Tom Bowles
Tuesday March 24th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Kyle Busch
Last Week: 2
Kyle Busch
Like it or not, March has been the month of the Busch Brothers in NASCAR. In three races this month, the score is Kyle 2, Kurt 1, after the younger Busch charged out to a dominating win at Bristol. Leading 378 of 503 laps, the outcome was never really in doubt for a No. 18 team that's threatening to be as good, if not better, than the 2008 edition which won eight races during the regular season. Fourth in the standings, Kyle would be leading the points if not for Daytona's big wreck, plus he has led over 250 laps more than any other competitor on the circuit. His attitude within NASCAR's top three series continues to turn off many fans -- Kyle's latest gaffe is screaming "YOU SUCK!" into the radio at his crew following a penalty in the Nationwide race Saturday -- but that's something which doesn't seem to bother him much. "I don't think I would enjoy having the most fans out there," Busch said. "I actually like the way I am, the role I portray." Right now, that role is No. 1 driver on the circuit, hands down.
 
2Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 1
Jeff Gordon
Five races in, Jeff Gordon's Drive For Five championships is looking like a serious possibility in 2009. After a fourth place finish at Bristol, he's jetted out to a 76-point lead over second place Kurt Busch and has more top 10 finishes than anyone else on the circuit (four). Gordon never had a winning car in Thunder Valley -- he failed to lead a lap for the first time all year -- but some fantastic pit work was what kept him in contention. "It was such a great team battle," he said of a crew that produced a net gain of 11 spots on pit road all day. "I just love the fight these guys on this DuPont Impala are putting up. I mean, I wish the Chase was right now because we are in championship form." And with Gordon's best track, Martinsville, coming up on Sunday, it's his best chance yet to put a 46-race winless streak to bed.
 
3Clint Bowyer
Last Week: 3
Clint Bowyer
Continuing the consistency that's defined his 2009 campaign, Bowyer's 13th place finish at Bristol was good enough to leave him third in Sprint Cup points. But the poor performance for RCR across the board at this short track had to leave the four-car team scratching their heads. None of their cars led a lap, and their average finish was just 18.8, a year after Jeff Burton stole the victory here. Overall, Bowyer's led just nine laps this season, and the organization as a whole has led 79, well off the pace of Big Four counterparts Hendrick, Roush, and Gibbs. With Martinsville another supposed strength for this team, it'll be interesting to see if they can get it together this Sunday. Consistency will get him into the Chase, but Bowyer won't be able to win a championship when he gets there until his team learns to run up front.
 
4Carl Edwards
Last Week: 4
Carl Edwards
No question about it, the first five races of the season have Carl Edwards and the AFLAC duck flying below expectations at the No. 99. Just seven months removed from last August's Bristol win, Edwards struggled en route to a 15th place finish at the half-mile Sunday. In Edwards' diary for SI last week, I got the impression the pit crew is what's really hurting them right now. When you lose two guys to injury, it's always tough for others to step in and gel in their place. The team stepped it up at Bristol (net loss in the pits: six spots as compared to eighteen at Atlanta the race before), but the pick-me-up type stop that gains their driver plenty of track position never happened. Here's the good news: despite being winless, Carl is already solidly in the Chase (fifth in points), so the team's got all Spring and Summer to get themselves happy and healthy.
 
5Kurt Busch
Last Week: 6
Kurt Busch
Busch brother No. 2 wasn't supposed to play second fiddle at his best track. Indeed, no one's visited Bristol's Victory Lane more this decade than Kurt (five wins), but a poor starting spot on Sunday came back to bite the Miller Lite Dodge. Stuck back in traffic after starting 32nd, Busch became a chain-reaction victim in a wreck that took out Todd Bodine on Lap 60. Struggling under the weight of heavy hood damage the rest of the way, the team did do a remarkable job of keeping the car running well enough to finish in the top 15. But at a track like Bristol for Kurt, anything lower than first has to be considered a disappointment. "This track, it's not like the old Bristol," he said. "You get guys side-by-side and you have nowhere to go. Guys from behind can catch you real easy. You're in a mess."
 
6Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 10
Jimmie Johnson
One guy who's not going to criticize the "new" Bristol is Johnson, who's recently turned his fate around at Thunder Valley. Once nothing short of a disaster at Bristol, Johnson won the pole here back in 2008 and has three top 10 starting spots in the four races since the track poured down fresh pavement. On Sunday, he was finally able to turn those strong qualifying runs into an impressive race performance, finishing a career-best third here on a weekend where he reminded us all who's the three-time defending champ. "I wish we could go race again for 500 more," he said after the race. " A couple small adjustments, the rhythm I was picking up of the racetrack -- things were really starting to make sense to me." Second in laps led to only Kyle Busch, it's making sense to ME that any talk of a slump for Johnson is far-fetched.
 
7Kasey Kahne
Last Week: NR
Kasey Kahne
Quick, name the only three drivers this season who've finished every race on the lead lap? You've got Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, and...Kasey Kahne? That's right: RPM's top driver in their four-car fleet is quietly putting together a successful season. Finishing 12th or better each week since a Daytona wreck, the six-year veteran is finally putting together the type of consistency that's eluded him throughout his career. "We've made gains the last two weeks," he says of his seventh- and fifth-place finishes at Atlanta and Bristol, respectively. "The first three races, I felt like we were on the edge and not sure really what way we were going," he said. Now, there's no question he'll join Kurt Busch as Dodge's two main Chase threats in 2009.
 
8Tony Stewart
Last Week: 7
Tony Stewart
The owner/driver has gotten off to a better start than everyone expected. But the funny thing is his two-car team can't seem to get both cars running well in the same weekend. At Bristol, it was finally time for the No. 39 of Ryan Newman to have a breakout run, coming home 7th for their first lead lap finish on the year. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart and his No. 14 team struggled to 17th. "We got in position to get our lap back but never got the caution when we needed it," he said. Still, an average finish of 13.2 for the No. 14 is not too shabby for a program no one expected to be this good this soon.
 
9Matt Kenseth
Last Week:
Matt Kenseth
Fame has been fleeting for the 2009 Daytona 500 winner. After going 2-for-2 in Victory Lane to start the year, he's failed to crack the top 10 since, reverting back to the form that left him an afterthought at Roush last season. Parts and pieces have a lot to do with it: in the last three races, Kenseth has busted an engine at Vegas, run out of gas at Atlanta, and suffered through a broken splitter at Thunder Valley. "We ran like junk in the beginning, and then some of those guys got track position and we were buried in the back," he said. "We just missed it by about four miles all day." The recent slump has dropped him all the way down to 10th in points.
 
10Denny Hamlin
Last Week: NR
Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's been a clear-cut No. 2 at Joe Gibbs Racing this season, watching from afar as teammate Busch has dominated the Cup circuit. But on Sunday, he finally made some noise, leading seven laps before settling for a runner-up finish at Bristol. Considering the last two Spring races there, where Hamlin's led late only to lose in heartbreaking fashion, second had to feel pretty good. Right? Not really. "He's got everything working for him right now," Hamlin said of Busch after the race, mixing admiration and regret. "Luckily, we're in the same stable, so we know everything he has. If [there's] anything we need to work on, it's me. [We need to] figure out how to go fast." If there's any consolation for Hamlin, at least he's not No. 3 at JGR: rookie Joey Logano is struggling to simply hold onto a spot in the top 35.


Dropped Out: Brian Vickers (8), Kevin Harvick (9).

Underdog of the Week: You've got to hand it to the No. 28 team and driver Travis Kvapil. After being told early in the week that Bristol would be their last race unless sponsorship came through, the team came out swinging Sunday and gave it everything they had. At one point, it looked like they might actually make it home with a top 10; but in the end, slipping to 18th wasn't too shabby for a program about to close its doors.

"Today we weren't laying over for anybody," he said, fighting Kyle Busch hard to stay on the lead lap at one point. "We had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I raced 110 percent every lap." After the race, sources told me even Yates partner Jack Roush was working the phones to keep this team afloat, but as of now they're not entered at Martinsville. What a shame for a guy who finished a career-best 23rd in the standings last season; here's to hoping that the right company recognizes that potential and gets him back out on track ASAP.

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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