Tom Bowles
Wednesday September 3rd, 2008

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Carl Edwards
Last Week: 1
Carl Edwards
After two wins in a row, Edwards came down to earth with a Top 10 finish at California. "It's great to be disappointed as hell with sixth place," he said after a run that failed to meet expectations. "That's wonderful ... but we really wanted three in a row." The finish assured Edwards wouldn't catch Kyle Busch in the regular season standings, but he shouldn't feel too bad after his red hot August turned the tables in this year's title race. With an average finish of third in his last six starts, Edwards is now the man with a slight edge in momentum heading into the playoffs.
 
2Kyle Busch
Last Week: 2
Kyle Busch
Like Edwards, Busch was not his normal self at California, never contending for the win en route to a seventh place finish. More telling was a goose egg in the laps led column, just the third time in the last ten races the No. 18 has failed to spend time at the front of the field. Stuck at a season-high eight career wins, Busch now has just one more week to expand his 30-point Chase edge on Carl Edwards -- a lead that was 50 just a short time ago. But he should have a good chance at Richmond, a place where Busch's victory battle-turned-wreck with Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in May launched his "bad boy" image to a new level.
 
3Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 4
Jimmie Johnson
After a rough few weeks, Johnson put on a clinic at California, leading 228 of 250 laps in serving notice he's still very much a player in this year's championship Chase. But even after driving what the two-time champ called one of the best cars he's ever had, he knows there's still work to do in his bid for a third-straight title. "There is still a little bit of a gap to [Busch and Edwards]," he admitted after the win. "The No. 99 and the No. 18 have been awesome all season. More than anything, I am just happy that when we have the car right, we can run away with the race like the No. 18 and the No. 99 have." And considering that intermediate tracks like California make up five of the ten tracks in the Chase, this was clearly a solid foundation to build from.
 
4Kevin Harvick
Last Week: 5
Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick, championship contender? It's still a bit far-fetched, but check this out: over the last five races, only Carl Edwards has a better average finish than Harvick's 5.2. Clicking off a fourth place finish at California, the 2007 Daytona 500 winner merely needs to finish 42nd at Richmond to be assured his second straight bid in the Chase. "This is supposed to be our worst place," Harvick said after clicking off his best finish in thirteen career starts at California. "Usually, we finish about 25th [there], so we are excited and looking forward to the next few weeks. We have been on a roll, and it seems like we are peaking at the right time."
 
5Matt Kenseth
Last Week: 6
Matt Kenseth
Kenseth's fifth place run at California capped one of the more impressive comebacks of his career. All but written off from the playoffs in May after a 38th place finish left him 22nd in the standings after Richmond, Kenseth comes back to that track knowing a Top 25 run is all that's needed to remain one of two drivers to make all five Chase for the Championships. But to be a contender, the 2003 champ needs to erase his goose egg in the win column, one that he attributes to the frustrating handling problems caused by the Car of Tomorrow. Notoriously a poor qualifier, Kenseth has trouble working up from the rear of the field with a car that's difficult to pass with. "These things are pretty frustrating," he said after California. "You can't ever really go anywhere. Those top bunch of cars start there and they run there all day."
 
6Greg Biffle
Last Week: 8
Greg Biffle
Biffle easily had his strongest race of the year at California, playing second fiddle to Jimmie Johnson all night en route to his first runner-up performance of the year. It wasn't the win the No. 16 car was seeking, but the team looked good both on the race track and on pit road, a place that's snakebit this organization multiple times so far this year. "The pit stops, man, I don't even know what to say," he exclaimed. "We beat everybody out everytime. I've never had that happen before. They've been working on the pit crew and shifting guys around, and it was pretty spectacular tonight." Biffle could also breathe a sigh of relief, as the run clinched his first Chase bid since he finished runner-up to title-winner Tony Stewart in 2005.
 
7Tony Stewart
Last Week: 3
Tony Stewart
Stewart still seems like the clear darkhorse pick for the Chase, but it seems like off-track distractions may have hurt the No. 20 team over the last week or two. Between Tony Stewart's pursuit of men like Darian Grubb and Jay Frye to lead his own team next year -- along with Joe Gibbs going ga ga over Stewart's replacement Joey Logano -- you wonder if there hasn't been a temporary loss of focus on all sides. With Logano's Richmond Cup debut straining the resources of JGR a bit, I wouldn't be surprised to even see a mediocre race out of this camp there, too. But come Chase time, don't be fooled: the two-time champ is poised to make his presence felt once more.
 
8David Ragan
Last Week: 7
David Ragan
After surviving Bristol, it looked like the 22-year-old Ragan had set himself nicely to charge his way into the Chase. But California didn't deliver the automatic Top 10 expected, and now Ragan's going to have some work to do at Richmond -- still 13th and 17 points behind Clint Bowyer with one race left to close the gap. "We dug ourselves a bigger hole," he admitted. "We just didn't have the speed all night and battled poor track position. We got it decent there at the end. If it would have been a 600-mile race, maybe we could have picked up a few more spots, but we were just adjusting it seemed like every run and just didn't have the speed. I guess we're in the same position at Richmond as we were in now; we've just got to outrun everybody else." And that's bad news for Ragan: while he finished third at RIR one year ago, the man he's trying to catch -- Bowyer -- won the 400-lapper there in May.
 
9Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Last Week: 10
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
NASCAR's Most Popular Driver has turned into its most perplexing since breaking through with a victory at Michigan this summer. Since then, Junior has yet to come up with another Top 5 finish, dropping to fourth in points while seeing teammate Johnson visit Victory Lane at both Indianapolis and California Sunday night. "We were gaining a little time in the center of the corner, but we really needed to get the car up off the corner better," he explained after his run, which was also blamed on a faulty fuel pump that could have been hurting the No. 88 car's horsepower. "We're looking at Jimmie's set up and my set up [now], and we see some of the areas where his stuff could [have] helped ours." At least Junior fans took home a nice consolation prize: the veteran officially clinched his first Chase bid since 2006 with that run.
 
10Denny Hamlin
Last Week: NR
Denny Hamlin
You've got to give Hamlin and his No. 11 team credit: after a late-race engine failure at Michigan left them at rock bottom, they picked back up and did what they had to do to make the Chase. Two straight third place finishes have raised morale and boosted the driver to 11th in the standings, and considering the way Hamlin dominated Richmond in May -- he led 381 of 382 laps before a flat tire doomed his day -- it'd be a shock to see him fall out of the Chase. To find out who else is vulnerable, be sure to check out my column tomorrow for some odds on who's in ... and who's out.


Dropped Out: Jamie McMurray (9)

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 tbowles81@yahoo.com 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: Jim Robinson, Portland, Oregon:Clint Bowyer has withstood every challenge that's come his way, and now stands on the precipice of making the Chase. But he hasn't been in the power rankings for weeks!!! He really does deserve a shout out after overcoming the pressure of backing up his third place finish in the standings last year.

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