Tom Bowles
Tuesday September 8th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 2
Denny Hamlin
After an August filled with inconsistency from several top title contenders, it's Hamlin who seems to be in championship form entering September. It wasn't flashy, but a sixth place at Atlanta marked his fifth straight top-10 finish, a run that's left him one of just four drivers to clinch a playoff spot with one week remaining. "It's a pretty good accomplishment to make it every year that we've tried," he said of his fourth straight Chase appearance. "If we keep running the next 11 [races] like we have this last 10 or 11, they're going to have to watch out for us." Now, with nothing but the win to worry about during the last race of the regular season, Richmond offers a chance at redemption. He led 381 of 382 laps at his hometown track last May before a flat tire deflated the night and, ultimately, his 2008 season.
2Mark Martin
Last Week: 6
Mark Martin
Here's the good news for the 50-year-old wunderkind: a fifth-place run at Atlanta marked his fifth top 10 in the past seven races, leaving his team peaking at the right time. One more finish like that and he'll vault from 10th in points to no lower than the second seed in the Chase on the strength of four wins. But here's the bad news: a DNF, a wreck, or any sort of bad luck at Richmond and he'll be sitting on the outside looking in despite 485 laps led since July 1. It's a tenuous position to be in, although this veteran is used to living life on the edge: he's waited until the last race to clinch in two out of his past three Chase appearances. "We fought for everything that we got," he said of Atlanta, and he's prepared to fight to the last lap at Richmond if that's what it takes.
3Brian Vickers
Last Week: 4
Brian Vickers
It wasn't the win he expected, but a seventh-place finish on Sunday was more of a lifesaver than it looks like on paper. Suffering a broken rear axle around Lap 250, the No. 83 team made repairs and got their driver out on the track without falling off the lead lap. That gave the Red Bull Toyota a chance to make up ground, and Vickers gained over 15 spots in the last 75 laps in order to keep his Chase chances alive. "No matter what happens, I think we have to walk away with our heads held high," said Vickers, who climbed to within 20 points of 12th place. "We had a car that could win, had a parts failure, but came back from it and still finished [strong]." With eight straight top-12 finishes, the team's got the momentum heading into Richmond to make the Chase; but with just one career top-10 finish at the track, can the driver overcome his suspect past to contend?
4Tony Stewart
Last Week: 3
Tony Stewart
Despite a 237-point lead in the standings, this driver/owner has to be worried about how his team has performed heading into the Chase. At Atlanta, his car was never a serious contender as the Old Spice Chevy came home 11th, the third straight race Stewart's finished outside the top 10. What's worse is that the crew suffered through a lugnut penalty during a yellow-flag pit stop, one that left their car back in traffic and never able to overcome a series of handling problems. How much has this slump tapered off a season's worth of momentum for the No. 14? It's tough to tell. But it would be wise for Stewart to score at least a top-10 finish at Richmond Saturday night: no Chase qualifier has gone four straight races without one to end the regular season and then come back to win a title.
5Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
Johnson still remains the favorite heading into this year's Chase; after all, three straight titles should be good enough for something. But a month's worth of experimenting on the Lowe's Chevrolet is beginning to raise some eyebrows. Despite leading 283 laps since winning Indy at the end of July, Johnson has exactly zero top-5 finishes to show for his success. That's come packaged with all sorts of bad luck, ranging from running out of fuel while leading at Michigan to spinning out by himself Sunday night. In the end, mechanical failure sent the No. 48 behind the wall for repairs, leaving him 36th and looking for that trademark consistency that he's usually established before the Chase. Still, with all their years of experience it's hard to believe this team won't have all their ducks in a row by the start of the 10-race playoff at New Hampshire next Sunday.
6Kasey Kahne
Last Week: NR
Kasey Kahne
Kahne came through in the clutch Sunday night, winning Atlanta to jump from 11th to sixth in points. Known as an intermediate track specialist, he knew a good run on Sunday was key to sewing up a second straight Chase appearance. And after a lucky caution led to a short run to the finish needed to beat RCR's Kevin Harvick, the Dodge driver has the cushion needed to survive a possible wreck at Richmond's short track showdown Saturday night. "We just need to go in that race the same way we came into Atlanta, the same way we went into Bristol, the same way in the race before Bristol," he said. "[We need to] keep working hard, communicate, do things to make our car race good on Saturday night. That's key. Hopefully, we'll be in good shape."
7Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: NR
Juan Pablo Montoya
While Montoya would have loved an oval track win, third place proved a nice consolation prize for a driver now one race away from his Chase debut. For awhile, it looked like the No. 42 would wind up in Victory Lane, but a late surge by Kahne and Harvick left him racing for points over a frantic final 15 laps. "It just makes life easier," he said of a podium finish that widened his gap between himself and 13th in points. "I think it's big. They [the drivers behind us have] got to have a very good day and we got to have a terrible day [to fall out]. We have a great car for there, and just need to be smart, get a top 10."
8Jeff Gordon
Last Week: NR
Jeff Gordon
After struggling to round back into championship form the last two months, Sunday night was a microcosm of why it's hard to trust this team heading into the playoffs. Yes, Gordon led 30 laps, his most laps since leading 64 in Loudon on June 28, but a roller-coaster run left him clawing for eighth at the finish as the first night race ever at Atlanta threw him for a loop. "There were times I thought we had the car to beat then I thought we were going to go a lap down," he said. "We were trying to keep up with the changing conditions whether it was track, tires or whatever it was. Man, we were all over the place and never could seem to find any consistency." They'll need to find it before New Hampshire, for sure, if there's any hope of the Drive For Five taking off.
9David Reutimann
Last Week: NR
David Reutimann
Sitting 132 points out of 12th headed to Richmond, the third-year driver's Chase chances are officially on life support. But with a fourth-place finish Sunday night, he promises not to go down without a fight. "It really feels almost like a win," he said of his first finish better than 20th in five starts in Atlanta. "We had a good car. All in all, for where we started and the way we have run here in the past, I'm really proud of my guys." Now, he heads to Richmond with nothing to lose, needing nothing short of a win to have any sort of realistic chance at the playoffs.
10Carl Edwards
Last Week: 5
Carl Edwards
When Edwards said he was still nervous about making the Chase last week in his diary, I was skeptical at best. After all, shouldn't nearly 200 points be enough of a cushion with two races left? But in one of the big surprises of the weekend, Ford's top driver saw a nightmare unfold right before his eyes. Not only was he busy nursing a broken foot suffered playing frisbee, an injury that was tough to work around inside the car, but a broken oil cooler left him suffering in 37th as his cushion dropped to a more nerve-wracking 105 points with one race remaining. It would still take a second straight disaster for him to drop outside the top 12; but now more than ever, I understand the philosophy of never counting your chickens before they hatch.

Dropped Out: Kyle Busch (7), Marcos Ambrose (8), Greg Biffle (9), Matt Kenseth (10).

Underdog of the Week: Last week started out tough for Bobby Labonte, who was unceremoniously removed from his ride with the No. 96 Ford for seven of the final 12 races after sponsorship failed to materialize. So while Yates Racing went with the funded, yet unproven, Erik Darnell, Labonte's only chance for a ride came with the single-car TRG Motorsports No. 71.

Yet despite driving for a car that's had so little money at times -- they've been forced to start and park -- the former champ infused a boost of energy into the Chevy operation. Showing why he's the winningest active driver at Atlanta, Labonte qualified 25th and ran as high as 10th on Sunday night, eventually crossing the finish line a respectable 18th. It was the highest finish for him since Charlotte in May, and the best for the team since a 14th place run by David Gilliland at Las Vegas in March. And as for Darnell? His entire Cup debut was a struggle, needing a provisional to make the field before limping to 30th, two laps off the pace. Wonder which driver was the better fit?

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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