Tom Bowles
Wednesday July 1st, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
Who knew that seventeen races into the season, both Stewart and his former ride would both have at least one win this season? Any thoughts Stewart was estranged from his former team were put to rest on Sunday, as he was one of the first to congratulate rookie Joey Logano and longtime crew chief Greg Zipadelli on their hard-fought victory. "I'm happy with our run, but proud for those guys too," he said. "They did a good job strategy-wise, and put themselves in position [to win]." As for the championship leader himself, a fifth-place finish was not too shabby considering he destroyed his primary car in a Friday practice crash. Leading 40 laps with his backup, Stewart collected his sixth top-5 finish in the past eight races to remain the most consistent driver on the circuit as of late.
 
2Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 3
Jeff Gordon
After weeks of pulling out top-5 finishes with cars that weren't capable of running up front, Gordon got himself back on track at the Magic Mile. With a car that appeared to have the perfect setup underneath it, he paced the field for 64 laps and would have likely won the race had Mother Nature not interfered. In the end, though, a runner-up finish was plenty good enough for him to make a dent in Stewart's point lead. "I thought we had it," Gordon said. "I didn't even know the No. 20 [Joey Logano] was still out there running. But it was a phenomenal day in the pits and by this whole crew." With the most laps led for him in any race since Richmond, it was a good way to boost the momentum for this group heading into the second half of the season.
 
3Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 2
Jimmie Johnson
Johnson led the most laps on Sunday, but his biggest problem was managing NASCAR's new double-file restarts. After getting a little overaggressive on one of them, he ran Kurt Busch up the track in a move that likely cost both drivers a serious shot at the race win. "We just never could rebound from that," he said after a ninth-place finish. "But still...a decent day." And with a whopping 568 laps led over the past five races, there's no question that Johnson is establishing his presence as the man to beat for the title once again.
 
4Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 5
Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya's 12th-place run at New Hampshire may make you think he doesn't deserve this lofty perch in the rankings. But when you take a look at the Colombian's full body of work over the past four weeks, you'll understand why he's quietly become one of the hottest drivers on the circuit (four straight top-12 finishes). Taking the next step in his development, Montoya's seven top 10s this season have occurred on three of NASCAR's four types of speedways: short tracks, intermediates, and road courses. But now that Montoya has mastered the art of versatility, it's time to turn up the heat; he's the only driver in Chase contention without a top-5 finish this season. Snagging one at Daytona's restrictor-plate superspeedway would be a timely addition to his resume: at the moment, he leads Kasey Kahne by just one point for the 12th and final slot in the Chase.
 
5Carl Edwards
Last Week: 4
Carl Edwards
You've got to wonder what Carl Edwards has to do to get a decent pit stop these days. For what seemed like the 100th time this year, Cousin Carl had a car capable of running up front early on in New Hampshire before a poor pit stop sent him tumbling from 3rd all the way back to 14th. At a place where track position is critical, the goof made it nearly impossible for the car to work its way back to the front -- and, not surprisingly, it never did. Slipping to 19th at the finish, the run was the worst for Edwards since Darlington on Mother's Day Weekend. But most important of all, it reminded us of a glaring weakness that just has to be corrected if this team wants to call itself a championship contender.
 
6Kasey Kahne
Last Week: 7
Kasey Kahne
Focused on maintaining momentum after last week's surprising win at Infineon, Kahne put together a solid top-10 run at New Hampshire to inch ever closer to that all-important top 12. "[We] ran great today, and we were working our way back towards the front when the rain came," he said of a 10th-place finish that could have been much better. "There were a lot of cars that got lucky at the end when the rains came in. The guys gave me another great car and something to build on for the upcoming weeks." And despite a poor performance at the 500 back in February, Kahne has to be excited about Daytona Saturday night; it's a place where his three RPM teammates finished in the top 10 back in February.
 
7Mark Martin
Last Week: 6
Mark Martin
Oh, well; I guess you can't win 'em all on fuel mileage. Two weeks after taking the trophy at Michigan when the top two cars ran out of gas, Martin couldn't stretch his fuel tank on Sunday, and dropped from a surefire top-10 finish to 14th. The tough luck added to a peculiar stretch for the veteran in which he's finished 17th, 10th, 19th, 35th, and 14th to go along with two wins. It's a type of inconsistency that's kept him from locking up a Chase bid, as he's just four points in front of Kasey Kahne heading into Daytona Saturday night. And with the type of luck Martin has had throughout his career, you have to believe the No. 5 team is worried that the "Big One" at this restrictor-plate track will lead to them becoming the night's biggest victim.
 
8Kurt Busch
Last Week: NR
Kurt Busch
Last year, Busch won the race at New Hampshire on pit strategy and with a little help from Mother Nature. This time, he actually had a car capable of winning on speed before the rains came around and rewarded someone else. "That's how this sport evens itself out," Busch said after finishing third. "You have your good and your bad luck." In the meantime, he reminded us that Bad Boy Kyle isn't the only Busch unafraid to get aggressive on the race track. During several restarts, he slipped and slid around New Hampshire's tricky 1-mile oval, running Jeff Gordon so hard into the turns for the lead that the four-time champ threatened to take him out. "I pushed the go button," he said of his contact with the No. 24. "I knew the boundary line that I crossed." It'll be interesting to see if those comments wind up being the seeds that blossom into a rivalry.
 
9Kyle Busch
Last Week: NR
Kyle Busch
Speaking of rivalries, that seems to be Busch's calling card these days. He may have created a new one after New Hampshire with Martin Truex, Jr. Truex labeled Busch public enemy number one after a six-car melee on Lap 176 totaled his car and brought out the red flag. Contact between the two men caused the incident, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spun his tires in front of both the No. 1 and No. 18 cars...but Busch couldn't slow down fast enough. "Kyle just lost his head like he usually does when something bad happens," Truex said of the incident that left him sideways in front of the entire field, while Busch escaped unharmed en route to a much-needed top-10 finish. "He decided he wasn't going to lift; he was going to turn me on the straightaway for no good reason at all." For his part, Busch took time to apologize after the race -- but the damage was already done.
 
10Joey Logano
Last Week: NR
Joey Logano
How about that Joey Logano? The sport's next young superstar was the surprise winner on a day where pit strategy reigned supreme. Who would have thought that after losing a lap for a spin-out on Lap 184, Logano would be back in position to win? Sometimes, racing luck deals you a royal flush, and that's exactly what happened when a Scott Speed wreck gave Logano the free pass just four laps later. It was that critical moment that defined the race, for with nothing to lose the No. 20 car chose to make a pit stop for tires and fuel. That gave him about 30 extra laps to run on a tank of gas, putting the teen up front when a slow but steady rain caused the race to be called in the middle of green flag pit stops. "Half of this sport is about putting yourself in position to have a chance to win on Sunday afternoon," crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. "That's what we did, and everything went our way." Now, the question is whether the rookie can keep up the momentum from one of the unlikeliest victories in Sprint Cup history.


Dropped Out: Ryan Newman (8), Clint Bowyer (9), Denny Hamlin (10).

Underdog of the Week: A few weeks ago, I was bombarded with emails from John Andretti fans requesting that he and the Front Row Motorsports organization be featured as the Underdog of the Week. Well, guys, now is your time to shine! The FRR #34 team has been one of the pleasant stories of the year, going from a single-car team on the edge of extinction to one that's locked inside the top 35 in owner points. While Andretti hasn't been spectacular, he's been steady, allowing this once struggling operation to gain a foothold in a series it's tried to tackle with little success for the past four years.

Sunday at New Hampshire, the team used pit strategy to record its best finish of the season to date. With Andretti stretching a little extra fuel out of his tank, he was up to 16th, on the lead lap, when the final caution fell for rain on Lap 268. That not only gave the team a solid top 20, but more importantly -- with rival Scott Speed crashing out -- it gave them almost a 160-point cushion on their nearest challenger for 35th. That means for the foreseeable future, Andretti and Co. will be qualifying on speed every week, a small but necessary comfort as they try to compete with the big multi-car teams at the top.

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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