Tom Bowles
Wednesday June 24th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
In racing, they often say second place is the first loser, but it was hard to find fault with Stewart's runner-up finish at Infineon. While most other championship contenders fell victim to the perils of road racing, Smoke stayed the course both on track and in the pits to end Sunday a season-high 84 points in front of Jeff Gordon. And if there's anyone Stewart doesn't mind losing to, it's his friend Kasey Kahne -- they run World of Outlaws teams and have similar interests off the track. "I was just a little too loose in the right-handers, and Kasey never made a mistake," Stewart said of his failed attempts to catch the race-winner. "The kid did an awesome job. He ran a perfect race." With Stewart already riding a wave of momentum, the turning of the calendar this week also marks the perfect season for him to do even more damage -- he typically peaks during the summer months of June, July, and August.
 
2Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 3
Jimmie Johnson
The three-time champ has yet to win a road course race, but with the steady improvement he's been showing in recent years, it looks like only a matter of time before he'll be standing in Victory Lane. Johnson's fourth-place finish Sunday wasn't easy, with a pit road speeding penalty forcing him to fight from the back of the pack. Then, he made contact with Kurt Busch through the esses, ruining the day for the Miller Lite Dodge, and forcing a post-race apology. But while Busch wound up with heavy damage, Johnson came out unscathed in working toward his best ever finish at Infineon Raceway. "This has been a tough, tough track for us," he said. "[But] we are getting better and making things better [each week]." Translation: if the No. 48 team is doing that well at places like Infineon, they'll be nearly unstoppable at ovals they really care about come September.
 
3Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 4
Jeff Gordon
You'd expect far better than a ninth-place finish from the all-time leader in road course wins (9), but that's what Jeff Gordon had to settle for at Infineon, during a race where he didn't lead a lap. Hit with a speeding penalty just like Johnson, Gordon fought hard just to climb back through the field on a day when the NASCAR pit road police were out in force. "We had kind of a poor pit stop [to go along with the penalty]," said Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, about Sunday's troubles. "So to come home with a top 10 was really impressive." Still, with just 15 laps led in the past six races (compared to 490 over the first ten), there's still plenty to be concerned about with a team that just hasn't looked right since Gordon's back problems became public in April.
 
4Carl Edwards
Last Week: 5
Carl Edwards
Edwards' 13th-place finish at Infineon was nice enough, but a bigger milestone in his season was a Nationwide Series victory at Milwaukee Saturday night. After a frustrating 0-for-29 to start the year in NASCAR's top two divisions, he's hoping the momentum from that win will carry over into his Cup Series operation later this summer. Now up to fifth in the standings, Edwards is the highest-performing driver not associated with Rick Hendrick -- but stats can be deceiving. There's such a gap between the Hendrick cars and everyone else, Edwards has a long way to go before you can call him and the No. 99 team championship contenders once again.
 
5Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 8
Juan Pablo Montoya
It was an up-and-down weekend for Montoya, who expected a second Infineon win in three years, but was forced to settle for a sixth-place finish instead. "We made a lot of adjustments and I think we actually screwed it up more than we helped it," he said. "The car, you know, you try to make changes and you only have two pit stops [Infineon is the shortest race on the circuit] so there's little you can do." Yet with so many Chase contenders having a rough day on the road course, that was good enough for the Colombian to slide into the coveted 12th-place position in points. He's got just a three-point margin over Kahne, and several others are nipping at his heels; but with three top-10 finishes, and tracks like Daytona and Indianapolis ahead, it won't be easy to knock him out now that he's in.
 
6Mark Martin
Last Week: 2
Mark Martin
Just when it looked like Martin was comfortably inside the top 12, a rough day on the road course sent him tumbling back down to 11th. It was the first race at the track for Martin -- who won at Infineon in '97 -- since 2006, and he proved a little rusty in stumbling to a 35th-place finish -- his worst in nearly two months. Never rising much inside the top 20, Martin was hit by former teammate Matt Kenseth when the No. 17 spun out, forcing him to head to pit road and fix a flat rear tire. Then, to add insult to injury, the 50-year-old was involved in a wreck of his own making when he got tangled up with both Jeff Burton and Robby Gordon. Perhaps no one is looking forward to returning to the oval tracks more this Sunday...
 
7Kasey Kahne
Last Week: NR
Kasey Kahne
There have been bigger upset wins this year (David Reutimann and Brad Keselowski come to mind), but Kahne's triumph at Infineon has to rank third on that list. In ten career road course starts, Kahne hadn't even scored a top-10 finish at either Infineon or Watkins Glen. With that kind of track record, you'd expect the sixth-year driver to be dog meat with road course ace Stewart running him down at the finish. But Kahne stood his ground with the type of stellar driving once displayed by the sport's King, Richard Petty, whom he returned to Victory Lane for the first time since 1999. "I don't think coming in today [Richard] expected the 9 to win," Kahne joked. "I don't know if anybody did." The question now is whether the team has enough funding and manufacturer stability (from Dodge, Toyota, or elsewhere) to ride this wave into the Chase.
 
8Ryan Newman
Last Week: 6
Ryan Newman
Newman continues to cool off after a red hot Spring, finishing 17th at Infineon for his second straight finish outside the top 10. It's the first time that's happened since Texas and Phoenix in April, and it dropped him back to sixth in the overall standings. But for those worried about Newman's long-term prospects, this is just a small bump in the road. Newman should be excited to head to New Hampshire next weekend; it's a place where he's scored a career-best nine top-10 finishes in 14 starts -- with four poles and two wins recorded during that stretch. Chances are the No. 39 will be contending next Sunday, perhaps his best chance yet for him to break a winless streak that dates all the way back to the Daytona 500 in 2008.
 
9Clint Bowyer
Last Week: NR
Clint Bowyer
Ever so quietly, Bowyer has righted the ship. After a hot start that saw him rise to second in points after Martinsville at the end of March, the bottom fell out for this team as they slumped to 17th by Memorial Day weekend. Since then, Bowyer's entire RCR organization has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, with financial issues stemming from GM cutbacks poised to cost the team upwards of $7 million. But while all four cars are on the outside of the Chase looking in, Bowyer is doing his best to give the team at least one representative. Finishes of 11th, 12th, 10th, and 8th these past four weeks have left him only 65 points behind the cutoff with eleven races left. "I made mistakes early in the season and crashed twice within a month to put us way back in the field," he said. "We have to keep clicking these things off [to get back into contention]."
 
10Denny Hamlin
Last Week: NR
Denny Hamlin
While teammate Kyle Busch continues to struggle around the Cup circuit (he dropped out of our rankings this week), it's Hamlin carrying the torch for the three-car Joe Gibbs Racing camp. Since running out of fuel pressure on the first lap of the race at Pocono, he's been fueled by two top-5 finishes, putting himself a comfortable 7th in the championship standings. In the lead at one point on Sunday, Hamlin even had a car good enough to win; but as we always say with this team, close never does quite cut it. "Just had a slow [last] pit stop," he said. "It could be a couple things, slow pit stop or me getting on pit road slow. We need to figure out where we lost five or six seconds there -- that was the race for the win."


Dropped Out: Greg Biffle (7), Kyle Busch (9), David Reutimann (10).

Underdog of the Week: It's been a miserable transition year for Italy's Max Papis, the former open-wheeler trying to make a go of it in NASCAR as a rookie with a single-car team. But the driver of the No. 13 GEICO Toyota feels right at home on a road course -- where he's won numerous times in other forms of competition -- so Infineon offered him a rare chance to make a splash at NASCAR's top level. Qualifying 33rd, Papis made the most of it, with a smooth performance marked by consistent lap times and decent pit strategy that played in his favor. Working his way up to seventh for the green-white-checkered restart, a little late-race contact pushed Papis back to just outside the top 10. Still, 12th was good enough for him to earn his first Rookie of the Race award of the season.

"Fantastic," the freshman said of his performance afterwards, shattering his career best run of 18th at Talladega. "I achieved the goal I wanted." Now, the key will be for Papis to be as stellar on the ovals as he is on a track that offers both left and right turns.

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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