Tom Bowles
Wednesday August 5th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
Winning three straight titles takes a little bit of luck. On Monday at Pocono, Jimmie Johnson got a season's worth in one race. After a spark plug issue popped up, he lost power and fell three laps down before the No. 48 crew fully diagnosed the problem. From there, it looked like the car would simply be riding out the rest of the day, even though the Lowe's Chevrolet was once again running times comparable to the leaders in front of it. But that's where Lady Luck came in, as a series of cautions combined with some unusual circumstances gave Johnson a total of four free passes. Back on the lead lap with 20 to go, he mounted a furious charge in which he jumped from 33rd to 13th at the finish. The team's resiliency has caused teammate Mark Martin to nickname them "Superman," and with that type of miraculous comeback, you can see why this team is nearly unbeatable once the Chase starts in early September.
2Tony Stewart
Last Week: 2
Tony Stewart
The winner at Pocono in June, Stewart was was gunning for his second win from the back at the track. Once again, he crashed his primary car in practice, sending him from the pole to 43rd for Monday's race. But unfortunately for Stewart, the handling on his backup car never clicked and he was never a serious factor. Never better than 10th all day, the run was the worst for NASCAR's newest driver/owner since Memorial Day. "We were just really, really loose at the beginning," he said. "We finally just made a huge, huge change and we got it closer, but we never got it right." Still, with Johnson's problems Stewart was actually able to increase his point lead to 197 with five races left. And with one of his best tracks -- Watkins Glen -- coming up, he's got a shot at a trip to Victory Lane AND clinching a Chase berth all in the course of one day.
3Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 5
Juan Pablo Montoya
Still smarting from a pit road penalty at Indianapolis, Montoya bounced back in a big way at Pocono. The racing Gods that frowned upon him last week smiled this time around, as a timely pit stop just before a caution flag with 35 to go launched Montoya up to third place. From there, he tracked down leader Clint Bowyer, putting himself in perfect position to score his first ever win on a non-road course. But inadvertent contact with Kasey Kahne on the race's final restart left Montoya scrambling in the first turn, allowing Denny Hamlin to scoot by and pull away too quickly for the Colombian to track him down. "They just hit me and I just turned right straight up the hill so the car wouldn't spin," he said after finishing second, good enough to bump him up to eighth in points. "I thought I had a car fast enough to hold [the] 11 [off]."
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 3
Jeff Gordon
The Rainbow Warrior continues to put up consistent if not flashy performances each week. An eighth place at Pocono was his seventh top 10 in the past eight races, leaving him third in points and a virtual lock to make the Chase. "The strategy and the track position didn't go our way," he said after fading back from his third-place starting spot. "But it's nice when you're passing cars, good cars even toward the end of the race." Still, with 74 laps led in the past 10 races, Gordon has fallen to a troubling third on the Hendrick totem pole, watching teammates Johnson and Martin run circles around him. It's a troubling trend that won't get him anywhere near his Drive For Five championships at this pace.
5Denny Hamlin
Last Week: NR
Denny Hamlin
After he pulled his car into Victory Lane Monday, Hamlin had tears rolling down his face from an emotional win in honor of his late grandmother, Thelma Clark. Just three days after the 91-year-old passed away, Hamlin put on a furious charge over the last 20 laps to win his third Pocono race in eight career starts at the track. Most importantly, he finally got over the hump of "closing the deal" late in races, snuffing out a 50-race victory drought caused by a lack of confidence and focus that's put him through a series of excruciating losses. "I found myself over the last few months starting to think, 'Man, I'm only racing for second when I show up," he said. "That's no way to be. This just puts the confidence back in me that I can come from middle of the pack with 30 to go and win a race." It also proved a fitting tribute to his biggest fan.
6Mark Martin
Last Week: 4
Mark Martin
Despite six career runner-up finishes at Pocono, Martin has yet to score a win on the triangle-shaped track. But just because he's never visited Victory Lane doesn't mean the Pennsylvania mountains aren't good to him; his seventh-place finish provided the 50-year-old veteran the comfort margin he needs in points with just five races remaining until the Chase. "Just a hard fought day for us," he said after dropping 17 spots during his final pit stop due to a four-tire pit strategy. "Our team dug in and we fought it." As long as this team finishes races, that's the only break they'll need to make the Chase for the first time since Kyle Busch drove the No. 5 car two years ago.
7Kasey Kahne
Last Week: 6
Kasey Kahne
While the rest of Richard Petty Motorsports struggles to compete, Kasey Kahne continues to carry the weight of the four-car operation on his back. After finishing fifth at Pocono, he has two top-5 finishes in the past three races -- equaling the season total of his other three teammates combined. For a while, it actually looked like Kahne had a car capable of winning on Monday, but an ill-timed mistake on a restart with Montoya cost him the track position needed to contend. Now seventh in the standings, Kahne looks for a rare road course sweep at Watkins Glen this weekend. Should he get it, the six-year veteran is all but a lock to make just his second career Chase -- his first since 2006.
8Brian Vickers
Last Week: 7
Brian Vickers
On the outside looking in on the Chase, Vickers is continuing to make the type of late-season charge you need to crack the top 12. Armed with four straight top-10 finishes, he's closed to within 104 of 12th-place Greg Biffle in the standings. But for a second straight week, a sixth-place run could have wound up a whole lot better at the finish. On pit road, the No. 83 lost a total of 31 spots during four yellow-flag pit stops, putting their driver back in traffic and forcing him to wear his tires out working back to the front. "We just needed a bit of track position at the end," Vickers said. "But the car was great." Now, the key moving forward is whether he can overcome the weakest type of track on his driving resume: road courses. In five career starts at Watkins Glen, Vickers has an average finish of 22.6.
9Matt Kenseth
Last Week: NR
Matt Kenseth
Most have pointed to this year's Daytona 500 champ as the driver most likely to fall out of the Chase. After all, the 500 curse has left two of its past four winners on the outside looking in, with Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman slumping to career-worst seasons in '05 and '08. But despite a funk of his own after starting the year with two straight wins, it's hard to count out the '03 champ who's made a living on the type of consistent finishes you need to make the 10-race playoff. Eleventh at Pocono, Kenseth has three top 11s in the past four races, and is hanging in the top 12 in points. Just one of two men to make the Chase in all five years of its existence (Jimmie Johnson is the other), the veteran is hunkering down and relying on the years of experience to carry him through with cars that are clearly struggling to handle as of late.
10Carl Edwards
Last Week: 8
Carl Edwards
All of a sudden, Edwards has gone from a Chase lock to a borderline bubble driver the last few weeks. Pocono was supposed to be a race where he'd contend for the win; instead, his Ford got stuck in traffic, and he was never a factor, finishing a disappointing 18th. "We were just no good in the pack," Edwards said. "In clean air, I was really good, but I just couldn't make anything happen on those restarts at all. Every time there was a re-start, we'd lose spots. It was very frustrating." Dropping to sixth in the standings, the No. 99 has to be careful over the next few weeks just to make sure a mechanical failure or costly mistake on the track doesn't cost them a spot in the top 12. That new Ford engine apparently can't come soon enough.

Dropped Out: Joey Logano (9), David Reutimann (10).

Underdog of the Week: With no single-car teams starting or finishing in the top 25 this week, no one gets this coveted award. Instead, in a troubling sign for NASCAR's future, a total of seven underdog operations "started and parked" at Pocono, pulling their car in before the first pit stop to save money. In fact, one of those teams, the No. 64 driven by Mike Wallace, was black-flagged because they didn't even have a full pit crew at the start of the race. With the sport continuing to get hit hard by the economy, they're going to need to find a way to help these small-time owners out before the starting lineup drops below 43 for the first time in eight years.

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