Tom Bowles
Tuesday November 17th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
One week after its worst nightmare, the No. 48 team demonstrated why it has won three consecutive championships. Running at a track where second-place point man Mark Martin dominated in the spring, Johnson delivered a knockout punch with his seventh win of the season. He led 238 of 312 laps on the one-mile oval, turning this weekend's race from a championship battle into a coronation. "This thing isn't over," Johnson reminded media afterwards. No disrespect, but with a point lead that's back up to 108, Johnson only needs a 25th-place finish at Homestead-Miami to bring home a fourth straight title.
2Mark Martin
Last Week: 3
Mark Martin
In sports, there's a long list of almost-champions who know the pain of losing multiple battles: the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, Michelle Kwan of figure skating lore... and Mark Martin. Should he finish second in the standings for a fifth time in his illustrious career, he's up there as one of the best athletes to never finish better than runner-up. With a 73-point deficit entering Phoenix, the No. 5 team gave its all to try to give Johnson a run for his money. But a fourth-place finish just wasn't going to cut it when the No. 48 wound up in Victory Lane. "I'm pretty proud of what we've done this season," Martin said, masking disappointment as he realized his chance at a title had all but slipped away -- again. "That's really all I've got to say about it."
3Kurt Busch
Last Week: 5
Kurt Busch
The No. 2 team looked ready to score a second straight win on Sunday but as the track got slicker, the desert heat melted away a chance for Busch's Miller Lite Dodge to get back to Victory Lane. "We had a great car in the beginning, a good feel, but lost the handle," he said after fading to sixth by the checkers. It was a frustrating ending, but the team still has a lot to be proud of as the highest non-Hendrick car in the standings. Should Busch end the year fourth in points, it'll be the best finish for a Penske Racing car since Rusty Wallace in 1998.
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 3
Jeff Gordon
With a ninth-place run at Phoenix, Gordon's "Drive For Five" was postponed for an eighth straight year, a streak that's more frustrating for the sport's winningest active driver than he'd like to admit. While most would kill to be third in points, it's not difficult to sense the frustration of a four-time champ who sees himself as third-best within his own organization. "It seems every weekend, we start off great," he said. "But man, it just [goes] away in a blink of an eye. We'll come back next year and hopefully be stronger."
5Jeff Burton
Last Week: 7
Jeff Burton
Don't look now, but there's a new driver/crew chief pairing looking to take the Cup Series by storm in 2010: Jeff Burton and Todd Berrier. In just three weeks, they've put together three top-10 finishes and an average finish of 5.3 as RCR works to bring its program back to respectability. Sunday was its best effort yet, with Burton charging from 36th to finish second. "We're getting there," he said afterwards, proud of his team's progress. "We're not 100% there, but we're gaining and real proud of everybody's effort. I lost this race for us on Friday [in qualifying], which is really disgusting to me." But it's the Sunday finishes that really count, and the momentum gained by this late-season surge is better than most Chasers have heading into the offseason.
6Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 10
Denny Hamlin
With three DNFs in this year's Chase, Hamlin has proclaimed himself NASCAR's King of Mediocrity. "No matter what you throw in the car," he says, "I'm the best of the worst or the worst of the best." But if Hamlin's track record is mediocre, I'd hate to see what label Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s season would get. With three top-fives in the last four races, Hamlin has pulled himself up to eighth in points and has an outside shot at finishing fifth. His biggest obstacle, as always, will be keeping his emotions in check on the final weekend. After another tangle with Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series, Hamlin's vowed to give the rookie a little "on track" payback at Homestead. But should the two wind up tangling on Saturday, expect Keselowski to come out swinging for the No. 11 during the Cup race.
7Clint Bowyer
Last Week: 9
Clint Bowyer
Bowyer's consistency returned with a seventh place finish, his fifth top-10 during the Chase. That leaves him the highest-ranked RCR driver in points, impressive considering he's running a No. 33 car that didn't exist one year ago. But the Kansas native won't end the season satisfied unless he stops a winless streak that dates to Richmond in May 2008. "We are still a little bit off," he said. "We just have to keep plugging away. We are getting there."
8Kyle Busch
Last Week: 6
Kyle Busch
Two races into his tenure with new crew chief Dave Rogers, the temperamental Busch remains difficult to work with. Still bitter over failing to clinch the Nationwide title the day before (he merely needs to start the Nationwide race at Homestead to clinch), Busch didn't change his mood much on Sunday. "We [learned] some valuable lessons by failures," said Rogers of a difficult 12th place finish at Phoenix. "Our last stop there, me and the guys didn't communicate clear enough, went the wrong way on our adjustments. I'm disappointed, but we know the big picture is 2010. All those little lessons we can learn right now and getting them out of our way will make us that much stronger next year." If only his driver would be just as optimistic.
9Tony Stewart
Last Week: 4
Tony Stewart
A strong season has soured in a hurry for NASCAR's first-year owner/driver. With just one top-five finish in the last six races, he's slipped to fifth in points, struggling to keep up with his counterparts at Hendrick. Last week's nail in the coffin came from none other than "teammate" Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who lost control and started a multi-car wreck that severely damaged Stewart's car. According to Earnhardt, an oil leak caused the spin, but Stewart didn't buy it. Stewart called Earnhardt a "no talent [expletive]" on the radio, an insult that may find Stewart buying his own drinks at Whisky River out in Charlotte as soon as the season is through.
10Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: NR
Juan Pablo Montoya
This year's Chase Cinderella learned the hard way that the glass slipper runs out at midnight. Wrecks at Charlotte, Talladega and Texas have left him fighting for pride, not points, heading to Homestead. So while an eighth-place finish Sunday was a nice band-aid, it didn't exactly leave him smiling, either. "We just couldn't get the handling where it needed be to make a charge to the front," he said. "I was fighting a tight car in the center all day long." Now, the battle shifts to fighting for a tally in the victory column with one week left to go. Despite all of the No. 42 team's successes this year, it hasn't won since Infineon in June 2007.


Dropped Out: Greg Biffle (8).

Underdog of the Week: It's been a rough fall for Robby Gordon, whose primary sponsor, Jim Beam, announced it won't return to the car in 2010. Gordon's self-owned No. 7 Toyota will only have sponsorship for eight races, leaving him desperate to find the funding needed to run full-time. The on-track results haven't helped much, either, as the team remains without a top-15 finish since a third at Charlotte in May.Still, Phoenix was a small victory for this small-time, single-car operation. A 22nd-place finish, two laps back, was not only respectable but clinched the team a spot in the top 35 in owner points. That gives it an automatic place on the grid for each of the first five races next season, an attractive sell for sponsors.

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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