Tom Bowles
Tuesday April 7th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 1
Jeff Gordon
For years, Texas has been the recurring nightmare that the four-time champ couldn't shake. So maybe it's appropriate that Gordon's 47-race winless streak came to an end at a track where he'd never won. Most refreshing about Gordon's surprise victory was his passionate display of emotion in Victory Lane. It may have been his 82nd career win, but the way this 37-year-old acted -- screaming "I love you" to the crew on the radio -- it felt a heck of a lot like his first. "This is a huge relief," he said. "But also very exciting. If we can win at Texas, I feel like we can win anywhere. I definitely think there's a confidence in everybody that comes out of this." Considering his point lead is up to 162, that's a very scary thought for the rest of the competition.
2Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 2
Jimmie Johnson
The winner at Martinsville came up short in his bid to score two in a row. But after charging from 18th to second over the race's second half, it looks like Johnson's championship crew chief, Chad Knaus, is back to making the right adjustments at the right times to make sure this team peaks at the finish. "I think it took us a couple stops to kind of recognize that the track wasn't going to come to us," Johnson said. "We had to get to work with tire pressure, wedge, track bar; finally, at the end, we got it close." Johnson's early struggles reveal a misconception many have that the Nos. 24 and 48 -- prepared in the same shop -- often come out with the same setup. In reality, the cars were on opposite ends of the spectrum, not surprising with a crew chief in Knaus who tends to try innovative new ways early in the season to improve the handling on the CoT.
3Tony Stewart
Last Week: 5
Tony Stewart
NASCAR's newest owner/driver continues to open eyes after leading 16 laps and coming home with his second consecutive top-five finish. Two months ago, many in the garage were wondering if Stewart would even be capable of challenging for a victory this season. Now, it's not a matter of if the No. 14 is going to visit Victory Lane, but when. "The car owner is happy," Stewart said at the end of his run. "But the driver is ticked off. I wanted to win this thing. I felt like we had a shot at it ... and we did." In the end, though, Stewart's car just wasn't good enough at the beginning of a run to keep pace with Gordon and Johnson on a restart. But with Phoenix and Talladega next on the schedule -- tracks where Stewart has had plenty of success -- don't expect him to slow down in the standings anytime soon.
4Kyle Busch
Last Week: 3
Kyle Busch
NASCAR's bad boy made a bad mistake Sunday, making contact with the lapped car of John Andretti while trying to pass him. The fender-rubbing eventually cut down a tire, forcing a green-flag stop that left him two laps down and ultimately too far back to make up the distance. "The car wasn't bad," he said. "But when you end up in that deep of a hole, it's hard to dig out of it." Those struggles didn't keep Busch from making an impact last weekend, though. His late-race wobble on a restart nearly took out Dale Earnhardt Jr. up front in a move that handed the lead back to Gordon. And in dominating the Nationwide Series race Saturday, Busch continued an impressive streak of winning at least one event in NASCAR's top three divisions in five out of the first seven weekends.
5Clint Bowyer
Last Week: 4
Clint Bowyer
The glass slipper didn't fit on Sunday -- a first in Bowyer's Cinderella story with his new No. 33 team. Bowyer never came close to the front at Texas, losing a lap early and laboring en route to a season-low 22nd-place finish in his Chevrolet. It's not uncommon for Bowyer to struggle at times at intermediate ovals; in 46 career starts, he has just nine top-five finishes at tracks 1.5 to 2 miles in length. That's not a terrible track record, but it's nothing to write home about, either, for a driver whose two career wins have come on the short tracks of Loudon and Richmond. The difficulties dropped the RCR driver from second to fourth in points, but with one of his best tracks -- Phoenix -- dead ahead, don't be surprised if Bowyer immediately bounces back.
6Carl Edwards
Last Week: 7
Carl Edwards
You've got to feel for Edwards and Bob Osborne. With two pit crew members hurt, they've had to put in substitutes to pick up the slack. But the chemistry on the No. 99 team seems to melt away the second the late-race pressure heats up. Coming in as the leader during his final yellow-flag stop on Lap 305, Edwards came out 11th as a slow stop cost him a back-breaking 10 spots. In-car cameras showed his initial frustration, but after the event, he was quick to come to the defense of a patchwork crew that's doing the best it can. "Those guys want to win this race just as bad as I do," he said. "We're all in this together. We just have to do whatever we can to fix it. I know they can do it, we just got to figure out how to do it every time."
7Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 6
Denny Hamlin
So much for short-track momentum. After being bumped aside at Martinsville en route to a runner-up finish, Hamlin could only wish he was as close to the front one week later. Initially moving up from his 22nd starting spot, a mistake on pit road during the first green-flag stop proved critical as his day unraveled. "I wheel-hopped it real, real bad getting on pit road and just could never recover," he said. "It hurt the rear end pretty bad. [After that], I had to never let all the way out of the gas or I was going to spin out." That extra TLC for his race car took too much speed from Hamlin. He wound up 12th on a day in which none of Joe Gibbs Racing's three cars finished in the top 10.
8Kurt Busch
Last Week: 5
Kurt Busch
Heading into Texas, it was older brother Kurt stealing the controversy tag from Kyle thanks to a questionable radio exchange with owner Roger Penske. After struggling to an uncharacteristic 18th-place finish at Martinsville on March 29, Busch was Negative Nancy to the point that the owner got on the radio and reprimanded him for his attitude. With Busch supposedly a free agent after the 2009 season, you wonder if he's setting himself up to be released. That's surprising considering the No. 2 team's strong start to the season -- but how quickly momentum can prove fleeting in this sport. And while the comments were toned down on Sunday, Busch's car still left a little to be desired for a third straight week. An eighth-place finish at Texas just a month after winning at its sister track, Atlanta, wasn't exactly the Band-Aid this team was seeking.
9Mark Martin
Last Week: NR
Mark Martin
Don't look now, but the 50-year-old veteran who spent the first four races battling mechanical failure is officially becoming a force behind the wheel of a Hendrick Chevy. Martin may be old enough to apply for an AARP card, but he looks far away from retirement after three straight top-10 finishes rocketed him to 18th in the Sprint Cup standings. Now, he's set for another boost from those who love him the most: The 5th Mark Martin Fan Appreciation Days are Thursday and Friday in Batesville, Ark. You think NASCAR fans aren't some of the most dedicated out there? Thousands come to this small town each year, taking vacation time just to spend a day with their longtime favorite driver. With one of Martin's best tracks up next, don't be surprised if that fan support lifts him to an upset victory (he nearly stole the win in 2008).
10Jeff Burton
Last Week: NR
Jeff Burton
Another quiet veteran working his way up the points ladder, Burton held up the banner of the fortysomething crowd with a ninth-place finish at Texas to sneak into the top 12 in points. Like Martin, Burton got off to an exceptionally slow start -- 28th at Daytona and 32nd at California -- but he hasn't finished lower than 15th in any of the five races since. "[I] was a bit tight there at the end of the race and I just couldn't turn it through the corners," Burton said of his run in Fort Worth. "But we came here with a brand new car and new [handling] package, so we definitely have something we can build on."

Dropped Out: Kasey Kahne (9), A.J. Allmendinger (10).

Underdog of the Week: It's been a great last couple of days for John Andretti. On Monday, he announced an Indy 500 deal with his former NASCAR owner, Richard Petty, that puts him behind the wheel of a Window World-sponsored No. 43. It's the car owner's first stab at open-wheel's biggest race, but not so for Mario Andretti's cousin, who will seek to improve on a career-best fifth achieved at Indy in 1991.

That deal means Andretti needs a month off from his current NASCAR ride -- the No. 34 of Front Row Motorsports. Usually, that wouldn't be a problem, but after years of struggling to simply make the field, things on the stock-car side are actually going to be a little hard to walk away from. Andretti's team has not only qualified for the first seven races this season but it's also received enough technical and engineering support from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to get it headed in the right direction. After closing a respectable 26th at Texas, the team has four top-30 finishes. That has built it a reasonable cushion within the top 35 in owner points.

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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