Tom Bowles
Tuesday May 12th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
Things are going so well for Stewart these days that even a date with the Lady In Black couldn't slow him down. Darlington has notoriously been one of Stewart's worst venues -- one of three tracks in the Cup Series on which he's yet to win. But the guy who's led only nine career laps at the Track Too Tough to Tame was threatening to break through to Victory Lane Saturday night, challenging Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson in the final laps before settling for third place. "I'm ecstatic," said Stewart. "That's the best I've run in the Southern 500...we're doing things right." Now second in the standings -- 29 behind Jeff Gordon, the notoriously slow starter has tied his career-best performance through 11 races (Stewart was also second in points heading into Memorial Day Weekend in 2006).
2Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 4
Jeff Gordon
A seven-time winner at Darlington, Gordon was an early contender before loose lugnuts dealt the No. 24 team a near-death blow. Falling nearly two laps down at one point while dealing with the problem, Gordon needed a good hour to get the DuPont Chevrolet back on the lead lap. That made a full recovery difficult, as it's not easy to pass on a track like Darlington. But Gordon's patience and veteran experience paid off over the final 100 miles as he slowly picked off cars en route to a fifth-place finish. "Man, we had so many things we had to overcome," he said afterward. "The new Darlington, with the new surface and the new's just a one-groove race track out there, but it's challenging in so many ways." Still up to the challenge of contending for the season championship, Gordon also retained the point lead for the eighth time in the last nine races.
3Ryan Newman
Last Week: 6
Ryan Newman
Newman is ranked third overall this week, but there may not be a hotter driver on the circuit. Scoring his third top-5 finish in as many races, Stewart-Haas' "other" wheelman is up to eighth in points, displaying the type of talent we haven't seen since his sophomore season. That's when he was driving for Penske in 2003 (he won eight races and 11 poles that year while finishing sixth in points). Already, Newman has more top 5s this season than he had in his Daytona 500-winning season of 2008 -- a sign of how quickly the SHR team continues to develop with him behind the wheel. Newman's Darlington run was especially impressive for two reasons: the No. 39 Chevrolet spent the final 140 laps of the race on the same left-side tires, while its driver was simply trying not to throw up. "My stomach was messed up all day," Newman said. "And by lap 150, I was having cold chills. I just didn't feel good...but this helps."
4Mark Martin
Last Week: 7
Mark Martin
What's that old saying about how life begins at 50? Just days after announcing he'll be back for another season behind the wheel of the No. 5 car full-time in 2010, Mark Martin notched his second victory in the past month by pacing the final 45 laps around the Lady In Black. This time around, a key call by crew chief Alan Gustafson gave his driver track position to challenge for the win. Staying out under caution on lap 322, Martin wound up running the final 70 circuits on one fuel load, displaying the type of good fortune that often eludes NASCAR's version of Charlie Brown. "This was a big surprise," Martin said of his first victory at Darlington since 1993. "My history, I always always always run out [of gas]. So, that is pretty neat to make it." It's got to be neat to make it back into Chase contention, too; Martin's victory left him in the top 12 in points (11th) for the first time all season.
5Kurt Busch
Last Week: 3
Kurt Busch
Since Kurt peaked with a third-place finish at Phoenix in mid-April, the last three weeks have seen the driver of the Miller Lite Dodge slide slowly downhill. Runs of 6th, 12th, and 16th have dropped him to third in points after he briefly owned the top spot for the first time in over four years at Talladega. "We missed the setup really bad," said Busch of his latest performance at Darlington, where his car was so out of shape he actually spun out on his own to cause a caution on lap 216. "We got our car too tight at the big end of the track and too loose at the little end." Still, considering there were a record-setting 17 cautions, things could have been worse. "The last 100 laps out there were about as wild as it gets," he added. "It was survival of the fittest. Guys running in the top 10 were spinning and hitting the wall. It's amazing that we weren't wrecked in the garage."
6Kyle Busch
Last Week: 2
Kyle Busch
Forget the swine flu; NASCAR's Bad Boy has caught himself a bad case of inconsistency in 2008. Just as we mentioned last week in this space, Kyle Busch followed up a momentum-building performance with a total stinker Saturday night. Getting a little too big of a Darlington Stripe on the side of his Toyota, Busch suffered a flat tire that led to contact with the outside wall and sent him to the garage for repairs. Busch finished a distant 34th, continuing a disturbing trend for the 24-year-old prodigy: he's finished outside the top 15 after every one of his three wins this year. Adding insult to injury was the fact it was his second flat tire on the weekend. He gave up a dominating run in the Nationwide Series race Friday night after having a tire go down with fewer than five laps remaining.
7Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 8
Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's night was filled with so much drama, it's surprising that his excitable crew chief Chad Knaus didn't fall off his pit box. The list of things that went wrong for the No. 48 could fill a scrapbook: Johnson started from the rear after crashing in qualifying; fell a lap behind after being trapped in the pits under yellow; and then got spun on pit road by Kevin Harvick. But when the smoke cleared and the curtain rose on the final 50 laps, voila! There was NASCAR's three-time champ suddenly challenging Mark Martin for the win. I don't know what type of special wand Knaus and Johnson have up their sleeve, but boy, would the rest of the Cup Series garage like to learn their magic tricks. "To overcome what we did today, I think it shows this team that we can accomplish anything," said Johnson.
8Jeff Burton
Last Week: 5
Jeff Burton
With the rest of his teammates crumbling around him, Burton remains the solid foundation keeping Richard Childress Racing afloat. After a faulty left front shock absorber trapped him a lap behind, Burton persevered to get the free pass on lap 297, making the most of his opportunity by charging from outside the top 20 to 12th at the finish. It's the second time in three races Burton has heavily relied on that rule to carry him through, proving his greatest strength is battling his way through adversity. Now, the biggest question heading into this two-week "home" stretch at Charlotte is whether he can use his leadership to turn the rest of this four-car operation around before the rest of them fall apart for good.
9Greg Biffle
Last Week: NR
Greg Biffle
Biffle had his best chance to win a race in 2009, dominating the middle portions of Darlington and pulling out to a lead of eight seconds over his competition at one point. But pit strategy was the name of the game down the stretch, and crew chief Greg Erwin put Biffle in a box during a debris caution on Lap 277. After a four-tire change on the No. 16 Ford, they dropped from first to ninth behind cars with two tire-stops, and never could regain the track position needed to contend. During the final 100 laps, a frustrated Biffle spun himself out, then wrecked teammate Carl Edwards before hobbling home to a disappointing ninth. "I don't know what happened," Biffle said. "I had a great car." With all of Roush Fenway Racing still winless since February, it looks like the entire five-car team is still stuck in a daze along with him.
10Brad Keselowski
Last Week: NR
Brad Keselowski
Who would have thought this season's hottest free agent would be a guy whose name no one can even spell? For the record, it's Kes-el-OW-ski, and this guy is putting a hurtin' into his fellow Cup competitors on the race track. The full-time Nationwide-only driver followed up an upset win at Talladega with a seventh-place performance at Darlington, proving to the world his Upset of the Decade was no fluke as he searches for a Cup ride in 2010. With Mark Martin officially behind the wheel of the No. 5 car, there's no room for him at the Hendrick Inn -- and while Stewart-Haas Racing could expand to a third team next season, I'm still maintaining Penske is first in line to pick up this prize talent. After all, it's where Keselowski nearly landed in 2009 before choosing another year of experience in the Nationwide Series, a move which appears to be paying off in spades right now.

Dropped Out: Denny Hamlin (9), Marcos Ambrose (10).

Underdog of the Week: When Clint Bowyer's 83-race streak of running at the finish came to an end Saturday night, it passed the torch to another driver whose unblemished track record is making waves. So far in his Sprint Cup career, Regan Smith is 47-for-47 when it comes to finishing races, continuing to impress despite just one full season behind the wheel of a Cup car. Driving a part-time schedule for Furniture Row Motorsports this season, this frequent visitor to Underdog of the Week finished 21st -- on the lead lap -- at Darlington with this single car program. It's no wonder the No. 78 team is suddenly getting some sponsorship bites for a full-time effort in 2010. That's what happens with a steady hand like Smith's bringing the cars home in one piece.

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email 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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