Tom Bowles
Tuesday March 3rd, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Kyle Busch
Last Week: 2
Kyle Busch
After a devastating Chase in which the regular-season points champ slumped to 10th in the standings, many people wondered whether Kyle Busch would recapture the form that put him on top for much of 2008. Just three weeks into the season, we already have a resounding answer: YES. Busch came through when it counted at Vegas, withstanding a major obstacle when engine issues forced him to make a change in his Toyota in practice. Sent from the pole to the rear of the field, Busch showed remarkable patience in working his way through traffic, watching intently as the mechanical gremlins turned around and bit most of his biggest rivals. With most of them cleared away for the race's final segments, it was slim pickings for Busch up front, passing Jeff Burton and flat out nudging Clint Bowyer right out of the way in cruising to his first career victory at his hometown track.
2Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 3
Jeff Gordon
He put another one in the record books Sunday, becoming just the seventh driver to lead 20,000 career laps in Sprint Cup. But an embarrassing mistake with perhaps the best car put the brakes on any post-race celebration. Looking to make his final pit stop under green, the veteran carried too much speed coming off turn four, causing a rookie mistake of overshooting the entrance to pit road. Forty-five seconds later, the caution flag waved when Gordon's left front tire exploded, breaking apart from the pressure of braking too hard only for the car to miss its mark. "I just was coming to pit road and saw the guys behind me, looked like they were coming down on me pretty hard," he said. "So I tried to get off on the apron; and when I did, it just locked up the left front [tire]." Running second at the time, the No. 24 wound up sixth after some spectacular repairs by Steve Letarte and crew kept him on the lead lap.
3Matt Kenseth
Last Week: 1
Matt Kenseth
So much for Kenseth's bid to be the first driver ever to go three-for-three to start a season. Before the first 10 laps were complete, Kenseth's No. 17 car was sitting in the garage, idling after a busted engine made his Vegas weekend the equivalent to losing all your money at the blackjack table in a matter of minutes. "I don't know that I've ever dropped out on lap one before," he said of a problem that started right when he took the green flag. "We didn't even really get to race and we qualified bad, so it was a pretty long weekend for nothing." The DNF allowed rival Gordon to snatch the points lead from Kenseth as a result.
4Clint Bowyer
Last Week: 8
Clint Bowyer
Concerns about Bowyer's new team are already a distant memory. Rarely do you see a brand new car get off to such a solid start, but the runner-up finish for the No. 33 at Las Vegas marked their second top 10 in just three races. In comparison, RCR's other three cars have a total of one top 10 finish between them. Looks like the new guys could show the old guard some new tricks, huh? In reality, it was a tricky call by crew chief Shane Wilson that made the difference, choosing to keep the No. 33 car out under a late caution flag when everyone else pitted. That put his driver in front of the pack, and despite finishing on older tires, that track position alone was nearly enough to pull the upset. "It feels like a win," Bowyer said of his podium finish, leaving him second in the Sprint Cup standings heading to Atlanta.
5Carl Edwards
Last Week: 5
Carl Edwards
No question about it, it's been a head-scratching start to the season for the No. 99 bunch. This time last year, they were the talk of the circuit, with Edwards winning two of the first three races and charging into the national spotlight. This time around, they've led just three laps, struggling to work their way up front while becoming the innocent victim of wrecks and mechanical failures. This weekend, it was the Vegas equivalent of watching the roulette ball land on your number, then shift over one at the very last minute. Edwards had a top 5 finish going and an outside shot at fourth when his engine blew up on the last lap, sending him sliding back to 17th.
6David Reutimann
Last Week: NR
David Reutimann
You've got to wonder what the execs over at UPS must be thinking. Abandoning David Reutimann last season despite substantial improvement over the final few races of 2008, they cast their lot with 23-year-old David Ragan, an arrangement which we've mentioned many times in this column paired them with an outstanding young talent. But -- and this is a big but -- the driver they left behind suddenly looks to be in better position to claim his first win. The No. 00 car looked like the fastest one over the final 25 laps of the race, with Reutimann hindered only by track position and a number of late-race cautions that kept him mired back in fourth. Still, it was the driver's best career finish, one that left him fifth in the standings and the symbol of how far Michael Waltrip Racing has come in its third season.
7Tony Stewart
Last Week: 4
Tony Stewart
At one point, it looked like Stewart would contend for the win Sunday in just his third race as a driver/owner. But a tire vibration over the race's final segments forced some extra pit stops under green, dropping him to 26th -- one in front of struggling teammate Ryan Newman. Was that enough to rattle the owner's surefire temper? Not quite yet. "We had a solid car all day," he said. "Obviously, we had bad luck with the left rear that came loose. There's still question marks I'm sure with a lot of people, 'Can we do this?' But we had a top 5 car, and three weeks in a row we've gone out and run well. Every time I leave the racetrack, it just gives me confidence that we're going to be something to contend with at the end of the year."
8Greg Biffle
Last Week: NR
Greg Biffle
Biffle's another one of those drivers who doesn't really know what to think of his season three weeks in. At California and Las Vegas, he's appeared to have cars capable for contending for the win, only to have problems both on pit road and under the hood hamper his efforts. While the No. 16 didn't blow up, three of his teammates did, and the same phantom "valve train" problem kept the 3M Ford on pins and needles the entire race. At least the Biff came out of the weekend with one trophy, surviving wrecks, being trapped a lap behind, and running out of gas to come back and win the Nationwide Series race -- his first victory in the second-tier division since California in February, 2006.
9Brian Vickers
Last Week: NR
Brian Vickers
After a rocky start to the season at Daytona, Vickers and company have responded quite nicely with two top 10 finishes at their bread and butter: intermediate tracks. Offseason pickup Ryan Pemberton as crew chief is paying immediate dividends for the 25-year-old talent, who's looked at as perhaps the best hope to break the Big Four stranglehold of Childress, Gibbs, Roush, and Hendrick teams on the Chase. Pemberton knows how to work with middle-tier teams -- he briefly sent Mark Martin to the top of the points ladder with Ginn Racing to start off 2007 -- and the two men seem to be in tune with what adjustments to make on their race car. "I'm so proud of this team," said Vickers, who fought through engine and battery issues en route to an eighth-place finish. "I think we had a car that could win, but to have all of those problems and get a top-10, that's how you win championships."
10Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 6
Jimmie Johnson
It was just one of those days in Vegas for Johnson, who saw the big jackpot of a fourth win in five races here disappear after being dealt a few bad hands. Once again, Johnson led the majority of his race-leading 92 laps early on in the event. But as the 427-mile race unfolded, circumstances just didn't go his way. Gordon's yellow flag for his blown tire left Johnson trapped back in traffic, and he got overzealous trying to work his way back up front and wrecked with less than 10 to go. "I think that there were some bad calls that ended up hurting us today," he said. "All that wrapped up into my frustration in trying to get to the front. We had the best car. It was just unfortunate that I just got a little too aggressive and I piled it up [into the fence]."

Dropped Out: Kurt Busch (7), David Ragan (9), Michael Waltrip (10).

Underdog of the Week: Once again, David Gilliland and the TRG Motorsports team captured top honors for the second week in a row. After qualifying in on time, the No. 71 car lost a lap early and struggled with their handling at Vegas. But a series of mid-race cautions ended up handing the team a surprise gift: NASCAR's "Lucky Dog" to get them back on the lead lap and in contention for a solid finish. Crew chief "Slugger" Labbe kept making just the right fixes on the No. 71 Chevrolet, and when all was said and done the team survived the attrition to finish 14th with new sponsor Capital Window on board. That's right, folks; a single-car, one-month old operation finished a race not just on the lead lap, but in the top 15.

"What we have been able to do with this deal in two weeks is absolutely incredible," said Gilliland. "I can't believe it. I am very proud of the guys, they did a great job. Wow!"

"Wow" doesn't do this run justice. An underdog, one-car organization with no plans to race beyond Bristol good enough in three weeks to outlast the likes of Stewart, Edwards, and Mark Martin on the race track? Impressive indeed.

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email 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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