Tom Bowles
Tuesday April 21st, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 3
Tony Stewart
Mark Martin may have won Saturday night, but second place wasn't the first loser. Stewart's third straight top-5 finish officially made him the hottest driver on the Sprint Cup circuit this Spring. Hendrick equipment combined with finesse behind the wheel leave him just 104 points off the lead in the championship standings. Most thought Stewart's temper would leave him fried as an owner/driver, but instead he's shown more patience than at any time since entering the sport back in the late '90s. When the team had a bad pit stop midway through the Phoenix race, he pumped them up on the radio rather than putting them down -- a strategy which led to them picking up the pace and holding serve the rest of the day. "The guys came back," he said, knowing full well how close the effort came to Victory Lane. "We're just chiseling away. Man, it's like I can taste it. I know it's coming."
 
2Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 1
Jeff Gordon
It's been the Loose Lugnut Tour this Spring, and Jeff Gordon's pit was its latest stop. This offseason, NASCAR mandated that teams tighten lugnuts to the point a few extra threads would be visible on the outside of each Goodyear tire. That means a few extra turns on a longer wheel stud to make the seemingly innocuous change, but that extra millisecond proves enough for crews to be thrown off their rhythm smack in the middle of a stop. No fewer than five lugnut penalties have been assessed the past two weeks, and countless other stops have been slowed by a crewman having to retighten a tire before the car leaves pit road. The most damaging of any of these incidents involved Gordon, whose top-10 car at Phoenix dropped to 25th after an extra stop under green to serve the lugnut penalty. "It was just one of those crazy nights," said the four-time champ.
 
3Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 2
Jimmie Johnson
Gordon wasn't the only driver dealing with a lugnut issue this weekend. Johnson's four-peat never materialized Saturday night, as he fell apart on the heels of a bad stop. "We had some issues with lugnuts falling off due to the glue that we used," he explained. "Every time we would make up a bunch of spots and get up there in the thick of things, we would come down pit road and have a problem with those lugnuts falling off." Still, a fourth-place finish pulled him to within 85 points of teammate Gordon for the point lead he usually doesn't take until the middle of Fall. And with Hendrick Motorsports dominating across the board as of late, the question now isn't whether Johnson will remain a title contender -- it's if he's peaking a little too soon.
 
4Kurt Busch
Last Week: 8
Kurt Busch
The honorary Maricopa County Sheriff has needed a police escort at times to see the front of the field since winning Atlanta in March. But the Phoenix oval offered the No. 2 driver and team their chance to get back on solid footing. Leading a total of 63 laps, Busch had a top-5 car virtually the entire night while cruising to a third-place finish. It wasn't always easy -- Busch bounced the car off the wall pretty seriously at one point while trying to run down the leaders ahead of him -- but the final result was his best on a track of one mile or less this season. "I thought for one second, 'Don't! Don't!'," he said of the move that left his car pancaked heading to the finish. "I thought for another second, 'Keep these guys behind you' because track position is important. The third time that I thought about it, I was in the fence." Good think he stopped thinking after that!
 
5Mark Martin
Last Week: 9
Mark Martin
With Saturday night's Phoenix victory, Martin became just the fourth driver 50 or over to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. The man's on a roll right now -- four straight top 10s leave him 13th in points, just nine outside the top 12 -- but this moment meant so much more. The line to shake hands with Martin in Victory Lane read like a Who's Who of NASCAR Superstars: former teammates Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch, plus longtime team owner Jack Roush. You'd expect now that Martin's running full-time for rival Hendrick, there might be some bad blood between the two (Martin ran with Roush from 1988-2006). But to even insinuate such a thing is to misunderstand the respect he gets from every corner of the Cup garage. "Jack and I are as tight as we have ever been through all of this," he said. "I'm still a huge fan of Jack Roush's and he's still a huge fan of mine."
 
6Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 7
Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's momentum could have been seriously slowed after getting bumped out of a win at Martinsville, but he bounced back well. While I still have doubts as to whether the Virginian can close the deal when it comes to Victory Lane, collecting top-10 finishes in top-tier equipment doesn't seem to be much of a problem. A sixth-place run at Phoenix wasn't without its complications -- Hamlin and Gordon had a few run-ins on the race track which rumpled the fenders of both cars accordingly -- but it was still plenty good enough to continue a streak of five top 15s, bumping him up to a season-high fifth in points. "It was up and down," Hamlin said of his car's handling. "We were good at the beginning, not so good in the middle and decent at the end." Sounds like a typical season for the fourth-year driver to me.
 
7Kyle Busch
Last Week: 4
Kyle Busch
Nothing can slow down Kyle Busch on the track these days, except for the timing lines near the end of pit road. During his final stop of the day, Busch was caught going over 45 mph while trying to beat Martin out for the lead -- a no-no that sent him right to the back of the longest line. Unable to move up over the final few laps, he ran 17th and was kicking himself for the mistake that cost him a shot at a possible win. "The guys had a great stop," he said. "[The penalty] killed our day." At least Busch has a shot at redemption almost immediately: he'll be defending his '08 win Sunday at tricky Talladega.
 
8Carl Edwards
Last Week: 6
Carl Edwards
Edwards may like those sweet onion chicken teriyaki subs, but all the on-air mentions of his favorite Subway sandwich weren't enough to make the Subway Ford go any faster. While the pit road changes during the off-week kept Edwards in contention (although one stop early on in the race cost him six spots,) an ill-handled race car kept him from running near the front of the pack. "It was a good points day for as long of a day it was, so that's OK," he said. "That was all we had." Edwards admits that his team needs to remain vigilant in order to climb to the next level of Sprint Cup champion. Top-10 finishes have been enough to keep him eighth in the points, but there's no question their program's a step behind where they were at this point in 2008. The pit road problems made the decision to replace front tire changer Corey Quick a no-brainer. It's the wake-up call this team needs to get its act together.
 
9Clint Bowyer
Last Week: 5
Clint Bowyer
All of a sudden, Bowyer's new fourth team started acting like one at Richard Childress Racing. After a fifth-place finish at Martinsville catapulted him up to second in the standings, season-worst performances of 22nd and 26th have left him taking a serious step backwards. "We came here with an experimental set-up," Bowyer explained of a performance as flat as the turns at Phoenix International Raceway. "With the lack of testing, you have to try different things in order to gain ground. We ran well here last year, but felt we needed to improve on what we had. Unfortunately, what we tried didn't work for us." That swing-and-miss has been happening a heck of a lot at Richard Childress Racing of late. In the past two races, the four-car program has managed a dismal average finish of 21.3.
 
10David Reutimann
Last Week: NR
David Reutimann
Carrying the banner for Michael Waltrip Racing, Reutimann remains the most surprising of the twelve drivers currently in position to make the Chase. Quietly consistent over the first eight races this season, he's got two top-10 finishes already -- half his 2008 total -- while finishing lower than 20th just once. But being a contender every week doesn't come without its growing pains. The veteran could have had a top-5 finish at Phoenix, but a miscue on the final pit stop dropped him five spots, and left him buried back in traffic. "Sometimes you have to look back and just realize how good a top 10 would have felt a couple years back," he said. "We're at a point now where top 10s are great -- that's what you need to do. But, in the end, it's just that top 5s are better, and I think we had a top-5 car." Amazing words from a man who struggled to even qualify for Cup races two short years ago.


Dropped Out: Jeff Burton (10).

Underdog of the Week: Last year's Rookie of the Year Regan Smith has been largely out of the spotlight since losing his ride in the offseason. Picked up by Furniture Row Racing in January, he's running a 13-race, limited schedule with a car based far from the racing Mecca of Charlotte most teams call home.

Instead, the mountains of Colorado are where the No. 78 Chevy organization sets up shop, making the stop at Phoenix a bit of a home track for them. And Smith -- who's improved with every start at the Sprint Cup level -- certainly gave them a credible performance. Qualifying a season-best ninth on the grid, Smith ran in the top 10 for much of the first 100 laps, before a poor pit stop dropped him ten spots. Eventually fading to 28th at the finish, it was still the second-best run of the year for a car that does the best it can with limited money and resources to compete with the rest of Sprint Cup's top-tier programs.

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email tbowles81@yahoo.com 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!

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.