Tom Bowles
Tuesday September 15th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 1
Denny Hamlin
After Hamlin dominated at Richmond so many times only to come up just short, you get the impression that winning at his hometown track had taken on Daytona 500-like importance. No wonder he was like a 10-year-old kid after finally breaking through Saturday night, leading 299 laps en route to a dominating victory that gives him plenty of momentum for the Chase. "Dangerous," was Hamlin's adjective in describing a team that's suddenly caught fire with six consecutive top-10 finishes. "They better watch out for us [in the playoffs]; we're for real." Now just 20 points off the lead in the standings, the No. 11 earned an extra advantage when teammate Kyle Busch failed to make the 12-car field. That leaves him the only Joe Gibbs Racing car in championship contention, which means all the resources of the multi-car team will be funneled the No. 11's way to give him the best possible chance to win.
 
2Mark Martin
Last Week: 2
Mark Martin
The four-time runnerup in the championship standings has had plenty of heartbreak during a career that spans over three decades. So please forgive him for not breathing easy upon locking up his first Chase berth in three years until the checkered flag at Richmond, even though he never fell out of the top 5 all night. "The pressure is off," he said in vaulting from 6th to 1st in points while entering the Chase on the strength of his four wins. "It won't build back up until late -- maybe four [races] to go or something." By then, he hopes to be in contention for a title most never thought he'd get another chance at since leaving Roush for semi-retirement in 2006. Coaxed back out by Hendrick late last year, Martin doesn't doubt that returning at 50 was the right decision. "This is the icing," he said of his spot in the field. "Now we can go race for the cake."
 
3Brian Vickers
Last Week: 3
Brian Vickers
Plenty of vodka got added to the Red Bulls in the No. 83 pit Saturday night, as Vickers pulled off the best drive of his career in earning his first-ever berth in the Chase. Richmond has been an awful track historically for the 25-year old, with a career average finish of 27.8 that left him behind the eight ball before the weekend even started. How'd the team step up to the challenge? Simple: They used their heads, raced within their means, and constantly kept the No. 18 of Kyle Busch within their sights as they focused on doing just enough to sneak into 12th in points. "I have to be honest with you, that is probably not the person I would have picked to have to battle to get into the Chase, but we're happy that we got it done," Vickers said afterwards in displaying the calm that held even when the final pit stop left him chasing the No. 18. When the checkered flew, Busch was 5th but Vickers finished 7th, earning him a bid by a scant eight points.
 
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 8
Jeff Gordon
The summer has not been kind to the DuPont Chevrolet, not after Gordon's frightening wreck with Sam Hornish Jr. at Watkins Glen tweaked Gordon's back and raised questions about his health. But at Richmond, the four-time champ served notice he's not going to play dead during the Chase. Leading 97 laps -- his most since early May -- Gordon wound up with a third-place finish and a run that left him fired up. "I think we have a great shot at it," he said about his championship chances. "The momentum going into New Hampshire is there. I know we've got some points to make up, but I think this team is really capable and ready to do that." The question for Gordon now is whether he can get back to Victory Lane when it matters the most. In 50 career Chase races, he's won just three times, compared to Johnson's 14. No wonder the No. 48 has all the titles ...
 
5Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 5
Jimmie Johnson
Speaking of our defending champ, he's heading into this year's Chase a bit off kilter after just one top 10 in the last six races. But before you write him off, remember that sometimes stats can be deceiving. Johnson has led a total of 283 laps during that span, and some of his poor performances were a result of late-race gambles designed to get him the 10-point bonus for winning a regular season race. It's the type of thing you can do when your playoff bid is already secure, something Johnson knew was a lock ever since winning Indianapolis at the end of July. "I am optimistic for the Chase," he says. "We have the speed and it's just a matter of getting to work and see what we have." History tells us they'll be a force to be reckoned with no matter what their recent past has been.
 
6Kasey Kahne
Last Week: 6
Kasey Kahne
Kahne calmly put the finishing touches on a Chase bid Saturday night despite the chaos developing around him. With the bombshell that his team, Richard Petty Motorsports, would be merging with Yates Racing in 2010, it seemed the playoffs were the last thing on anyone's mind in a weekend where Vice President Mark McArdle got fired in a heated confrontation with team officials. The timing of the move, while necessary, is likely to kill off Kahne's bid for a title; if you were Dodge, why would you want to keep helping a program that's leaving you high and dry in a little less than three months? Add to that Kahne's return to a manufacturer that tried to sue him after he left for his current No. 9 ride in '04, and you've got a juicy set of storylines in the months to come. What a shame for this intermediate track specialist, whose recent momentum could have made him a darkhorse for the title.
 
7Tony Stewart
Last Week: 4
Tony Stewart
Stewart ended the regular season as the points champion, beating Gordon by a comfortable 179 points. Keep in mind that's no guarantee of postseason success, as only one driver who's led the points at the end of 26 races has gone on to win the title since the Chase began in '04. But if there's anybody capable of bucking the trend, it's the lone driver who actually pulled it off back in '05. "I am extremely proud of Gene Haas and Joe Custer, who gave us the opportunity to be partners with them and help build this organization," the owner/driver said in being the first such driver to make the Chase. "Most of all, Rick Hendrick and everybody at Hendrick Engines and Chassis." Yet will Stewart be singing Hendrick's praises when using their equipment for the last 10 races? That is the million-dollar question, as the very organization supplying Stewart has three of its own drivers working to beat him in the 10-race playoff.
 
8Kyle Busch
Last Week: NR
Kyle Busch
Busch's worst nightmare became reality on Saturday night, as a fifth-place finish wasn't enough to keep him from missing the Chase one year after being the regular-season points champ. Despite dominating the Nationwide Series this year, Busch has been bit by aggression one too many times on the Cup side, with crashes like the one he suffered on the last lap wreck at Daytona in July and smacking the wall at Darlington this May ultimately playing the culprits in leaving him eight points short. "It's a conglomerate of points that we sacrificed all year," Busch said. "We didn't have the best of years to be consistent, and unfortunately, that bit us." What really had to bite was explaining to M&M's Victoria Mars after the race why he's competing for a title in the equivalent of AAA baseball but unable to seal the deal in the major leagues. Winning four more races the rest of the year won't wipe off that sting, and should permanently sidetrack running a full-time Nationwide schedule for the remainder of his time with JGR.
 
9Kevin Harvick
Last Week: NR
Kevin Harvivk
Childress' supposed flagship driver is finally showing signs of breaking the season-long slump that almost caused his premature departure from the No. 29. With a ninth-place finish at Richmond, Harvick is armed with his first set of back-to-back top-10 finishes in '09 as he looks to get back in front of the four-car team's rebuilding effort the rest of the year. "I'm happy to get another top 10, but the guys had a tough time on pit road tonight," he said afterwards, annoyed at the shuffling that's messed up their rhythm since some guys were initially sent to the team's lone Chase bubble contender, Clint Bowyer (who subsequently failed to make the field). "It's frustrating. Still, it was a decent finish, so we'll take it and try to improve next week." Right now, that's all this team can do as it'll be lucky to finish the year 20th in points.
 
10Carl Edwards
Last Week: 10
Carl Edwards
When Edwards broke his foot last week, most thought that would be the final straw in a '09 championship bid gone sour. Yet despite a ho-hum top 20 in the Cup race at Richmond, a determined drive from the back to the front in the Nationwide show Friday night showed one foot is still more than enough to press on the accelerator. Still winless in the Cup Series this year, the No. 99 clearly has to improve its performance across the board. But its biggest strength, intermediate tracks, make up five of the 10 ovals we'll see in the Chase, making it hard to write the preseason favorites off completely as title contenders. "We haven't lit the world on fire, but, trust me, in 10 races a lot can happen," he said. "We've got to buckle down, take the gift that is the reconfiguration of the points, and make the most of it."


Dropped Out: Juan Pablo Montoya (7), David Reutimann (9).

Underdog of the Week: It's been a difficult year for Joe Nemechek, forced to "start and park" his self-owned No. 87 in all but a handful of races this year due to a lack of financial support. But with the backing of Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center came a rare opportunity for the driver once nicknamed "Front Row Joe" to go for broke at Richmond. It wasn't flashy, but a 35th-place finish, four laps off the pace, gives the team a few notes to build on for next year as it hopes its situation improves for 2010. At least it's trying to do things the right way, attempting to run when sponsorship permits instead of banking the cash with no intent to grow the program, like several other cars in the garage.

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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