martin
Last Week: 3
Mark Martin
Johnson's closest challenger was really the only driver to take advantage of his wreck Sunday, collecting a fourth place finish as one of only five Chasers to finish in the top-10. That leads to another agonizing two-race finale for the 50-year-old, who has come close to the Cup so many times. "It's not over yet," said the four-time runner-up, trying hard to keep his emotions in check as his ultimate goal is once again within reach. "I don't know why everybody tries to cap this thing out and doesn't just wait and watch. There are still two races to go, and still things that can happen." Considering he won, and led the most laps, at Phoenix this April, keeping his confidence high and the bad luck jinx out of his head is crucial. Otherwise ... well, let's just say the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s can relate.
3Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 2
Jeff Gordon
Ready for your SAT question? Kryptonite is to Superman as Texas Motor Speedway is to...? Jeff Gordon. Every racer has a track they can't quite seem to figure out, and TMS has given Gordon far more nightmares and devastating wrecks than anywhere else on the circuit -- April's win notwithstanding. Sunday reminded fans of the Gordon of old at Texas, as the pole sitter dropped like a rock while the DuPont Chevrolet struggled to simply stay on the lead lap. "A total missed opportunity that completely got away from us," he said after running 13th, remaining 112-points behind Johnson and a longshot at best for the title. "We just didn't have it. I'm just terrible at this place. I don't know what it is." But how could they find out when Gordon's car chief spent much of the race helping fix Johnson's wrecked No. 48? It was a perplexing move that reminds us of the pitfalls caused by two cars on the same team fighting for a title.
4Tony Stewart
Last Week: 5
Tony Stewart
In a postseason system where Stewart remains the only "regular season" points champ, through Richmond, that's ever won the Chase (2005), he's learned a hard lesson, that his advantage means nothing in the playoffs. Under the old points format, he'd be leading Jeff Gordon by 93 and Jimmie Johnson by 94 heading to Phoenix, with that Lap 3 wreck opening a window to his third Cup Series title. Instead, his sixth place finish leaves him fifth in points, 178 behind and all but forced to look ahead to next year. To their credit, his team continues not to fight despite the long odds. "We never said, 'Well, we just can't get it any better,'" he said of their effort on Sunday. "We kept throwing things at it to try to make it better." But nothing's working well, and while he insists Rick Hendrick equipment and chassis aren't the problem, the stats are perplexing after a dominant regular season. Sunday marked the seventh time in eight races he's finished behind at least one Hendrick-supported car in the Chase.
5Kurt Busch
Last Week: NR
Kurt Busch
Most were scratching their heads last week when Roger Penske didn't release Busch's crew chief Pat Tryson. After all, with Tryson moving on at the end of the year and the team out of championship contention, why not get a head start on 2010? But Sunday proved why this pairing has been so potent the last three years. While Kyle Busch jumped out to an insurmountable lead, Tryson tamed older brother Kurt into using a fuel strategy that would give them a few more laps in their tank than anyone else. Sure enough, when the checkered flag flew, it was Kyle running out of gas with two laps left, handing the trophy to a lame duck duo whose second win of the season leaves them fourth in points. "Right now, with the way that we're situated, it's bittersweet because, hey, Pat is leaving," Busch admitted. "We wish that we could stick together." But at least the crew chief will leave the No. 2 car with some momentum to build on for 2010.
6Kyle Busch
Last Week: NR
Kyle Busch
It took just one race for new crew chief Dave Rogers to be thrown from the frying pan into the fire. For the first 497 miles, Busch was cooking up the field, leading 232 of 332 laps and building up a comfortable lead. But when the race began to get tight, the No. 18's tank ran dry and forced a stop while brother Kurt streaked by. In an instant, Ky. Busch's bid to be the first driver to sweep three races in NASCAR's top-three touring series in the same weekend (Trucks, Nationwide, and Cup) crashed with an 11th-place thud. Despite great communication between Busch and Rogers all race, fans were treated to the "run away in a huff and let the crew chief deal with it" Kyle Busch after the race. "We missed the numbers somewhere, we didn't get it full," Rogers said. "Or we didn't pick up all we could pick up. I can't explain why we ran out." Too bad Busch left the new guy explaining all by himself.
7Jeff Burton
Last Week: 10
Jeff Burton
Very quietly, NASCAR's version of Mr. Consistency is building back up his performance for 2010. Sunday marked a ninth-place finish for the Caterpillar Chevy, giving him back-to-back top-10s for the first time since Talladega and Richmond back in May. The fact he was able to do it after crashing his primary car in Friday practice made his first weekend with Todd Berrier a rousing success. "These guys fought hard," he said after charging from his 42nd starting spot. "What a great way to end the weekend." Considering this type of track is typically RCR's biggest weakness, it's got to give them a lot of confidence heading to Phoenix next week. The four-car team looks to get a win from SOMEONE before the year is out.
8Greg Biffle
Last Week: NR
Greg Biffle
Despite a Talladega win from Jamie McMurray last week, Roush Fenway Racing is in the midst of its worst year since 2001, when none of its drivers finished better than 10th in points. Still, if there's a bright spot besides Matt Kenseth's Daytona 500 win, it's been Biffle, who has quietly put together enough solid finishes to rise to seventh in the Chase. "An eighth place finish is good," he said of his fourth top-10 in eight playoff races. "We pretty much ran 10th to 15th all day, and then at the end, a few guys tried to make it and ran out of gas, so we got those spots. We're happy with it." One wonders if Biffle would have said the same last year, when a Cinderella bid for the title came up just short, in what amounted to a third-place finish in the final standings. What a difference a year makes...
9Clint Bowyer
Last Week: NR
Clint Bowyer
While he missed the playoffs this season, RCR's best-performing driver hasn't forgotten how to run well in the Chase. With a ninth-place run at Texas, he's now finished 21st or better in each of the eight playoff races, with four top-10 finishes. "[Crew chief] Shane [Wilson] made a call to short pit for fuel in order to make it to the end," he said of a strategy call that led to his seventh place run at Texas. "The cards fell in our favor." The boost of good fortune now leaves him with an outside shot to snag "Best of the Rest" honors of 13th in points. He's 105 behind Kyle Busch and 75 behind Matt Kenseth with two races left.
10Denny Hamlin
Last Week: NR
Denny Hamlin
Man, could someone make one heck of a roller coaster out of this guy's Chase. Three DNFs for Hamlin are now balanced out by three top-two finishes, including a surprising second at Texas on Sunday. For the second time in three years, the No. 11 Toyota hit the wall late in the November event, but this time, the damage worked to his benefit. Forced to nurse his ailing car over the final green-flag run, the fuel mileage ultimately worked in his favor as everyone else started running out of gas. "Usually, these fuel mileage races don't go our way," said a driver who's had such bad luck that he pretty much expects everything to blow up in his face. The sad part is when it comes to the Chase, it pretty much has: Hamlin's a virtual lock to finish 6th or worse for the third straight year.

Dropped Out: Juan Pablo Montoya (4), Joey Logano (6), Jamie McMurray (7), Kasey Kahne (8), Brad Keselowski (9).

Underdog of the Week: Scott Speed posted an 18th place finish on Sunday, his first top-20 finish in two and a half months, the pressure was on for Front Row's No. 34 team to step it up -- especially after two blown engines left them desperate for horsepower. But John Andretti fought back hard, racing the No. 34 Chevy as best he could from the rear of the field, climbing to 24th, three laps down by the checkered flag. It's the first time all year that the team's put together back-to-back top-25 finishes, and it couldn't come at a better time. It should be enough to ensure they end the year with the 35th and final locked in spot for next year's Daytona 500.

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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