Tom Bowles
Tuesday August 25th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 2
Jimmie Johnson
August has historically meant trouble for the reigning champ, but for a third straight week he made great strides at a track where he's never won a Sprint Cup race. Charging forward from 21st at Bristol, Johnson led 107 laps until a freak incident under yellow cost him a shot at Victory Lane. At the end of Johnson's pit stop, the jackman dropped the jack before the tire changer had finished tightening the lugnuts on the left rear, forcing a second stop that dropped him back to 21st with too few laps left to make up the distance. "Fastest car out there," Johnson said afterward. "Just a bummer we had something on pit road screw us up." But looking at the bigger picture, heading into the off-week, no one has matched the versatility of the No. 48 team heading into the Chase. Short tracks, intermediate tracks, and superspeedways have all seen this car challenging for the win, making it the one to beat once again.
 
2Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 5
Denny Hamlin
While Johnson and Tony Stewart enter the Chase as heavy favorites, Hamlin steps up to the plate as a third driver to watch over the summer months. His fifth-place finish at Bristol was his sixth top-5 finish in the past 10 races, tying Stewart for the most over that span. Scoring a solid finish at Bristol wasn't easy, as Hamlin had to recover from a flat tire early and contact with Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte (the latter one sent Labonte's No. 96 into the wall). But when the smoke clears, they pay the points for where you finish, not what you do to get there, and fourth in the points, the No. 11 continues to provide formidable opposition. "I wasn't passed under green all race," he said after Bristol. "Not one car passed us. We had a good car; we just didn't have enough time...we just needed a little longer run there at the end [to challenge for the win]."
 
3Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
Despite clinching a berth in the Chase, the points leader has looked a little shaky the past two weeks in head-scratching performances at Michigan and Bristol. Saturday night's effort was particularly perplexing, as radio issues left Stewart a lap down before 15 laps were complete. He never got it back, eventually heading to the garage to fix electrical problems that led to a 33rd place finish, 11 laps off the pace for his worst finish of the year. "It was like an episode of the 'Twilight Zone,'" he said of the freakish problems. "I switched my frequency over to [teammate] Ryan Newman's channel to wish them luck, and then it didn't go back to my channel. I couldn't hear [my crew chief] at all, and he ended up tightening the car up when I was asking for it to be freer." Turns out a short in the wiring up to the ignition boxes was the culprit, but two straight finishes outside the top 15 isn't exactly the momentum-building end to the regular season you want heading into the Chase.
 
4Brian Vickers
Last Week: 3
Brian Vickers
Kyle Busch may have gained the most points on the top 12 Saturday night, but for the second time in three weeks it was Vickers who made the bigger impact on the playoffs by holding serve. Without a top-10 finish at Bristol in his whole career, Vickers brought the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota home 12th to remain within striking distance of the Chase. After surviving a multi-car wreck with 60 laps left that all but took out fellow bubble driver Clint Bowyer, Vickers used fresh rubber to his advantage as he tore through the field in the final laps to keep his playoff hopes alive. "Tonight wasn't one of our best finishes, but it could have been worse," he said. "The car was the best toward the end of the race, and we were able to rally -- this team doesn't give up." Vickers is now 39 points outside the top 12 heading to the team's strong suit: another intermediate track (Atlanta), where they fully expect to repeat the performance that put them in Victory Lane at Michigan in August.
 
5Carl Edwards
Last Week: 4
Carl Edwards
Luckily for Cousin Carl there's only one short track in the Chase, because it continues to be the No. 99 team's Achilles' Heel. In four starts this season at ovals less than a mile in length, he's come up with a mediocre average finish of 20.7 while failing to lead a single lap. Fighting a car at Bristol that was just too tight in the center of the corner, he was never near the front, and even lost a lap at one point before rallying to a 16th-place finish. "We never got the handling where it needed to be," he said. "[But] we fought our way back and survived the night." Yet while improvement is needed, the run does leave Ford's top-performing driver over 200 points up on 13th-place Kyle Busch with two races left to go. That should allow Edwards to breathe easy the next two weeks, as it'll take a catastrophe of epic proportions to leave him out of the playoffs at this point.
 
6Mark Martin
Last Week: NR
Mark Martin
While Busch won the race, Mark Martin might have won the war for a Chase spot on Saturday night. Certainly, it was disappointing for him to lead a race-high 240 laps and then see Busch sneak past with 68 laps left and hold on for the victory. But in the bigger picture, a second-place run bumped Martin up from 12th to 10th in points, leaving him 60 ahead of the cutoff heading to tracks in Atlanta and Richmond, where he has a strong recent history of running up front. Considering the catastrophic ending to Michigan just one week before, where faulty fuel mileage left the No. 5 car out of gas on the last lap and tumbling to 31st, it was an important team-building night to keep the chemistry between driver and crew chief Alan Gustafson on track.
 
7Kyle Busch
Last Week: NR
Kyle Busch
The points leader at this time a year ago, Kyle Busch saw Bristol as a must-win after a horrible summer slump left him on the outside looking in at the Chase. He got the win he needed, though, following up a dominant Spring performance with a thrilling late-race battle with Martin to pull off the season sweep. If this team does get over the hump and make the playoffs, it'll have to thank that record in Thunder Valley, as exactly half of his 892 laps led this year have come at the .533-mile oval. "I'm hoping this just isn't a fluke," he said afterward. In a telltale sign of how things have gone, each of his three previous victories has been followed by a finish outside the top 10 the following week. Still 34 points behind 12th-place Matt Kenseth for that final playoff spot, Busch can't let that happen again.
 
8Marcos Ambrose
Last Week: NR
Marcos Ambrose
While all but eliminated from Chase contention, this first-year driver is giving the kind of summertime performance that would surely get him into the playoffs in 2010. Worrying about nothing but the win did leave him with a bit of an advantage at Bristol, though. Armed with a top-10 car, the Tasmanian worked his way to third in the closing laps with some aggressive moves while those around him had to worry about playing it safe. "Just a wonderful night for me," he said of a second top 5 in three races that was also his career-best run on an oval track. "You know you're in very special territory there [running up front]. It's a real challenge to survive out there, but we're doing it. I don't think there's any track we can't [run up front]."
 
9Greg Biffle
Last Week: NR
Greg Biffle
Biffle has never won a race at a short track during his six-year career, but he came close at Bristol on Saturday night. The fourth-place finish was the second time in three weeks Biffle tamed a course that had always proved difficult. Consequently, he's one of the bigger surprises of the month, as the driver most expected to drop out of the top 12 is instead working his way toward a third consecutive playoff berth. But that's not to say things couldn't be better over at the No. 16 team, who are still searching for their first win of the year. "The lane choice is just really terrible," Biffle said afterward, referring to the double-file restarts. "Whoever's on the outside just has a clear advantage."
 
10Matt Kenseth
Last Week: NR
Matt Kenseth
With Kenseth's 10th-place finish at Bristol, you'd think the 2003 champ would have moved himself closer to locking in a Chase spot. Instead, as a sign of how competitive it is for those final few spots, he actually dropped back one position to 12th. "Really, all we can do is run the best we can," he said. "If we get [the car] running better and finishing better we won't have to worry about it. You get down to crunch time, and it's that close, but you had a chance to gain or lose points for the last 23 weeks, you know what I mean? So, you've just got to do the best you can every week, and where it ends up, it ends up." Kenseth has finished 14th or better for five straight weeks, though, and I have a feeling where this driver will end up is with his sixth consecutive playoff appearance.


Dropped Out: Jeff Gordon (6), Clint Bowyer (7), Kasey Kahne (8), Juan Pablo Montoya (9), Sam Hornish, Jr. (10).

Underdog of the Week: It may not have been flashy, but a 29th-place finish, four laps down meant the world to the small town of Abingdon, Va. Less than 20 miles from Bristol, it's where Morgan-McClure Motorsports has made its home for well over 20 years, rising to the pinnacle of the sport in the mid-1990s with three Daytona 500 wins from drivers Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin.

But as the sport changed, MMM never became a multi-car team, and eventually fell behind teams like Hendrick and Roush. Without major sponsorship for the last two years, just making it to the race track these days is an accomplishment for a team that suspended operations for much of 2008 and '09. But at Bristol, MMM didn't just make the entry list but cracked the starting lineup, as former full-time driver Scott Wimmer qualified 26th for their first race since the Fall of 2007. Sponsored by Alpha Natural Resources, the team hopes to have some more funding in place to put it in position to make a comeback full-time in 2010. That's easier said than done, but a steady race by a driver looking to crack the Cup Series once again himself gives MMM something to build on moving forward.

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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