Brant James
Tuesday May 11th, 2010

NASCAR Power Rankings
This week's power rankings take a long, hard look at the Chase prospects of some of the sport's most notable names, Roush-Fenway's love of the spoiler and a missing inductee into NASCAR's Hall of Fame. Have a comment? Send to siwriters@simail.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/brantjames

 
1Denny Hamlin's Chase prospects
Denny Hamlin's Chase prospects
Granted, Denny Hamlin hasn't driven the past seven weeks with a new pacemaker, but a reconstructed knee has its challenges. Yes, Ricky Rudd probably would have just taped it and kept stomping the floorboard and A.J. Foyt would have just numbed it by some erroneously applied horse tranquilizer, but Hamlin does earn some toughness points since having his left knee repaired. Given that he's raced 2412 miles in two series, won twice in Sprint Cup and swept the slate at ultra-tough Darlington this weekend since returning from surgery, he deserves the tip of the autographed Victory Lane cap. And just to think that the real impressive stuff may still be in the future. Crew chief Mike Ford said his No. 11 Toyota team is formulating sea-changing nefariousness back in the Joe Gibbs Racing labs for the Chase, which begin in a mere 15 races. Hamlin -- who is sixth in driver points -- would already start atop the Chase standings with Jimmie Johnson, having tied the four-time defending champion with three wins. Hamlin was ordained as the main challenger to Johnson's record fifth straight title, following his finish to the 2009 season. Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch have been ordained the same and failed. Hamlin is far from the confetti-speckled champion's podium at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but he is a viable contender, more viable every week.
 
 
2 Jimmie Johnson's good thing spoiled
Jimmie Johnson's good thing spoiled
This feels weird. Johnson has been average -- barely -- since NASCAR relegated the rear wing to some future display in the Hall of Fame and reintroduced the spoiler. Since the new/old aerodynamics device was reinstalled at Martinsville, Johnson has produced a worse result each week, with the exception of a 10-place result at Richmond. He's had DNFs in two of the last three weeks. His exit after just 179 laps and 36th-place finish on Saturday at Darlington was expedited when A.J. Allmendinger's No. 43 Ford did a Patriot missile routine on his No. 48 Chevrolet, but Johnson was already struggling. Has crew chief Chad Knaus been out-schemed by Ford? Up is down, left is right. Johnson is struggling.
 
3Joe Gibbs Racing playing the spoiler
Joe Gibbs Racing playing the spoiler
In six races since the spoiler's implementation, JGR has four wins (three by Hamlin, one by Kyle Busch, pictured at left), three top-5s and four top-10s.
 
4
Kevin Harvick
The 10-year veteran, two-time Nationwide Series champion and successor at Richard Childress Racing to the late Dale Earnhardt had an eventful week. His eighth top-10 in 11 starts allowed him to expand his points lead from 10 to 110 points on Johnson just days after Childress predicted he would re-sign with the team within the next few weeks.
 
5Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon
All these missed opportunities for wins have surely had an effect on Gordon. His emotions have trended from surly to sullen as he continues to lead bushels of laps with no victories as reward. On Saturday, a failed entry onto pit road cost him track positions and ultimately helped push him to a fourth-place finish as laps ran out before he could work back through the field. Missing such opportunities are troubling, but they would be devastating in the 10-race Chase. For now, Gordon is fourth in points (147 out) and sliding into a highly competitive car each week. Resume-bolstering is eluding him, but it could be worse.
 
6The Roush-Fenway conundrum
The Roush-Fenway conundrum
Roush is winless and so is Ford. Matt Kenseth (fifth), Greg Biffle (seventh) and Carl Edwards (11th, pictured at left) are in the Chase fold, but are flying under the radar this season. They don't lead many laps and they haven't yet been serious threats to win. Owner Jack Roush sounded confident in the preseason, saying he had corrected a team-wide slump in 2009, where Kenseth claimed two of the team's three overall wins in the first two weeks, but the funk continues.
 
7Ugly trophies
Ugly trophies
Dover International Speedway's Sprint Cup trophy/icon, some sort of Ben 10 Alien Force meets Jonny Quest monstrosity, will get a lot of air time this weekend, but let's be honest, it's one of the homeliest trophies in sports.
 
8Jamie McMurray
Jamie McMurray
His Daytona 500 victory was a surprise, even at a track and in a form of racing that breeds them. But the 33-year-old is crafting what may be his finest season after being reunited with old boss Chip Ganassi. Second at Talladega and Darlington and third in the Nationwide race on Sunday, Harvick is making up ground on the Chase field in strides. Up three spots to 16th entering Dover, he needs to eliminate the disaster finishes -- five in 11 races outside the top 20 -- to qualify for his first Chase.
 
9 Dale Earnhardt Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior was never a major fan of Darlington. But the revered track might eventually be the "catalyst" for his eventual retirement after Earnhardt Jr. wrecked his car minutes into the first practice of the weekend and did the same to his backup in a later session. Earnhardt Jr.'s 18th-place result was nothing spectacular, and his radio communication with his crew toed the line on testy, but Clint Bowyer's fruitless day allowed Earnhardt Jr. to leap back into provisional Chase qualification in the 12th spot.
 
10David Pearson
David Pearson
The nearer the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony draws, the heavier the injustice of Pearson's exclusion weighs. Certainly, winnowing a half century's worth of luminaries into an initial class was daunting, but Pearson needed to be on the stage with Bill France Sr. and Jr., Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson, or in place of one of them. Major League Baseball writers, in a similar historical spot in 1936, chose arguably the greatest collection of stars ever assembled in a first class: Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. There was no William Hulbert. The France family's influence in making stock car racing a regional obsession and national spectacle is undeniable, but the NASCAR Hall of Fame is supposed to be the people's hall, and fans root for racers.

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