Tom Bowles
Tuesday May 19th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
If there were any doubt Stewart belonged on top of the power rankings after last week, he added a million reasons to justify his position on Saturday night. Capturing his first All-Star Race win in an 11-year career, Stewart took that first victory as owner/driver in part because of the new-found patience he's had all season. Not a contender early on, Stewart relied on crew chief Darian Grubb to fix the car during the 10-minute break before the final 10-lap Dash For Cash. Then, he watched as Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman took each other out, leaving Stewart with only Matt Kenseth to beat over the final few laps. And when the No. 17 car washed up the track, the race was Stewart's to lose. "[The car] was 'stuck' those last 10 laps," Stewart said. "Seeing those guys celebrating and smiling in Victory Lane when I got there, seeing how happy they were and the excitement on their faces...there's no check that you can write in any amount that's going to take the place of it."
 
2Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 2
Jeff Gordon
Stewart's gain was Gordon's pain, as the No. 24 had perhaps the best car in the All-Star Race before becoming the biggest loser in a three-car sandwich gone wrong. Gordon fought hard with Busch and Newman for the lead on Lap 93, but all three couldn't stay stable side-by-side coming off of Turn 4 -- causing Gordon's hair-raising spin through the tri-oval. For a man with a bad back to begin with, Gordon had plenty more to be concerned about as his DuPont Chevrolet slid back through heavy traffic. Luckily, the All-Star Race was named that for a reason, as the best drivers in the world smartly maneuvered around him, keeping the carnage to a minimum. "It's the All-Star event," said Gordon, refusing to assign blame. "Everyone is going for it. There's a lot at stake. There's a lot of pride and money, and we're putting on a heck of a show for these fans." Boy, did they ever.
 
3Ryan Newman
Last Week: 3
Ryan Newman
Newman's All-Star Race started out like total junk, with a bad shock giving him all he could handle in the No. 39 Chevy. The serious vibration put the car nearly two laps down to the leader, but with the four-segment format making caution flags a necessity, Newman not only earned his lap back, but had plenty of chances to come down pit road and adjust the problem. And once Tony Gibson got everything right, boy, did that car take off. Newman looked ready to snag his first All-Star win since 2002 until that late wreck allowed his teammate to steal the spotlight.
 
4Mark Martin
Last Week: 4
Mark Martin
At 50, Martin was aiming to become the oldest winner in All-Star Race history. But Martin is at his best on long green flag runs, so the short segments weren't a very good format for him. But don't be fooled by Martin's one-week disappearing act. The Kellogg's Chevy showed the type of long-range handling that'll be perfect for Sunday's 600-mile marathon. And with just one finish outside the top 10 in the last two months, Rick Hendrick's oldest driver is still his hottest shoe heading into Memorial Day Weekend.
 
5Kyle Busch
Last Week: 6
Kyle Busch
Last weekend's format was perfect for Busch's aggressive style, and in the last three years the youngster's clearly subscribed to the phrase "checkers or wreckers." It'd just be a whole lot better for him to choose the first option. In four career All-Star Race starts, Busch has been involved in three wrecks, and blown an engine in the fourth, leading to plenty of on-track excitement the fans love, but not the million dollar payday he seeks. Saturday night, it looked like Busch had the best chance yet to cash in, but the wreck with Newman and Gordon left him with just enough damage to fade in the race's final stages. It was the capper on a tough weekend for the 24-year-old, who was sent to the rear in the Truck Series race, not once, but twice before charging to a second-place finish.
 
6Kurt Busch
Last Week: 5
Kurt Busch
Some might be surprised to see Kurt and Kyle flip-flopped in the rankings considering Kurt finished four spots higher than his brother in the All-Star Race. But while Busch-the-younger proved himself capable of charging to the front, Busch-the-elder never led on a night during which his Miller Lite Dodge struggled in shorter sprints. "Overall, I thought that we had the best car on a 20-lap run, but that doesn't pay the big bucks," Kurt said of a car that struggled on restarts. Honestly, I expected better from a program that built its early season strength on a win at another 1.5-miler -- Atlanta in March. And if history is any indication, Sunday will prove to be one of Kurt's most difficult races this year; he has yet to score a top-10 finish in eight 600-mile starts.
 
7Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 7
Jimmie Johnson
There's no better indication of how confusing the All-Star Race rules are than Johnson's inability to understand them. Open and honest about fully relying on crew chief Chad Knaus to carry him through, Johnson asked repeatedly about lap counts and other segment quirks throughout the night because he either got confused or simply didn't know. Let's put it this way for NASCAR: if the winningest active driver at Lowe's can't even figure out how to run this race, you might want to make things a little simpler to understand. As it is, the more Johnson learned, the more he fell behind the curve. A late-race spinout in traffic left him a disappointing 13th after starting on the pole and leading the first 50 laps. "The balance of the track really changed through the night," he said. "I didn't expect it to have that big of a swing from the start of the race on."
 
8Denny Hamlin
Last Week: NR
Denny Hamlin
Denny never had a winning car on Saturday, but that's when the driver of the No. 11 appears to be at his best. In need of a confidence boost when contending for victory, Hamlin putting together a top-5 run is a piece of cake by comparison. "I'm jacked up about that run," he said of a fourth-place finish Saturday night in which he came from the rear of the field. "We had a brake issue with about 15 [laps] to go, and we lost all brakes. That kind of worried me a little bit, but we battled back. The mile-and-a-half tracks have been our Achilles' heel for the past 10 weeks or so, and we definitely made big strides today." All of JGR seems to be doing the same, as all three cars (Hamlin, Busch, Logano) are gracing our power rankings for the first time all year.
 
9Joey Logano
Last Week: NR
Joey Logano
Sliced Bread struggled early in his transition to Sprint Cup competition, but the rookie's finally started to turn toasty warm. The 18-year-old made the most of his All-Star opportunity Saturday night after being voted into the big race through the Sprint Fan Vote. Jumping from 21st to 8th at the finish, Logano's run wasn't exactly the upset win Kasey Kahne delivered from that same position last year, but by keeping his nose clean and working through traffic, Logano earned that little bit of extra experience that will serve him well Memorial Day Weekend. Just don't let the freshman do another Ric Flair impression anytime soon, as his shout of the wrestler's signature "Whoo!" during driver introductions came with the cracking voice of...well, someone his age.
 
10Matt Kenseth
Last Week: NR
Matt Kenseth
The way this year's All-Star wound down, a runner-up finish for Kenseth was a tough pill to swallow. Just two laps away from the million-dollar payday, the 10-year veteran slipped up and allowed Stewart to pass on the bottom, robbing the team of its first win since California in February. "It sucks getting beat," he said. "I thought we had a shot. I just got too tight, and Tony was running up on me real fast there, and I chose the middle because I'd been really fast in the middle of one and two. That was my best groove; I just hit the ground and got so tight I couldn't get it to turn." Only time will tell whether this run proved enough to turn his season back around. Since winning the first two races of the year, Kenseth has dropped to 10th in points.


Dropped Out: Jeff Burton (8), Greg Biffle (9), Brad Keselowski (10).

Underdog of the Week: Dave Blaney has weathered a lot of criticism this season, as the unsponsored MSRP Motorsports outfit he drives for has been a centerpiece of the start-and-park debate. Never coming to the track with the intention of running a full race, the team parks the car to save costs on tires and a fully-trained pit crew, choosing to collect the purse money while putting the principles of athletic competition aside.

However, since the All-Star Showdown preliminary race was merely a 40-lap affair, the team decided to go the distance for the first time this year. That allowed Blaney to make the most of a rare opportunity, and he earned the team some much-needed TV time by running in the top 10 throughout. Fading to 11th at the checkered flag, Blaney still turned in a solid run by a car that clearly has what it takes to run with the Big Boys. Now, he needs to be given a chance to do so on a regular basis.

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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