Tom Bowles
Tuesday August 18th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
Smoke didn't have the greatest day at Michigan, finishing a ho-hum 17th -- his worst performance since Memorial Day Weekend in Charlotte. But on a day when clinching a playoff spot was tops on the agenda, the veteran did what he had to do. Considering most people didn't expect him to even make the Chase this season, being the first to clinch a bid makes the accomplishment that much sweeter. But the two-time champ has bigger goals in mind, understanding that earning a spot is only half the battle as he looks toward winning the championship this November. "You can't let your guard down," he said of how to approach. "You can't relax, you can't lose concentration, and you have to stay on top of [your game]."
 
2Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 2
Jimmie Johnson
For a second straight race at Michigan this year, the No. 48 team dominated up front only to fall victim to fuel mileage. When looking back on 2009, the history books will show Johnson led a whopping 558 of 800 miles at the track. But when it came to going the final 102 miles on a tank of gasoline, the Lowe's Chevrolet couldn't quite make it. "We've [only] won one race on fuel mileage ever [Phoenix in April 2008]...it is just not what we are good at," Johnson said. "I think it is a little too risky for us to even try it." The three-time champ is right, as Carl Edwards took two of the last three Chase races in 2008 by stretching his fuel tank over his championship rival. It's one of the few weaknesses this year's challengers need to exploit if they're looking to keep the No. 48 from winning four straight
 
3Brian Vickers
Last Week: 5
Brian Vickers
Vickers' triumph at Michigan was appropriate considering the gamble he made jumping from Hendrick Motorsports to Team Red Bull in 2006. Taking two tires to put the car up front during their final pit stop on Lap 149, crew chief Ryan Pemberton also made the crucial call to stretch their gas tank -- a move that paid off once Jimmie Johnson ran out with less than two laps left. Early last year, Vickers told me he expected 2009 to be the year TRB finally broke through, making the Chase. And with a well-deserved contract extension finally done, three years of patience may finally pay off. "What we need to do is change nothing," he said of his approach for the rest of the season. "We've got to continue to perform the same way we have the past five weeks, and the Chase will take care of itself."
 
4Carl Edwards
Last Week: 6
Carl Edwards
Michigan is Ford's personal playground, and Edwards had high hopes of ending their recent drought at a track he's already won at twice. Instead, he had to settle for a fourth-place finish as the Blue Ovals got shut out of Victory Lane in both MIS Cup races -- the first time that's happened since 2001. "It's been a little while since I've really felt that comfortable with my car," said Edwards. "Obviously, we were there to win the race, but it was a great points day, and that's what's important right now." Now fourth in the standings, Edwards enjoys an all but insurmountable 216-point lead over 13th heading to Bristol. Now, the question is: with teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth both struggling, will any of his Roush Fenway teammates wind up joining him for the 10-race playoff?
 
5Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 5
Denny Hamlin
Hamlin, who may be Joe Gibbs Racing's only Chase participant, continued to shore up his resume with a top 10 finish at Michigan. With his black car, quiet demeanor, and lack of star power (as compared with teammate Kyle Busch), the Virginian seems to be a perfect darkhorse title contender. "You always want to win, but tenth was good for points," he said. "That is what matters if you can't bring it home in first [place]." With an average finish of 9.6 in the past nine races, he's slowly rounding his Fed Ex Toyota into postseason shape. And considering two of the next three races on the schedule are Hamlin's specialty (short tracks), don't be surprised to see him pop up in Victory Lane another time or two before the playoffs start.
 
6Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 8
Jeff Gordon
Talk about being the bridesmaid and never the bride. Sunday's second-place finish at Michigan was the sixth of the year for Gordon, his most since winning the title in 2001. The difference is, that year Gordon had six wins to go along with those silver-medal performances; in 2009, so far he has just one. And with teammates Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin combining for seven total victories, it's got to be irking the four-time champ that he's continuing to fall just a little bit short. "[Winning] is all that matters at this point for us," he said. "I just would like to have a few more bonus points going into the Chase, a little bit more momentum." Agreed.
 
7Clint Bowyer
Last Week: 9
Clint Bowyer
In a move designed to bolster its Chase chances, Richard Childress Racing reorganized its pit crews heading to Michigan. Now, the "A" guys within their four-car arsenal are all making stops for the No. 33, the last, best hope of making the Chase in what's been a dismal year for the organization. But while Bowyer still remains on the outside looking in, three straight top-10 finishes have his team peaking at the right time. People forget this guy is one of just two men to finish in the top 5 in points each of the past two years; so with that type of track record, you know he's not going to go down without a fight. And with short tracks like Bristol and Richmond -- places where RCR continues to show its strength -- look for him to continue to slice into that 58-point deficit from 12th on Saturday night.
 
8Kasey Kahne
Last Week: 7
Kasey Kahne
One of just two Dodges contending for a spot in the Chase, Kahne made waves last week after being spotted in a photo shoot with a Toyota Camry. But no matter what manufacturer his team chooses to run in 2010, this driver is making the most of what he has in 2009. Despite making an engine change that put Kahne at the rear of the field on Sunday, an 11th-place finish kept the No. 9 bunch primed for a playoff appearance for the first time since Kahne's six-win season in 2006. "We've had a pretty good last couple of months," he said. "Our team has done an awesome job. Pit stops have been really good, and our cars have been handling great." But as this driver knows all too well, racing luck can make or break you. Bristol this weekend is a crucial race for him; after all, it was at Thunder Valley last year that his bid for the top 12 disappeared amidst the carnage of a multi-car wreck.
 
9Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 3
Juan Pablo Montoya
It took a faulty Goodyear Eagle to finally take the wind out of Montoya's sails, as faulty rubber caused a dip to 19th place at Michigan. It's the first time he's finished outside the top 15 since Dover at the end of May, a remarkable streak of nine straight races that proved this open-wheeler has finally gotten comfortable behind the wheel of a stock car. But with just 108 points separating Montoya from 13th-place Vickers in the standings, now's not the time to sit and rest on his laurels. Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond all play out distinctly in favor of the No. 42 team when you look at their recent history, but the team must still make sure it goes out and gets the job done.
 
10Sam Hornish, Jr.
Last Week: NR
Sam Hornish, Jr.
While fellow open-wheel convert Montoya appears on the verge of making the Chase, Hornish is making a move, too. After using not one but two free passes to stay on the lead lap, Hornish used some timely fuel and tire strategy to work up to a fifth-place finish at Michigan. That's just his second career top 5 in the Cup Series -- both of which have come in the past three weeks. "At lap 130, I was very mad because we did about everything that we could possibly do wrong, but I guess that's why these races are as long as they are," he said. "You can screw it up for 140 laps and figure it out the last 60." It's a lesson the former IRL champ has taken well over a year and a half to learn as he looks to take a trip to Victory Lane before the year is out.


Dropped Out: Marcos Ambrose (10).

Underdog of the Week: The Wood Brothers have made a habit of snatching up this award, and you just knew with Bill Elliott's track record at Michigan they'd be in perfect position to do so once again. It's a place where Awesome Bill has scored a career-high seven of his 44 career victories, in addition to 29 top-10 finishes over 59 career starts at the track. That type of veteran experience is crucial for an underdog, and Elliott proved as much with a ninth-place qualifying effort to set himself up for a solid run on Sunday. And while the No. 21 car fell back early on, the team recovered late to score a 16th-place finish and continue its march back to respectability in Sprint Cup.

"That was a hard-fought race right there," he said afterward. "I'm proud of the guys. That thing was ill-handling in the beginning, but those guys never gave up. We got better, and that's all we've got to keep doing."

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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