Tom Bowles
Wednesday July 16th, 2008

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Kyle Busch
Last Week: 1
Kyle Busch
As a colleague of mine so aptly stated this week, "This is Kyle Busch's world -- the rest of us just live here." Busch's pass of Jimmie Johnson on the final restart at Chicagoland was one for the ages, as the 23-year-old's aggressive move to the outside left his former teammate stunned and the No. 18 headed straight to Victory Lane. "I just had to go to the outside because he was going to block the bottom in turns one and two," Busch said of the frenetic finish. "It stuck for me out there ... I don't know how or why." Well, here's one thing we do know heading into the off week: With his seventh win in 19 starts, Busch is now in front by 262 in the championship standings, holding a 50-point cushion over Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne if the Chase started today. It's a byproduct of what's rapidly becoming one of the best seasons so far this decade.
2Carl Edwards
Last Week: 2
Carl Edwards
Edwards may not have gotten the finish he desired -- 32nd place -- but it's becoming clear this three-time winner poses the only threat to stop Busch's march toward the title. As the laps wound down, the No. 99 car was not just in the same time zone as Busch, he was beating him at the one place he still can: intermediate tracks. Passing the No. 18 for the lead with 64 laps to go, the Office Depot Ford was in perfect position to take the victory until a broken splitter derailed its chances. Pitting for what he thought was a flat tire, Edwards instead did more damage to a car part that was already broken. By the time it got fixed, he was a lap behind with too little time to make up ground -- another heartbreaker in a rivalry that's recently tilted Busch's way.
3Matt Kenseth
Last Week: 5
Matt Kenseth
Don't look now, but Mr. Consistency is really starting to make some noise up front. The last four years, Kenseth has had a Top 3 car at Chicagoland, and Saturday night was no exception: he led seven laps and looked poised to challenge for the win at race's end. But an equalized tire forced an unscheduled green flag stop for the No. 17, and Kenseth had to use the benefit of a Lucky Dog pass to work his way back to the lead lap with 85 to go. From there, it was an all-out blitz to pass as many cars as possible before the checkered flag en route to the '03 champ's eighth Top 10 in the last nine races. "We just sort of ran out of time," Kenseth said. "We had a really fast car. But you can't have flat tires."
4Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 6
Jimmie Johnson
As the summer sun beats down, the No. 48 is trying to heat up after winning just one race during the season's first 18. So far, so good: Saturday night was a sizzling start to the second half for Johnson, who only let the final restart get in the way of what would have been his second win of the season. "I thought there was no way -- with how good my car was -- that I couldn't have got away from [Busch] through one and two," said Johnson of those final two laps. "But somehow, he got to the outside. And as soon as he broke the plane in my bumper, I knew I was in trouble ... and sure enough, I was." But there's no shame in finishing second this time around; it was Johnson's best run since winning Phoenix in April.
5Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last Week: 3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Just as Junior finished climbing the mountain to second in the standings, his team seems to have lapsed into its first "mini-slump" of the season. Since Michigan, Junior has finishes of 12th, 8th, 24th and 16th, the toughest four-race stretch of his career with Hendrick Motorsports. Now, if that's the worst you can do, drivers would kill to be in the spot Junior's in. But even though some of those finishes were based on results out of Junior's control, it was troubling to see the No. 88 miss the setup that badly at Chicagoland. After all, five of the 10 tracks in the Chase are 1.5-mile tracks, and it's places like that where the team needs to be on top of its game.
6Jeff Burton
Last Week: 4
Jeff Burton
As the season wears on, Burton's team suddenly looks a little worn out. Falling quickly from his third starting spot, the driver of the No. 31 Chevy found himself outside the Top 10 by Lap 35 Saturday night. And that's when all heck broke loose: Burton made contact with Jamie McMurray on pit lane, missed his pit and wound up back on the tail end of the lead lap. The damage from that incident only worsened during the race, as Burton was involved with a wreck with Michael Waltrip and actually fell a lap down at one point. A Lucky Dog eventually went their way en route to salvaging a 19th-place finish, but no question, this team is happy for the off week after a second straight run outside the Top 15 left it reeling.
7Brian Vickers
Last Week: 9
Brian Vickers
Week in, week out, this underdog keeps having his day. Vickers' Team Red Bull refuses to back down in the face of the four-car superteams, battling hard for the 12th and final spot in the Chase. But to make the playoffs, you've got to be a little lucky, and after having the equivalent of a Top 5 car all night long, Vickers needed all the luck he could get chugging to the finish line in sixth. "The engine blew on the last lap," revealed Vickers after the race. "We were down a cylinder on the [final] restart, so those guys got a jump on us. Then, the engine finally blew coming out of Turn four on the last lap, and we coasted across the finish line. We [still] ended up sixth -- so it could have been worse. It was a good points day for us."
8Tony Stewart
Last Week: NR
Tony Stewart
Stewart revealed this week what readers have known since April: He'll be packing up shop and leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to be a car owner next year. Stewart Haas Racing has a long set of obstacles in front of it to be competitive in 2009. But for the time being, this veteran's biggest challenge will be to focus on 2008. As you might expect, that's easier said than done. While a 5th-place finish at Chicagoland was typical of Stewart's makeup -- whenever he makes news, his car finishes up front -- distractions will only increase the closer we get to the end of the year and his pending transition to ownership. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli's decision to stay at Gibbs will help the team stay focused, but keeping Stewart on a one-track mind may be the biggest challenge of the pair's 10-year partnership.
9Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 7
Jeff Gordon
Gordon's winless streak continues to hang tough heading into the final off week of the Cup season, to the point where every member of the team is busy scratching their head. "Oh gosh, where to we start?" said crew chief Steve Letarte of an 11th-place run that fell far below expectations. "It's disappointing where we finished. We lost our track position there at the end. But you know, the guys fought hard. We had one bad pit stop and went to the back. And in the last few races, that would have been it. But we recovered and passed those guys back, and got back in the Top 10. We just got too tight there at the end. When the speeds pick up at the end of the race we just get real, real tight."
10David Ragan
Last Week: NR
David Ragan
This was a tough call on the 10th spot this week, as Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle both had strong runs Saturday night. But you have to hand it to the second-year kid out of Kannapolis, N.C. Just as critics were writing him off as too young and inexperienced to survive the stretch run to the playoffs, he's come up with two Top 10 finishes to leave himself right in the thick of contention. An 8th at Chicagoland was particularly impressive, considering Ragan had finished 25th in his Cup debut at the track last year. "Obviously, Top 10s are what we need to make the Chase," he said after the race. "But we've just got to keep getting better. The Top 10s need to lead to Top 5s, and Top 5s need to lead to wins. We're close."

Dropped Out: Kurt Busch (8), Clint Bowyer (10)

Fan submission of the week: Don't see your driver in the power rankings? Want to make a case for why we're missing the boat? E-mail Tom Bowles at and tell us why your driver should be included. We'll pick one lucky fan who sticks up for his or her favorite and include their rant in the rankings each week!

This Week's Submission: John MacKenzie, Charlotte, N.C.:I'm amazed you have Earnhardt Jr. ranked No. 3 last week. I personally think he's the most overrated driver in Sprint Cup. The fact he's 2nd in the standings only points to the totally flawed point system in NASCAR. No way is he the second best driver this season ... I don't care what the point total says.

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