Tom Bowles
Tuesday July 28th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 2
Jimmie Johnson
It's no coincidence that during two of his past three seasons, Johnson has won the Allstate 400. Seven of the past 11 winners at Indy have gone on to hoist the season-ending trophy, and the reigning champ looks to be finding his form in time to make it eight for 12 come November. There's no doubt he needed a little help to win this one, as a timely speeding penalty by Juan Pablo Montoya combined with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s blown engine gave him the breaks needed to blow by Mark Martin on the race's final restart. But as Johnson says himself, "To finish first, you must first finish," and like they do so often, the Lowe's-sponsored team put itself in position to capitalize on others' mistakes when it counted. Now armed with five consecutive top-10 finishes, Johnson has moved into second in the standings and inherited the title of hottest driver on the circuit at his usual time: one month before the Chase he's dominated since 2006.
 
2Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
A compliment by Stewart for Goodyear? It's hard to believe after a tempestuous relationship between wheelman and wheelmaker deteriorated in recent years. During last year's debacle at Indy, where tires started falling apart after 10 laps, Stewart was one of the first to take NASCAR, Goodyear and everyone to task for the failure. But after a relatively clean race saw just three caution flags, Stewart was the first to line up and sing their praises. "I have got to give Goodyear a pat on the back," Smoke said after finishing third. "Not once did any of us in the field have to worry about the tires. We were able to run as hard as we wanted to run off the bat, and that's through a lot of hard work and effort from [them]." With fences mended, the point leader can now get back to rounding into championship form; he looks to complete a season sweep at Pocono next week.
 
3Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 3
Jeff Gordon
He continues to stay in contention with a car that's good but not great. He came home ninth at Indy for his sixth top-10 finish in the past seven races. That's the type of consistency you need heading into the Chase, but as Gordon learned the hard way in 2007, top 10s mean nothing if they don't come with a few wins attached. "I think it's great for them," said Gordon of Jimmie Johnson's recent Indy success. "The guy is so talented. The team is so good? but we're competitors. We want to be the ones up there getting the wins." And with just one victory by Gordon since the start of 2008, it's hard to call him a serious Chase contender again unless he can start getting them to pile up.
 
4Mark Martin
Last Week: 7
Mark Martin
Unlike Gordon, Martin's been having no problem piling up wins this season (four); it's the consistency part he needs to master. But after following up a Chicago win with a runner-up finish at Indy -- the first time that's happened all year -- he's hoping the roller coaster ride is finally over. Still, second place was hard to swallow for racing's ultimate bridesmaid, who seemed primed to cash in his first win at Indy until Johnson blew by him on the final restart. "He was better than I was off of [turn] four, and I was better than he was off of [turn] two so I knew I had to make it happen off of two," he said. "But wadding it up wasn't a great idea either. Both of us are driving for all we are worth, and I couldn't get him." That leaves Martin sitting with three career runner-up finishes at the sport's two biggest races (Daytona and Indy) but zero trips to Victory Lane.
 
5Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 4
Juan Pablo Montoya
While Johnson took home the trophy Sunday, all the post-race buzz centered around Montoya's speeding penalty assessed during his last green-flag stop for tires and fuel. Dominating the race at the time, the Colombian's 116 laps led were all for naught after the pit police caught him over the limit at not one, but two speed zones on pit lane. Conspiracy theorists claimed NASCAR assessed the penalty just to spice up the race; but some of us know better, as sources showed me definitive data that proved Montoya drove in and out of the pits half-a-second faster than anyone else during that cycle of stops. It was a small mistake, but more than enough to cost Montoya the chance to be the first winner at Indy in both stock cars and open-wheel. "It kind of sucks," he said after swearing on his wife and kids he didn't speed. "But it is what it is." The silver lining, however small, is that an 11th-place finish gave him a serious cushion with six races left before the Chase.
 
6Kasey Kahne
Last Week: 6
Kasey Kahne
Kahne had a quiet but solid weekend at Indy, finishing seventh for his fourth top 10 in the past five races. That leaves him eighth in points with just six races left, but RPM's number one driver knows better than to count his Chase chickens before they hatch. After hanging in the top 12 for much of last summer, he was an innocent victim in a Bristol wreck in late August, dropped out and could never climb back in. "We're getting better cars and better engines. You have to keep stepping up if you want to run with Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart and those guys," he said. "Our cars are handling as good as any car out there right now. I just hope we can keep that up."
 
7Brian Vickers
Last Week: 10
Brian Vickers
Vickers' future at Team Red Bull hinges on a visit to Austria by GM Jay Frye to see car owner Dietrich Mateschitz. But while he waits patiently for the contract renewal he was told would come months ago, the three-year veteran of TRB is doing his best to make a case to stay behind the wheel of the No. 83 for years to come. Fifth at Indy for his third top 5 of the year, Vickers might have reached a podium finish, at least, if not for yet another bad break. "Our luck bit us in the butt," he explained. "We had a great car and we had a left-rear [tire] go down on the last run. We found out it was down to less than 15 pounds there at the end of the race. It just killed us. We just got really, really tight because of that and it's frustrating."
 
8Carl Edwards
Last Week: 8
Carl Edwards
After winning the Nationwide race at O'Reilly Raceway Park from the back of the field Saturday night, Edwards was in a similar spot for Sunday's race at the big track across the way. But the Nationwide and Cup cars are two different animals, and Edwards quickly discovered starting 41st during a race with few cautions and even fewer opportunities to pass wasn't exactly a good thing. "It was long and difficult," he said after his 15th-place finish. "We put ourselves in a box in qualifying. I didn't realize how difficult that was going to make the day. Passing was very, very tough here. Everyone's cars are so close, and we depend on air enough that you could run about as fast as the guy in front of you." Through 20 races, the preseason favorite to challenge Jimmie Johnson is fifth in points, but remains winless on the Cup side with just five top-5 finishes. That's not going to be good enough.
 
9Joey Logano
Last Week: NR
Joey Logano
While Edwards and others complained about the difficulty of passing at Indy, there's one driver who was young enough not to know better. The series' top rookie, Logano, shined after being sent to the rear of the field for changing engines, charging all the way from 42nd to 12th. The 19-year-old gave fans plenty to cheer about during a day filled with single-file, follow-the-leader racing, beating and banging with former leader Juan Pablo Montoya during the final laps as the latter was frustrated over a penalty that cost him a shot at the win. "We raced hard, but eventually enough is enough and you just have to be smart out there," was all he would say of the battle. After jumping up to 19th in the standings, it's hard to believe the first-year driver was actually on the verge of falling out of the top 35 as recently as three months ago.
 
10David Reutimann
Last Week: NR
David Reutimann
With Kyle Busch's wreck dropping him from 10th to 14th in points, everyone assumes he's the driver with the best chance of climbing back into the Chase. But don't discount 13th-place David Reutimann, just 67 points back of 12th and putting together better consistency than Kyle over the past month. With three top-12 finishes in the past four races, the No. 00 team is hanging in there longer than anyone thought they would. "The longer the run, the better we got," Reutimann said of his eighth-place finish at Indy. "[It was] a decent day in the points that hopefully put us a little closer to where we needed to be." The next two races will tell us whether he'll sink or swim; at Pocono and Watkins Glen, he has just one career top-10 finish in four starts (third at Pocono this June).


Dropped Out: Denny Hamlin (5), Marcos Ambrose (9).

Underdog of the Week: For the second race in a row, Bill Elliott left the crowd cheering during qualifying with a throwback run in the legendary No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. Needing to make the field on time, the car responded with the fourth-fastest speed, which led to a standing ovation as Elliott finished his two-lap run and dove down through pit road and the infamous Gasoline Alley. For the 2002 Brickyard 400 winner, it was a triumphant return to a track where he failed to qualify with the same team in 2008.

"I'm just still kind of dumbfounded that we're where we're at," said Elliott. "Especially from looking back just as short as a year ago -- and even six or eight races ago -- the way we've turned this deal around from Charlotte on, where we qualified 10th and then eighth in Chicago a few weeks ago, they just keep giving me better and better stuff, and that makes it so easy for me to drive a race car."

The finish wasn't exactly what the team had hoped for; in a freak incident, a lugnut that got stuck between the wheel and a rotor led to a pit stop that trapped Elliott a lap down in 26th, but considering the way the team ran all weekend, top-10 finishes may be just around the corner again for a driver and car that once were on top of the sport.

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email tbowles81@yahoo.com with your driver and the reasons he should be featured. If you're lucky, we'll include your fan comments in this very space next week!

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