Tom Bowles
Tuesday June 2nd, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 2
Tony Stewart
Smoke's third runner-up finish of the season left him with a big goose egg in the victory column for 2009. But the consolation prize wasn't half-bad, as Stewart became the first owner/driver to lead the point standings since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 -- a span of 557 races. "It's a pretty cool moment to have your organization mentioned with his organization," Stewart said of the former champ. "It's been a dream season for us...we probably all lost bets up to this point that we would be this far along. But it's a good bet to lose, I guess." And now that Stewart has defied the odds, don't bet against him stepping up his game even further in the regular season's second half: 29 of his 33 career wins have come after June 1.
 
2Ryan Newman
Last Week: 1
Ryan Newman
Newman's streak of top-5 finishes finally came to an end on Sunday, but an eighth-place run could hardly be considered a hiccup. A two-tire stop got the U.S. Army car near the front, but Newman's Chevy was so ill-handling it was all he could do to avoid the wrath of the track they call the Monster Mile, let alone challenge for the win. "I drove a little harder than I wanted to at the end," he said. "I had to drive it so hard to get everything out of it. Typically with these cars, the more you finesse them, the better they are. But there was no finessing Sunday. When everything is not clicking and you can still finish eighth, not a bad day overall." Now fifth in the standings, Newman's well on his way to his first Chase for the Championship appearance since 2005.
 
3Mark Martin
Last Week: 5
Mark Martin
Typically, Dover is Martin's best track on the circuit, so a 10th-place finish has to be considered a major disappointment. But with two wins and three poles so far this season, Martin is armed for destruction heading into a month filled with tracks that favor him: Pocono, Michigan, and yes, even the left and right turns of Infineon (Jeff Gordon and Stewart are the only active drivers with more road course victories than Martin). Although Martin's clinging to that 12th and final spot in the Chase with 13 races remaining, it'd be a shocker to see him ranked that low by the end of the month.
 
4Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 8
Jimmie Johnson
Perhaps Johnson should be ranked a little higher, but fourth seems appropriate for a guy going for an unprecedented fourth straight title. In the past few weeks, the news surrounding Dale Jr.'s crew chief, Jeff Gordon's back and Mark Martin's resurgence left Johnson the forgotten man in the Hendrick camp. But just when you start to forget the No. 48 team, it has a way of jumping out and reminding you it's still the one to beat. Johnson's dominating performance at Dover -- he led 298 of 400 laps -- was punctuated by a late-race charge to the front you usually don't see from him until early fall. After losing seven spots when Chad Knaus' call for a four-tire stop backfired with 31 laps to go, Johnson was like a man possessed as he climbed through the field. Running down and then passing Stewart with only two laps left, Johnson put on a run to the checkered flag that reminded everyone why he's still the favorite to hoist the big trophy come Homestead in November.
 
5Matt Kenseth
Last Week: 10
Matt Kenseth
In a year in which teams with Hendrick equipment are dominating, Matt Kenseth is heading a pack of drivers looking to simply stay within striking distance. Sunday proved a perfect example of how the balance of power has shifted within the sport. Last fall it was Roush Fenway Racing putting a whipping on the competition, with Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and Carl Edwards combining to lead 240 of 400 laps at Dover. This time around, they led just 60, going from a 1-2-3 finish to an average of 4.7. That's not a bad performance by any means; but with the way these Hendrick cars are running, it's also not good enough. "We have all the tools to win," Kenseth said. "[Now] it's our job to figure out how to put it all together into a winning effort."
 
6Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 3
Jeff Gordon
Now that Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s crew chief situation has been addressed, the next order of business at Hendrick Motorsports is to figure out what's wrong with Jeff Gordon. Since winning at Texas for the first time in his Cup career, the one-time point leader has stumbled back to earth, posting an average finish of just 19th over his last six Sprint Cup starts. The Monster Mile showed no sympathy for Gordon's slump this weekend, as a Friday qualifying crash sent the No. 24 to a backup car that never seemed to have the speed until it was too late. "We got ourselves behind on Friday when I hit the wall," Gordon admitted. "When the green flag dropped, we made one adjustment to make the car better, went backwards and got down two laps -- our day was done from that point on." He finished 27th. Perhaps more troubling, Gordon's back continues to bother him, leaving him in serious pain after 400 miles at one of the circuit's most demanding tracks.
 
7Kyle Busch
Last Week: 4
Kyle Busch
Busch took another step towards creating a rivalry with Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend, claiming it was the man behind the wheel and not the one turning the wrenches who was the problem over at the No. 88. But while Busch makes a habit of running his mouth, it seems the racing Gods taught him a thing or two about karma this weekend. Competing in the Truck, Nationwide and Cup Series at Dover, Busch had an opportunity to contend for the win in each of those races. But a flat tire, a bump by his own teammate and a broken splitter left him without a top-5 finish in any of them. And while Busch made a point of talking about how much he runs circles around Dale Jr. on the race track, the final results on Sunday showed a far different story: Dale Jr. 12th, Kyle Busch 23rd. Not exactly the way to put your money where your mouth is, huh?
 
8Kurt Busch
Last Week: NR
Kurt Busch
Kyle's older brother hasn't been running his own mouth as of late; he's been too busy holding up a Penske Racing organization we found out this morning isn't even getting paid by its own manufacturer. A fifth-place finish by Busch at the Monster Mile -- a track that usually eats him alive -- continued a renaissance season that's left him fourth in points. But with the future of Dodge's motorsports involvement in question, will he have the equipment he needs to contend as spring turns into summer? While Penske's long been rumored to make a switch to Toyota for 2010, it's nearly impossible to do so before the end of 2009, which could leave the No. 2 car in need of a little extra cash flow if the financial support from Dodge doesn't pick back up.
 
9Joey Logano
Last Week: 7
Joey Logano
NASCAR's hyped-up young talent had one of his best races of the year at Dover, even though the stats don't show it. Driving a car that missed the setup at one of the Cup Series' trickiest tracks, Logano would have wrestled an ill-handling CoT to a 35th or even 40th-place finish back in February. But the fact he took a car that had no idea how to grip Dover's concrete circuit, and wheeled it into the top 15 shows how far the youngster has developed in just the past two months on the circuit. "We weren't stellar by any means," said Logano. "We weren't that great, but we kept working on it. That's a tough racetrack. It took me longer than I wanted to get the hang of it, but I had a good time." With that, the rookie cracked a smile, showing that with three top 10s in the past five races, he's more comfortable in his new surroundings than ever before.
 
10Kasey Kahne
Last Week: NR
Kasey Kahne
With Dodge's new R6P8 engine under the hood, Kahne suddenly has the horsepower he's been lacking these past few months. "The new motor had plenty of power, which made the car fun to drive," he said after turning a top-5 qualifying run into a sixth-place finish. In fact, the No. 9 team had one of the fastest cars on long runs and would have been a surefire contender for a top-3 finish if, well, NASCAR hadn't found a few too many opportunities to "clean up." "The race had so many debris cautions that it was crazy," Kahne said. "As soon as we would get racing, a debris caution would come out and really take the pace away from the race." But after posting back-to-back top 10s for just the second time all season, the No. 9 team is back on pace at exactly the right time: Kahne is this weekend's defending race champion (Pocono).


Dropped Out: Denny Hamlin (6), David Reutimann (10).

Underdog of the Week: Despite starting just seven of 13 races this season, Regan Smith and his Furniture Row Racing No. 78 team continue to impress each and every time it takes to the track. Smith once again held his own with the multi-car giants, keeping his single-car team in the top 20 for most of the race's first half before fading slightly to 22nd, one lap off the pace. Last season, a run like that would have left this team jumping for joy; but as a sign of how much they've improved, both crew and driver left the track disappointed with a car that could have finished far better.

"We're at the 20th-place barrier, but we want to be in the top-15 barrier consistently," said a frustrated Smith. "Actually, we had a top-15 car today, but just couldn't get that Lucky Dog [when we needed it]." That's great to hear from a segment of the garage where most teams are starting and parking. Considering NASCAR's successful underdogs are few and far between these days, I can tell you one thing we need to see is teams like the No. 78 at the track more often.

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email tbowles81@yahoo.com 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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