Tom Bowles
Tuesday October 13th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
If there's such a thing as championship cruise control, this team has found it in its bid for four straight. After leading 128 of 250 laps at California, Johnson would have been virtually unchallenged in the race's second half if not for some late restarts that bunched up the field. That led to a near-catastrophe when Jeff Gordon briefly got out in front, but the reigning three-time champ regained his composure and held off his teammate during a green-white-checkered finish. "It's tough to control your destiny on a restart because the guys behind you really control who is going to lead going into turn one," he said. "[For the green-white-checkered,] I had a great start on the 24 and was just able to clear him off two. That certainly made the difference for us." Now up by 12 points with six races left, Johnson knows the Chase is his to lose unless teams can attack his one weakness: pit road. The No. 48 crew lost him spots almost every time Sunday in what could best be characterized as a sloppy performance.
2Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 3
Juan Pablo Montoya
The Chase's biggest surprise has to be wondering what more he can do to beat the Hendrick juggernaut. The only man with four top-five finishes in four playoff races, he's still 58 points out of the lead despite defying the odds with the small two-car outfit at Earnhardt Ganassi. At California, it looked like he would finally win his first race on an oval, but the same car he brought to Indy and dominated up front suddenly started to fade as the race wore on. "When the sun came out, we started sliding too much and couldn't really find the balance between how much grip I wanted to have in the corner and how much I wanted the power there," he said after dropping to third at the finish. "There at the end it cooled down and I got a little better ... but it was too late." With Montoya's career-best at Lowe's of just eighth place, Saturday night may also prove the day this Cinderella's title dreams strike midnight.
3Mark Martin
Last Week: 2
Mark Martin
The knock on Mark Martin is that he's too nice. Which is a weird thing to say about an athlete during an era when we expect our role models to break our hearts, right? But it's clear after a fourth-place finish Sunday in California he's a little too happy with where he sits -- in awe of a teammate that's now snatched away his point lead. "Man, my team did such a great job. Brought me an awesome race car," he said after running fourth. "They were spot on all weekend. I just couldn't ask for more." Hold on a second, Mark -- your teammate beat you and took the title momentum in the process! I think you could have asked for a teensy bit more. Everyone knows he's not focused on the points until the Talladega lotto ... but if Johnson's 100 points up by then, it'll already be too late, even if he does make it through.
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 4
Jeff Gordon
The four-time champ is showing some intestinal fortitude in stomaching a career-high eight runner-up finishes this season. While teammates Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin have 10 victories in '09, Gordon has just one as he wonders what it's going to take to get over that hump. On Sunday, he briefly schooled Johnson on some late-race restarts to take control of the race, but in the end the No. 48 was just so fast the advantage lasted for no more than half a lap. "We finished second, and I felt like we were like in a second class category," Gordon said after coming up short -- again. "That's the only thing that bothers me a little bit. We're just not good enough. We're good, but we're not good enough." The stats back it up as he moved to fifth in points but is still in fourth out of all the Hendrick-supported cars.
5Tony Stewart
Last Week: 5
Tony Stewart
Stewart's run to fifth was as miraculous as it was momentum-building for his No. 14 team. After a speeding penalty on pit road, he fell a lap back but became the beneficiary of NASCAR's equivalent of the "Super Free Pass:" the wave around rule. Staying out under caution while the lead lap cars pitted allowed him back on the lead lap and gave Stewart new life on a day where the old rules would have left him hung out to dry. "It was making chicken salad out of chicken you know what," he said afterwards, acknowledging a mystery debris caution that also bunched up the field at the perfect time for him. "We were pretty fortunate to get a couple of breaks there when we needed them." But at 84 points back with six races left, he'll need a few more of those lucky breaks to creep back into serious title contention.
6Kurt Busch
Last Week: 8
Kurt Busch
Busch's title hopes are now analogous to the way he finished last week's race: hanging by a thread. Struggling for a second straight week on an intermediate track, the No. 2 was no better than a top 10 car before its driver made one of his top 10 blunders on the year. "I got off of Turn 4 and the car just jumped sideways on me," he explained of an ugly wreck with 10 laps left that also involved Chasers Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne. "It just flung straight off the wall and back in the groove where everybody was." Despite the damage, the car was able to limp home in eighth despite having so much smoke billowing from it NASCAR should have thrown the black flag. But if you ask crew chief Pat Tryson, that no-call evens things out after a late-race yellow for a minor piece of debris. "[NASCAR] seems to throw cautions during the race," he said, insinuating they did it intentionally to force an exciting finish. "It is what it is."
7Carl Edwards
Last Week: 9
Carl Edwards
It's been such a tough Chase for Edwards, who had to scratch and claw his way on Sunday just to finish sixth. It's a shocking change from the dominating force that won two of the last three Chase races in '08, with the difference continuing to come on pit road. "We had a couple of slow stops, I slid through my pit stall, and we battled with the car all day," he said. "That really put the nail in the coffin for us." Now 192 points out of the lead, the No. 99 team can turn its focus towards improving its program for 2010. In doing so, that might actually make it more dangerous down the stretch, as Carl's been running this Chase in a more conservative, "points racing" mode. A more aggressive approach should allow him to visit Victory Lane at least once before the year is out.
8Greg Biffle
Last Week: 7
Greg Biffle
The Roush Fenway driver showed some signs of life at Kansas, but it was back to mediocrity this week as his Ford never showed the speed it had at California back in February. No better than a top-10 car, his frustrating late-race crash with Busch was a way to simply take him out of his misery. "We couldn't get that setup to work that we used last week," he said in trying to recreate the magic that had him leading a race-high 116 laps at Kansas. "We kept working on it. We decided to go to the spring setup, and that's about as good as we were going to be -- probably sixth or eighth, but that still would've been a lot better than 20th." Now, he's fallen more than a race's worth of points behind the leader as his title dreams have also shifted towards 2010. "It's not over 'til it's over," he claimed in falling 188 points behind Johnson. "But that really hurt us."
9Casey Mears
Last Week: NR
Casey Mears
On the bottom of the totem pole at RCR, Mears is making a valiant effort to stay on board with four straight top 20 finishes for the first time all year. But with sponsor Jack Daniel's leaving at the end of the season, it's going to take some cold, hard cash to keep him in the No. 07 for 2010. "I am proud of everybody for working hard," he said of the recent surge up the ladder. "We've had really good cars the last few weekends, and it just seems like we make the wrong decision at the end [or else we'd finish higher]." Still, it's an impressive effort for a man who's been at his best since being faced with a possible pink slip earlier last month.
10Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 6
Denny Hamlin
So many come to Hollywood to realize their dreams, but at Auto Club Speedway it's where Hamlin's Chase dreams went to die. The 28-year-old couldn't have had a worse weekend, wrecking while leading the race Sunday when he made the bonehead move of trying to jump in front of Juan Pablo Montoya on a restart. "Made contact with the nose of the 42 and ended up taking ourselves out," he said in clearly taking responsibility for the incident where he swerved right onto Montoya's front bumper. "It was just a dumb mistake... a rookie mistake. Not a smart move." Add in a late-race crash in the Nationwide race while subbing for Kyle Busch, and the weekend quickly devolved into his worst nightmare.


Dropped Out: Brad Keselowski (10)

Underdog of the Week: Heading down the stretch, the championship isn't the only points battle being staged in NASCAR. With just a 111-point lead over the No. 82 car entering California, the underdog Front Row Motorsports team is fighting for something just as important: a coveted spot in the top 35 in owner points, which would guarantee it a place in the 2010 Daytona 500 as well as the first five races next season.

With the margin shrinking over the last several weeks, it was critical for driver John Andretti to have a solid run in California to turn the tide. The race started out poorly -- the No. 34 was down a lap by the one-quarter mark -- but pit strategy and great fuel mileage kept the car in contention. All they would need is a little luck, and when a debris caution fell with 15 to go, the team got exactly that. The No. 34 jumped up to eighth, back on the lead lap by virtue of making one less pit stop than everyone else, and wound up with just its third top 20 of the year with a 19th place run. That increased its lead to 122 over Team Red Bull with six races left, giving it a comfort zone as it pursues something just as important to it as Hendrick's bid for the title.

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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