Tom Bowles
Tuesday May 5th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 2
Tony Stewart
The surprise story of the year continued at Richmond as Stewart used fresh tires to surge through the field to a second-place finish. Smoke's No. 14 Chevrolet keeps defying expectations every week and has him on the brink of reaching Victory Lane -- where he'd become the first owner/driver to win in the Cup Series since Ricky Rudd in the Fall of 1998. But it isn't just that Stewart is succeeding as a car owner that has people taking note -- it's also that the temperamental driver is actually enjoying the experience. "I can't wait to get to the shop Monday and see the smiles on their faces," he said after his fourth top-5 finish in the last five races. "They have been working hard." That Stewart is showing his softer side in public is a sign of just how well this venture's going.
 
2Kyle Busch
Last Week: 5
Kyle Busch
Busch gave himself one heck of a present Saturday night, becoming just the second driver in Cup Series history to win on his birthday. Busch's third win of the season was the 15th of his career, tying him with Jeff Gordon for the most ever for a driver 25 or younger. But while the victories keep piling up this season, Busch still hasn't solved the consistency riddle that prevented him from contending for the championship in 2008. His last two wins in Cup are sandwiched around finishes of 24th, 18th, 17th, and 25th, leaving him just fifth in points, 127 behind Jeff Gordon. "We were just not able to close out the deal and get the finishes we need,' Busch said of his struggles heading into Richmond. "We knew we had to get back on track somehow. This is another big win."
 
3Kurt Busch
Last Week: 1
Kurt Busch
The elder Busch looked to have a top-5 car Saturday night, running second to Denny Hamlin for most of the race's first half. But during the final laps, the Miller Lite Dodge dropped all the way to 12th while Jeff Gordon swooped by and retook the point lead Busch held for just one week. What gives? "We messed with the track bar during a stop with just over 100 laps to go," he explained. "We changed [our set-up] back, but it was too late because we fell out of contention with the guys who took on tires with 50 laps to go. At the end [of the race], we were sitting ducks trying to hang on to all we could. We just didn't have anything at all left for them." And with Busch's manufacturer, Dodge, filing for bankruptcy last week, the new question is whether they have any money left to fund Roger Penske for 2010.
 
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 3
Jeff Gordon
Gordon's eighth-place finish was his grittiest of the year, especially when you consider he finished with tires that were as much as 75 laps older than the ones on cars around him. "Once we were out there, we were pretty much stuck with that strategy," Gordon said of crew chief Steve LeTarte's decision to leave him on the track while the rest of the leaders pitted during a caution on lap 308. "That long run just killed us. We just didn't have it tonight." Still, the win gave Gordon back the points lead he's held for the vast majority of the 2009 season. One wonders, though, how the veteran's persistent back pain (Gordon revealed he had an MRI last week) is going to hold up through the rest of the Cup Series schedule. Gordon wouldn't reveal exactly what the doctors said about the problem, which makes you wonder whether they said anything good at all.
 
5Jeff Burton
Last Week: 7
Jeff Burton
Richard Childress Racing can't seem to get more than one car running well at a time. In the beginning of the season, it was Clint Bowyer carrying the flag for the four-car operation; but in the last month or so, it's the No. 31 team and Burton who have turned their season around. Saturday night was their most impressive effort of the year, especially after contact with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sent Burton into the spin cycle on lap 213. That's a wreck which would have sidelined most competitors, but the team never gave up, and used some late-race tire strategy to work their way back to the front. "For now, we're just going to hit the wall when we're not running well," joked Burton about his third-place finish. "After Junior and I got together, [the car] just took off." That's a great way to describe Burton's surge in the standings, too -- he's now 7th, the highest-ranking of any of RCR's four Chevrolets.
 
6Ryan Newman
Last Week: NR
Ryan Newman
Stewart's team may be the surprise of the season, but his teammate is easily the surprise of the past month. After an awful start left him 32nd in points, Newman and the No. 39 team are in take-no-prisoners mode, and have led five of the past eight races en route to four top-10 finishes. Newman's top-5 run at Richmond was all the more impressive considering he's not known as a short track specialist. In fact, fourth was his best performance at a track less than one mile in length since Martinsville in the Fall of 2007. Not only are both Stewart-Haas cars now in position to make the Chase, but they've scored an average of more points over the past five races than anyone else. Newman's run did come with one bad move, however, when he turned Mark Martin around on a restart in a move that likely cost him a chance at a higher finish.
 
7Mark Martin
Last Week: 10
Mark Martin
Martin's car definitely looked like it had something for the leaders at Richmond until the bump from Newman sent him to the back of the lead lap. Typically, that's the type of bad luck that's permanently derailed his days. But in a rare twist of good fortune, the forced pit road trip gave the team fresher tires than most of their competitors once the race hit a long green flag run over the final 39 laps. "This team just dug in and got it done," Martin said. "I'm proud of them, and I'm glad that one is over with." When Martin charged up to Newman's back bumper in the closing laps, you wondered if the 50-year-old would consider any retaliation. But as the cars crossed the line, it was Newman fourth and Martin fifth, the latest reminder of how one of the sport's classiest drivers conducts his business.
 
8Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 4
Jimmie Johnson
After a better than expected start to 2009, the last two weeks for Jimmie Johnson have been nothing short of a nightmare. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong at Richmond, from a pit road speeding penalty to a brake problem to a wreck that forced him to pit road for repairs. At that point, Johnson was simply trying to log laps until another incident -- this time involving himself, Kasey Kahne and David Stremme -- left his Lowe's Chevrolet a mangled mess. Coming home 36th, 32 laps off the pace, it was the defending champ's worst finish since Charlotte in May, 2008. Now sixth in the standings, the perpetual slow starter is back in the comfort zone of not too good, not too bad we've come to expect from him prior to the Chase.
 
9Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 6
Denny Hamlin
Hamlin was nominated for an NMPA Award this quarter for his pledge to give away free tickets to fans for every race. Well, I'm hoping a sports psychologist is willing to donate a year's worth of services to the man in return. Hamlin looks like a man resigned to his fate, incapable of recovering when either he or his team encounters a mistake. Saturday night, he led 148 laps until his crew dropped lugnuts, costing him six spots under caution on lap 275. From there, I'm sure the man was having nightmares of his experience from last May, where a flat tire derailed an effort where he led 381 of 382 laps. It was all downhill from there for the No. 11 -- which happens for this team all too often -- as they backslid down to 14th at the finish. A move up to fourth in points was no consolation for a man who desperately wants to win his hometown race.
 
10Marcos Ambrose
Last Week: NR
Marcos Ambrose
The Tasmanian-born driver has been showing the speed of the Tasmanian Devil lately, putting together a series of impressive performances in his first full season on the Cup circuit. With five top-15 finishes in the past six races, he's snuck up to 19th in points, and could even be considered a dark horse contender to make the Chase. And while most rookies crumble under adversity, the 33-year-old has used his years of experience to keep from getting too rattled. After being spun out by Sam Hornish, Jr. at Richmond, the No. 47 car was racing with little more than half a rear end for the final 93 laps. But in an amazing piece of driving, Ambrose wheeled around that ill-handling race car and worked his way back up to 11th at the finish. I guess that's how they do things Down Under.


Dropped Out: Greg Biffle (8).

Underdog of the Week After getting wrapped up in one of the Talladega "Big Ones," Robby Gordon's self-owned team was in big-time danger of falling outside the top 35 heading to Richmond. And with just one top-20 finish at RIR in the past six years, things were not looking good over in the No. 7 Toyota camp.

But after starting 36th, a remarkable series of lucky breaks helped Gordon turn the tide at this short track. Snagging a "free pass" under the sixth caution flag of the day to work his way back on the lead lap, Gordon was speeding through the field -- until the car broke a belt on lap 307. But just as he was ready to drive to pit road, Marcos Ambrose's spin caused a caution, keeping the No. 7 car on the lead lap while the team made repairs. In the end, Gordon wound up 16th, padding his standing in the top 35 and likely keeping him safely in the field for the races at Darlington and Charlotte in May.

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!

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