Tom Bowles
Wednesday June 17th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
It's hard to call a seventh-place finish a bad day, but for the Sprint Cup points leader, Michigan broke a string of four top 5s in the previous five races. "We've been running well, we just missed it a little bit," Stewart said of his run on Sunday. "We were either a little bit too tight in the middle of the corner or too loose off. At the end, of the day we probably needed to be a little bit tight in the center, where we could get up off the corner better. But we've been good all year, and today, to say we had a bad day and ended up seventh, is pretty good." Don't expect this team to keep its head down for long, either. Off to the road course at Infineon -- where Stewart has two career wins in 10 starts -- Stewart has the perfect opportunity to recapture that momentum atop the charts.
 
2Mark Martin
Last Week: 6
Mark Martin
For years, Mark Martin has suffered through the type of bad luck you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. But after dialing it back to conserve fuel over Michigan's final few laps, Martin's third-place car became an unlikely winner when both Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle ran out of gas in front of him on the last lap. "I can't believe we won this thing," he said. "I always, always come up short on the gas mileage thing. I always have. If you look at the stats, you know, I've lost 25 and won two probably on it. I just don't have the luck for it." But Martin's bad vibes seem to have faded away since joining the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports. His third win is the most he's had in a season since 1998, and ties him for the most on the Sprint Cup circuit through 15 races. Not bad for a 50-year-old who was supposed to retire over three years ago, huh?
 
3Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 3
Jimmie Johnson
Johnson dominated the race on Sunday before running out of fuel on the last lap. More likely than not, it was some intense, side-by-side racing for the lead with Greg Biffle that burned through a little too much Sunoco, leaving the No. 48 limping to the line in 22nd. But in a show of determination and effort, the team actually chose to pit the car and finish the race on the white flag lap rather than coast to his pit stall and call it a day. "There were people running out of the way, but I did finish," Johnson said. "What do you do? We raced hard. We led the most laps. We had an awesome day; we were just one lap short on fuel." With a healthy cushion inside the top 12, Johnson could afford to take the type of gamble his team took on Sunday. And looking at the big picture, 475 laps led in the past three races shows this team is a force to be reckoned with when the races really count come September.
 
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 4
Jeff Gordon
The Rainbow Warrior is used to carrying the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet on his back; but with his own back in serious pain, he's left that job to a few extra drops of fuel. "I think we saved a little too much, actually," he said. "We were running a slower pace than those guys up front." Gordon's second-place finish put the rubber stamp on a fantastic race that saw him battle through traffic after an engine change left him starting at the back of the pack. More importantly, it was his third top 5 in the past five races -- two of them credited to fuel mileage -- for a car and driver that have led just 15 laps during that stretch. "We have more days like Sunday," he said of persevering through the team's recent struggles, "and we're gonna be able to do what we need to do to win this championship."
 
5Carl Edwards
Last Week: 5
Carl Edwards
In a year in which Hendrick cars have dominated, Edwards has been the best of the rest these past few weeks. But here's the problem for Cousin Carl and the No. 99 bunch: there's a heck of a lot of Hendrick cars still in front of them. "I'd say I don't know exactly what it is that they're doing, but they're doing something just a little bit better than us," he said. "It shows up on the race track. But we're very, very close." Having finally built up a comfort zone inside the top 12 -- he's 120 points in front of David Reutimann in 13th -- Edwards can now take the next two months to focus on exactly how they're going to catch back up. With two top 5s in the past two weeks -- Edwards was fourth at Michigan -- at least they're taking a step in the right direction.
 
6Ryan Newman
Last Week: 2
Ryan Newman
With six consecutive top-10 finishes entering Sunday, Newman expected to build on a hot streak that left him on the verge of challenging for the point lead. Instead, he left Michigan with a 23rd-place finish -- his worst since Las Vegas, all the way back in March. What happened? "We just didn't have the car exactly right," he said. "The U.S. Army Chevrolet struggled, especially getting into the corners. The pit crew was just a little bit off, and that helped get us a lap down. I have 3/4 of a lap that was my fault. The bottom line was we just didn't have it together." Here's the good news for Newman: with five top 10s in seven career starts at Infineon, this closet road racer should easily get back on track this weekend.
 
7Greg Biffle
Last Week: 9
Greg Biffle
Michigan has been kind to the Blue Ovals over the years, but she dealt a cruel hand to Greg Biffle over the final half lap of the 400-miler. In position to win the race, Biffle slumped to fifth after running out of gas on the last lap. It was a disappointing finish for the veteran, but you can't say he didn't see it coming; radio traffic from crew chief to driver had his Ford pegged at two laps short of making it to the checkered flag. But unlike Martin, who was able to keep his aggression in check and save fuel, the temptation of racing Jimmie Johnson for the win eventually became just too much for Biffle. "We would've made it," he said. "But the 48 came up there and put pressure on us. I felt like I had a faster car than the 48, and I asked [crew chief Greg] Erwin if I could run him down, because I [thought] I [could] beat him, and he said, 'Go for it.' If I would've let the 48 go -- if I would've stayed with my program -- I would've made it, no problem."
 
8Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: NR
Juan Pablo Montoya
A Chip Ganassi Racing driver in the Chase? It hasn't happened since the playoff began in 2004, but for the first time in years he's got a driver knocking on the door. After a sixth-place finish at Michigan, Montoya has moved up to 14th in points on the heels of his third top 10 in the past four races. It's the perfect time for the team to head to a road course race -- the site of Montoya's lone career victory as a rookie back in 2007. "We've been having a lot of good points days lately with our Target Chevy team," he said. "We just have to keep them coming."
 
9Kyle Busch
Last Week: 10
Kyle Busch
NASCAR's Bad Boy continues to have a long list of bad finishes in the Cup Series -- runs that have left his Joe Gibbs Racing team extremely vulnerable to missing the Chase. "The car was just loose and we never did touch it, I don't think," said crew chief Steve Addington, after a 13th-place finish in Sunday's race. "We're searching right now because [Kyle's] been happy with the car in practice. We're just scratching our heads right now to try to figure out what went wrong." It could be the focus of Busch himself; in the past few weeks, he's been off running Nationwide and Truck Series races at other places, taking hurried helicopter rides that appear to have drained both energy and focus from the 24-year-old as of late.
 
10David Reutimann
Last Week: 8
David Reutimann
Reutimann had high hopes at Michigan, starting fourth, but the car never seemed to handle to his liking. Dropping 10 spots in the first 50 laps, the Aaron's Toyota was never a contender as he finished a disappointing 19th. "It was just a terrible, terrible day," he said. "We missed it, I guess, and no matter what we did to it, the car wouldn't respond to any changes. Our guys tried really hard, [but] the package we started off with was not any good. Sometimes you just can't fix things, and we know definitely what not to come back with. Disappointing... but it could have been worse." In one of the most competitive Chase races in years, the performance dropped Reutimann out of the top 12 in points, but not to worry, he's just three behind Jeff Burton, in 13th.


Dropped Out: Matt Kenseth (7).

Underdog of the Week: It was a tough decision, but the Wood Brothers' move to scale back their program to a limited schedule appears to be paying off for them. In five starts this season, the No. 21 Ford and former champ Bill Elliott have been extremely competitive, making every race they've attempted while finishing in the lead lap in three of them. A 16th-place finish by Awesome Bill was the team's second top 20 in five starts this season.

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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