Tom Bowles
Wednesday May 27th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Ryan Newman
Last Week: 3
Ryan Newman
NASCAR's Rocket Man has rocketed to the top of the charts this week after his fourth straight top-5 finish. But Ryan Newman's latest success came with an interesting side story: he overruled his crew chief to get there. During Charlotte's final red flag for rain on Lap 222, Newman stayed out on the track despite Tony Gibson's repeated calls for him to come to pit road for fuel. "Think out of the box for once, Gibson," the pole-sitter said as he rolled the dice. That gamble earned him a runner-up finish once the race was called -- an impressive recovery from loose lugnuts that sent him to the back of the pack under the race's first caution. But considering Newman made his own call from the cockpit for the second time in five weeks, whether he and his more conservative crew chief can keep the peace is something to watch.
 
2Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
Stewart's Coca-Cola 600 never really got off the ground on Monday as the Office Depot Chevy struggled to move up from its 28th starting spot. The wet slog left Stewart more than a little frustrated, and he started an argument with eventual winner David Reutimann and his crew under a red flag condition. Stewart's complaint was that Reutimann was racing him a little too aggressively, but when the third-year driver wound up in Victory Lane, Stewart was quick to change his tune. "A good guy (David Reutimann) won the race, and they won it because they made the right call at the end," he said. "They put themselves in that position, and you can't take anything away from that." As for Stewart himself, he remains in perfect position to challenge for the points lead after maintaining his second-place spot in the standings.
 
3Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 2
Jeff Gordon
If Jeremy Mayfield's drug test weren't dominating the NASCAR tabloids, Jeff Gordon's back would be all over the front cover of every National Enquirer. So many other stories have pushed Gordon's health to the backburner, but with the words "early retirement" popping up, it's something that should be given a whole lot more serious attention. It's not like Gordon's retirement is imminent... but it's clear he's not physically 100 percent. Since Gordon's MRI at the end of last month, he's finished no better than 5th (14th at Lowe's Sunday) while taking a back seat to stronger Hendrick-affiliated teammates Newman, Stewart, Mark Martin and even Jimmie Johnson. He's hoping a facet injection -- steroids aimed to isolate and relieve muscle tension -- will eventually eradicate the problem and get him back on track. But if it doesn't, playing through pain could be a factor as Gordon's Drive For Five hits overdrive in the Fall.
 
4Kyle Busch
Last Week: 5
Kyle Busch
In the lead for 173 laps on Monday, Busch looked poised to contend for the win at Lowe's until Mother Nature rained on his parade. Forced to come in for fuel just before the final red flag, Busch fell to sixth, the victim of bad luck yet again. Just check out the missed opportunities he's spread across NASCAR's top three divisions this month: a flat tire at Darlington's Nationwide race cost him a win; a controversial penalty for aggressive driving took him out of contention at the Truck Race at Lowe's; and now a tank filled with rainwater -- not gas -- left him shut out of Victory Lane in Cup. On a positive note, Monday marked Busch's first finish of sixth to 10th this season, a season in which he's struggled with consistency. That's important because, as Busch learned last year, all the laps led in the world won't win you a championship unless you're around for the last one.
 
5Mark Martin
Last Week: 4
Mark Martin
Martin's run of good luck finally came to an end on Monday, when a penalty for a tire that rolled across pit road dropped him from second to the back of the lead lap. With too little time to work its way back through traffic, the No. 5 car stalled out en route to a disappointing 17th. That left Martin clinging to 12th in the standings by just six points. But don't expect the 50-year-old to stay there for long. With Dover and Pocono next on the schedule, two of his best tracks should allow Martin to build a comfort zone towards safely locking in a spot in this year's Chase field.
 
6Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 8
Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's No. 11 was 11th at Lowe's, just good enough to run around the top 10 but without the speed to be a factor up front. I've written so much about Hamlin's confidence impeding his return to Victory Lane, and it's got to be frustrating to watch the other JGR cars capable of leading the pack at these intermediate tracks. But on the plus side, Hamlin is getting back to the type of consistent performances that made him a rookie sensation in 2006. So far this season, he has nine top-15 finishes in 12 starts -- as many as teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano combined. That won't win you a championship unless you're running up front, but for now, it's plenty good enough to lock up a Chase berth with ease.
 
7Joey Logano
Last Week: 9
Joey Logano
April showers bring May flowers, and it's clear Logano's freshman year is blooming. It's not just the finishes that have picked up for the 19-year-old from the Constitution State (three top 10s in his last four starts). It's the calm and confidence you see every time Logano appears on camera, an improved off-track persona that now comes to good use every time he needs to make on-track adjustments on the fly. "I killed the brakes on it probably 150 laps into the deal and just had to start changing around my line a little bit," he said of his ninth place run at Lowe's. "[But] that actually helped me -- just not driving into the corners as hard and not abusing the right front [tire] as much." Knowing is half the battle for the driver of the No. 20, whose team has reached its own next step: they're now using Logano's notes rather than Stewart's while preparing for future races.
 
8Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 7
Jimmie Johnson
Lowe's Motor Speedway used to be the defending Cup champ's own personal stomping ground. But since the track was repaved in the Spring of 2006, Johnson has yet to win a points race at the 1.5-mile oval. "It wasn't quite how we wanted things to turn out," he said of a ho-hum, 13th-place finish. "We were up front for most of the race, but battled loose and then tight the last run. I think we would have been fine if we would have had some more laps." But they didn't, and now the No. 48 will go back to the drawing board in hopes of getting over the hump this Fall.
 
9Matt Kenseth
Last Week: 10
Matt Kenseth
It's been a slow but steady climb back to respectability for this year's Daytona 500 winner. Monday's 10th place finish marked the first time the No. 17 has posted back-to-back top-10 finishes since his victories at Daytona and Charlotte in February. But that's something to build on over at ailing Roush Fenway Racing, where Kenseth remains the highest-ranking driver in the standings (ninth). It's a good thing hope springs eternal at Dover next week, a track where RFR dominated in the Fall en route to a 1-2-3 finish by Greg Biffle, Kenseth, and Carl Edwards. All are in dire need of a repeat performance this coming Sunday to kickstart their slumping seasons.
 
10David Reutimann
Last Week: NR
David Reutimann
Reutimann's unlikely trip to Victory Lane Monday wasn't just the work of Mother Nature. The third-year driver's gritty determination behind the wheel put him in position to win when the rains came. Sure, crew chief Rodney Childers' gamble to stay out while everyone pitted handed the No. 00 car the lead with five laps remaining. But after Reutimann drove into the outside wall earlier in the race, it was his ability to keep the car inside the top 15 that enabled the team to cash in. Winning one of the season's "crown jewel" races certainly proved a pretty hefty reward...and who would have guessed Michael Waltrip Racing would win a race this season before preseason title favorites Edwards, Biffle and Jeff Burton? It's amazing to see how far this former laughingstock has come.


Dropped Out: Kurt Busch (6).

Underdog of the Week: Robby Gordon's self-owned team was badly in need of some breathing room entering Charlotte. Just 34th in owner points, the No. 7 Toyota team knew that a few more bad races would have cost it its locked-in starting spot on the grid.

But after he took the same unlikely gamble as Reutimann and Newman, Gordon shouldn't drop out anytime soon. With a surprise third-place finish the reward for a little extra fuel in the tank, Gordon sits almost 200 points ahead of 36th-place Scott Speed and his No. 82 Team Red Bull Toyota. How unexpected was a top 5 for Robby? It was his first since Watkins Glen in 2007, and the first top 5 on an oval since 2004.

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email tbowles81@yahoo.com with your driver and the reasons why he should be featured. If you're lucky, we'll include your fan comments in this very space next week!

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