Tom Bowles
Tuesday September 9th, 2008

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 3
Jimmie Johnson
After wrapping up a second straight Cup win at Richmond, Johnson enters the Chase with a slight edge over rivals Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. Since Indianapolis at the end of July, he's matched Edwards in wins (three) and closed the points gap on Busch in what's been his best stretch of the season. Clearly, the No. 48 team is peaking at the right time -- and they know it. "Momentum is certainly something we are looking at and trying to carry," he said on Sunday, "but more than anything, I think we are just confident in our stops and what I'm doing on the track, and the way we can adjust on the car." Add in the experience factor this playoff season -- Johnson has as many previous Chase appearances (four) as his other two rivals combined -- and you'll see why he's the favorite to tie Cale Yarborough with three straight series titles.
2Carl Edwards
Last Week: 1
Carl Edwards
Edwards had terrible luck at Richmond, but you have to admire the way his team fought with nothing on the line. Some poor Goodyears left the No. 99 a lap behind early, and with a win out of the question, they could have easily packed it in. Instead, Edwards battled back and charged up to a meaningless 13th place, despite clinching a playoff spot weeks ago. "I think today was a good example of how our team could work with a little bit of adversity and under pressure," Edwards said. "I think [the Chase is] gonna be defined by [those] bad days, just like it usually is." Cousin Carl is right -- that is the key to his title chances. A scintillating average finish of 4.7 since late July makes him one of the favorites -- but can the master of intermediate tracks survive at places like Talladega and Martinsville?
3Kyle Busch
Last Week: 2
Kyle Busch
Busch got a taste of his own medicine at Richmond, a not-so-innocent victim of a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. love tap while running up front. As NASCAR's public enemy number one slammed hard into the wall, the crowd roared at a level we haven't seen in quite some time. The damage ended Busch's chance for a season-high ninth win, but to his credit, he also fought hard and raced for pride en route to a Top 15. "To come back to 15th with a tore up race car like that -- that's championship-caliber right there," said the playoff's number one seed, his point lead now down to 30. "The way the points are closed up now -- it's all about whoever is the most consistent over the next 10 weeks." That should give Busch the edge on paper -- but after ruffling so many feathers, are there more "payback" wrecks coming down the line?
4Kevin Harvick
Last Week: 4
Kevin Harvick
Harvick's sixth consecutive Top 10 finish locked down his Chase bid with style, coming home seventh at Richmond to serve notice he's a darkhorse title contender. But even Happy knows that to play with the big boys, he'll have to knock off that goose egg in the win column. "The car has been really good over the last three months," he said. "But I haven't been a big lap leader. That's just kind of our M.O. and how we function. For whatever reason, that's the way it is; [we need to] take some chances, on pit road, off pit road, in the car and everywhere in between." The key to turning that title bid up a notch could come this Sunday at Loudon. Harvick won the '06 playoff opener there, and led 54 laps in July before fading to a 14th place finish -- the last time he was seriously in contention for a win he desperately needs.
5Tony Stewart
Last Week: 7
Tony Stewart
Stewart's third runner-up finish in his last six starts led to an embarrassing outburst at Richmond. In case you missed it, a public temper tantrum on the radio was highlighted with tough talk from crew chief Greg Zipadelli. But when cooler heads prevail -- and they will -- both men will realize the fantastic opportunity that lies in front of them. After 10 years together, they enter this Chase with nothing to lose, no pressure, and a car that's performed at a high level over the past eight weeks. Stewart remains a longshot for his third series title, but the differences with Zipadelli aren't as bad as they seem, and if he can get over the hump the next few weeks and end this winless streak ... he could be a player in this thing yet.
6Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 10
Denny Hamlin
Three's the magic number for Hamlin these days. Over the past three weeks, three consecutive third place finishes bumped him up three spots to a ninth place finish in regular season points. Now Hamlin's in his third consecutive Chase, looking to better his -- you guessed it -- third place finish in the 2006 championship standings. Phew! If I were him, I'd be playing that number in the lottery as we speak ... or lobbying NASCAR for a number change. But on a serious note, it's the number two, not three, that'll hamper Hamlin in his bid to take home the big trophy. Both teammates Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart have better teams than Hamlin at this stage, and he'll be hard-pressed to beat either one in what's been a bit of an inconsistent season for the No. 11.
7Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Last Week: 9
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
After a summer of inconsistency, at best, and mediocrity, at worst, Junior appeared to pull things together at Richmond. But even their first Top 5 finish since June revealed the No. 88 team's major weaknesses. Early in the race, it appeared that Junior had the best car, but on-track mistakes (i.e. wrecking Kyle Busch) combined with poor adjustments from the crew chief's chair pushed him back to fourth. For this team to be a title contender, both Eury and Earnhardt have to sit down and work on their communication. Otherwise, this is little more than a token playoff appearance for NASCAR's most popular superstar.
8Greg Biffle
Last Week: 6
Greg Biffle
The No. 16 car has shown some signs of life as of late, closing the regular season with four Top 15 finishes. Clearly, no one's happier to make the Chase than Biffle, who'd been shut out of the playoffs every season since 2005. "We certainly worked really hard," he said of his push to get back to this point. "We haven't got any wins this year, so that's been a little bit of a struggle for us, but we've had really, really good solid runs, and that's what we're gonna need to get up there in points." The defending champ at Kansas the end of September, Biffle, without question, could have a strong start. But he's never a player on the short tracks and the superspeedways, and an 80-point deficit to start is just too much for him to truly be a title contender.
9Matt Kenseth
Last Week: 5
Matt Kenseth
In some ways, Kenseth feels lucky to even be in the field after a wreck led to a 39th place finish at Richmond. That race wiped out the good feelings of an amazing comeback, one that started in May and allowed him to keep his streak of Chase appearances alive at five. Eleven Top 10 finishes in 16 events boosted him from 200 points outside the Chase to 11th -- but the way Kenseth sounded after the race, you wonder whether he even expects to crack the Top 10. "I'm glad we're in in a way," he said. "But with the way we're operating, I don't think we'll be a factor when we get there." When the driver says that, I guess we have to agree.
10Jeff Gordon
Last Week: NR
Jeff Gordon
What a difference a year makes. In 2007, Gordon was the clear Chase favorite after dominating the regular season. But this time around, he's just lucky to be here after stumbling through a terrible summer that leaves one wondering if he's be capable of making a playoff push. "Obviously, it hasn't been the best year for us up to this point," Gordon admits. "We're searching; we're working hard and coming together as a team the best we can. We put out that best effort every single weekend, thinking that we can win." But so far, he hasn't -- and Gordon has a much better chance of entering Homestead on the verge of his first winless season since '93 than competing for a title.
11Clint Bowyer
Last Week: NR
Clint Bowyer
Richmond was a tough weekend all around for Bowyer, who struggled to simply make the Chase with an ill-handling race car. You'd think a spin by 13th place David Ragan would clinch it, but even a wounded No. 6 car was better than the No. 07 at several points during the event. It took Bowyer knocking the No. 01 car of Regan Smith into Ragan -- not the cleanest move -- to finally put his challenger out to pasture for good. "Man, I tell you, I knew it was going to be a roller coaster day for us," Bowyer said afterwards. "I am just really proud of all the guys for sticking together." Now he'll focus on a repeat of last year's Chase Cinderella performance. But with the way he barely squeaked by this year, I just don't see it happening.
12Jeff Burton
Last Week: NR
Jeff Burton
At 40, Burton's the oldest driver to make the Chase -- but in a division once dominated by 40-somethings, that's downright ancient these days. It's true that after starting the season as the hallmark of consistency, Burton's been looking his age as of late -- a sixth place finish at Richmond was his best result the whole summer. Having led just 14 laps since Martinsville at the end of March, Burton will probably bring up the rear in this playoff run.

Dropped Out: David Ragan (8)

Fan submission of the week: Don't see your driver in the power rankings? Want to make a case for why we're missing the boat? E-mail Tom Bowles at and tell us why your driver should be included. We'll pick one lucky fan who sticks up for his or her favorite and include their rant in the rankings each week!

This Week's Submission: Sally Homewood, Omaha, NE:With two wins on the year, Kasey Kahne deserves a shout out in your power rankings. If it wasn't for that Bristol wreck, he'd be in the Chase ... and the kid hasn't gotten nearly the credit he deserves for carrying the three-car Gillett Evernham team.

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