Tom Bowles
Wednesday August 12th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 2
Tony Stewart
After winning Monday at Watkins Glen, Stewart has officially displaced Jeff Gordon as the series' best road course racer. Scoring his record-breaking fifth trophy at the track in Western New York, Stewart now has seven victories on road courses to trail only Gordon's nine for the most all-time. But while the Rainbow Warrior has struggled making right turns as of late - he hasn't won on a road course since June of 2006 - Stewart's been all but unstoppable, finishing first or second at the Glen every year since 2004. Now THAT's the way you make both left and right turns. "I like it when it gets hot and slick here," he said, attributing the sunny conditions to how his car's handling clicked into place. "There's just something about this place." Continuing his hot summer stretch, Stewart's point lead has grown to 260, meaning it's all but certain he'll end the "regular season" on top next month.
 
2Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
The three-time champ continues to edge closer to his goal of winning at a road course, taking the pole for Monday's rain-delayed race at the Glen. But to go fast for one lap is one thing; keeping your rhythm for over 200 miles is a whole other challenge altogether. For awhile, the No. 48 team was keeping pace, but a late-race spinout combined with a loose-handling race car at the finish contributed towards a steady fade to 12th. "There was some dirt on the track," the three-time champ explained in describing his wreck. "I came to the braking zone, I could see dirt and trash blowing around and I thought 'Oh man, there I go.' And sure enough, away I went. But, we are getting smarter [on these road courses] and I am learning a lot." Considering none of his HMS teammates finished in the top 20, Johnson was smart to take what he could get before heading to a track in Michigan where he'll be a heavy favorite to contend.
 
3Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 3
Juan Pablo Montoya
Many have criticized Montoya's sudden conservative style after years of being arguably the most aggressive wheelman in the series. But there's no debating the end result, with 11 top 10 finishes putting him and car owner Chip Ganassi on the verge of making their first Chase appearance. But while it looked like Montoya was playing it safe with a sixth place run on Monday, that couldn't be further from the truth. "I think something broke in the left front suspension on our car," the road course expert said afterwards at his failed attempt to score his first win of 2009. "I was just plowing turning right." The mechanical woes left him unable to pose a formidable challenge to Stewart, but at the same time a ninth consecutive finish of 12th or better was the consolation prize needed to keep his playoff bid intact.
 
4Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 5
Denny Hamlin
Last week's winner had his usual dose of bad luck at the Glen, with a pit road speeding penalty leaving him 38th after the race's first caution. In the past, that would have left him scrounging to simply finish in the top 20, but some newly gained confidence from his Pocono performance came in handy as the No. 11 worked its way up through the pack. By the checkered flag, the Fed Ex Toyota had scored its sixth top-10 in eight races as the 28-year-old continues to establish himself as a sleeper pick to contend for the title. But while rallying to 10th was impressive, this Sunday's race at Michigan will be key to see if he's ready to take the next step towards title contender. So far this season, he's led just one lap on tracks 1.5 to 2 miles in length, intermediate ovals which make up five of the ten he'll face in the playoffs.
 
5Brian Vickers
Last Week: 8
Brian Vickers
While everyone expects Kyle Busch to sneak back into the Chase, how about a little love for Team Red Bull? With the way the No. 83 bunch has run as of late, it's Vickers who has the better chance to displace a driver currently inside the top 12. The Glen was a critical weekend for him, as road courses are typically a weakness (no career top five finishes in a dozen starts). That made Monday a race of survival, but the sixth-year driver did more than that after finishing 11th and placing ahead of 12th-place point man Matt Kenseth by two spots. With five straight top 15s, that puts Vickers in the driver's seat as two of the final four races are held on intermediate tracks... which happen to be TRB's bread and butter. If Vickers happens to win one or even both of those, expect him to punch his first ticket to the playoffs.
 
6Carl Edwards
Last Week: 10
Carl Edwards
A shaky run at Pocono left Edwards a little closer to the Chase bubble than he would have liked, caught up in the aggression of double-file restarts combined with the aero push of running in traffic. But any doubt he'll miss the playoffs got put to rest following a scintillating drive from 33rd to third at Watkins Glen. Tying his best-ever finish on a road course, it's the run the No. 99 team needed before heading to one of their best tracks on the circuit in Michigan this weekend. With Ford enduring its worst winless streak in more than 25 years, Cousin Carl should provide the best chance in months to break the drought in Victory Lane on Sunday.
 
7Kasey Kahne
Last Week: 7
Kasey Kahne
The lone Chase contender from Richard Petty Motorsports fell short of an '09 road course sweep. Instead, he found himself swept up in controversy after an ill-timed bump of Sam Hornish, Jr. started one of the scariest wrecks we've seen this season. "I feel really bad," said Kahne after soldiering on to a ho-hum, 17th place finish after the wreck. "I went down into the corner and got loose and he was there. I'm not sure he even knew I was there, but it's not good for those guys and I know 'sorry' doesn't fix it." Looking ahead, he'll have to block that accident out of his mind and work on fixing a little bad history of his own in the next four weeks. Plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, he remains vulnerable to falling out of the playoffs, just 129 ahead of Kyle Busch with only four races left to go.
 
8Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 4
Jeff Gordon
Kahne's mistake made Gordon ache, as the nasty spin by Hornish left him smack in front of the No. 24 at full speed. The head-on collision left debris flying everywhere, causing a 19-minute red flag to clean up the mess while the four-time champ struggled to recover from the wreck. ""I'm hurting," he said after emerging from the infield care center. "Everything feels good except my lower back where I've already had issues. It will just take a couple of weeks for it to heal. We'll go to Bristol and get through that, then we'll be alright." Yet Gordon seemed to express concern he'd need a relief driver if Bristol's testy 500-miler was being held this weekend, making you wonder just how serious those old back problems really are. This much we know for certain: he has yet to visit Victory Lane since April, and that's exactly when his injury woes went public.
 
9Clint Bowyer
Last Week: NR
Clint Bowyer
The two-time Chaser is trying desperately to make it three straight, the lone hope for Richard Childress Racing in what's quickly becoming a season filled with disappointment. A ninth-place finish at the Glen was Bowyer's third top-10 in four races ... but will it be enough? "We needed a better points day," he admitted. "As bad as I struggle here, [though], that was a good finish for us." This team now needs to buckle down with Michigan on the horizon, as its other major weakness is intermediate tracks. A top 10 there is another necessity if they want to soldier on towards the Chase. But if they're able to accomplish that, two of the next three tracks are at places Bowyer can win (the short tracks of Bristol and Richmond, respectively) and he'll have a fighting chance to pass those in front of him in points.
 
10Marcos Ambrose
Last Week: NR
Marcos Ambrose
Unlike so many others we've talked about, Ambrose's Chase chances came to an end with a wreck last week at Pocono. So with nothing but pride left on the line, this road course expert came out and had the weekend of his stock car career at the Glen, taking his second straight win in the Nationwide Series before coming home a career-best second on Monday. Ambrose tried but failed in a frantic effort to run down Stewart, as a faulty pit strategy left him with older tires than the cars around him at the finish. Overcoming that hardship made his performance all the more outstanding as this first-year Cup driver continues to impress with how fast he's come up to speed. "We'll learn from it for next year," he said of coming up just short of the win. "Hopefully, we'll go one more spot up the sheet [in 2010]."


Dropped Out: Mark Martin (6), Matt Kenseth (9).

Underdog of the Week: Rookie Max Papis has struggled with his part-time Germain Racing team this season, with one exception -- the road courses. Coming from an open-wheel background, the Italian feels right at home making left and right turns in the No. 13 GEICO Toyota, and used that to his advantage on Monday, getting aggressive on the track in scoring a career-high eighth-place finish. In this era where points racing and conservatism reign supreme, it was refreshing to see that from a team on a limited budget making the most of what they have."We had a game plan that was attacking from the first lap," Papis said of a run that worked out so perfectly, his gas tank ran out of fuel exactly 300 feet past the finish line. "We are a small organization, a small family. Every success is felt through the skin of everybody. We maximize what we have. GEICO gave me and the team opportunity of our lives, and I'm proud that I paid them back [Monday] because you need to capitalize on these moments."

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!

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.