Tom Bowles
Tuesday July 14th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
It wasn't the best of weekends for Stewart in Chicagoland. After qualifying a dismal 32nd, he spent the first half of the race battling traffic to work his way up into the top 5. Then, with fewer than 60 laps to go, a poor pit stop under caution knocked him toward the back of the lead lap again -- a spot where he quickly encountered a cut tire. Despite all that madness, once the dust cleared the points leader found himself not just surviving, but thriving with a fourth-place finish. "When you're trying to put yourself in a position to win a championship, consistency is the biggest thing," he said after notching his seventh straight top 10. "That's what makes nights like tonight so crucial, being able to battle back from some adversity." And with Stewart's hometown track ahead, momentum is on his side as he looks to win a third Brickyard trophy.
 
2Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 2
Jimmie Johnson
With a sixth-consecutive Chase bid all but locked up, Johnson continues to be more aggressive on the track as he fights for wins (and the 10-point bonus that comes with them). After a brilliant pass of Mark Martin on the Lap-224 restart, the three-time champ appeared to have put himself in position to take his third victory of the season. But 25 laps later, all it took was the tiniest of love taps from Denny Hamlin on a double-file restart to send Johnson sideways. Considering the duo bumped at Martinsville earlier this year -- where Johnson rooted Hamlin out of the way en route to the win -- the contact was a good way to even things out. That was small consolation for a frustrated Johnson, though, as he got into a second scrap -- this time with budding rival Kurt Busch -- and dropped to eighth. "[Busch is] one of those guys that his temper can get away from him," Johnson said. "[But] I didn't run him up the track on purpose."
 
3Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 6
Jeff Gordon
With the exception of Loudon at the end of June, Gordon's had a real hard time running up front lately. But you wouldn't know it by the finishes the No. 24 keeps pulling out, courtesy of crew chief Steve Letarte's outstanding pit strategy calls that keep putting the DuPont Chevy in position to run up front. At Chicagoland, a call for fresh rubber with 20 laps to go -- while the leaders stayed out -- gave Gordon the advantage he needed to work his way back up. "It was just a battle maneuvering through traffic with cars slipping and sliding all over the place," he said of the frantic final few laps that resulted in a runner-up finish -- the highest the DuPont Chevy had run all day. That gives Gordon four top-5 finishes in the past six races despite just 74 laps led during that stretch.
 
4Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 4
Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya's been a Lucky Dog these days. NASCAR's free pass for the first driver a lap down when the caution comes out has been a savior to the Colombian driver recently. Using the rule to get back on the lead lap following a caution on Lap 132, the No. 42 team utilized that opportunity to make major adjustments on a car that had yet to crack the top 15. It took some tweaking, but before you knew it there was the Target car contending once again, working its way up to 10th place by race's end, extending Montoya's streak of consecutive top-12 finishes to six. Most importantly, the run left him a season-high ninth in points heading to his strongest oval track on the circuit: Indianapolis. A winner there in IndyCar, Montoya already has a runner-up NASCAR finish under his belt, and will be one of the favorites to score a Brickyard 400 victory.
 
5Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 7
Denny Hamlin
While teammate Kyle Busch has fizzled, Hamlin's fortunes have taken a turn for the better with four top-5 finishes in his past five starts. But in what has been a theme of his season, his bid for the win came up short due to someone else knocking the No. 11 out of the way. This time around, it was Brian Vickers who lost control of his No. 83, running into Hamlin while battling for the lead. The scrape left both cars without the momentum they needed as Mark Martin sped up and breezed by them. "The guy on the inside is at the mercy of the guy on the outside," Hamlin said. "You can only really run into the corner so hard. We held him tight and he got into us and knocked us up the track."
 
6Kasey Kahne
Last Week: 8
Kasey Kahne
In the midst of uncertainty over the future of Richard Petty Motorsports, Kahne has racked up a nice set of finishes that have him firmly in Chase contention. He may not be driving Dodges for much longer, but in the midst of dodging questions about a possible move to Toyota, Kahne's managed a win and four straight top-15 finishes that have him eighth in the series standings. "We've been working really well together, our whole Budweiser Dodge team," Kahne explained. "The guys had good stops all night -- they've been on a roll with that. The car was [just] good from the drop of the green [flag]." A little extra horsepower has certainly been helping with Kahne's success, too -- five of his seven top-10 finishes have come since RPM finally moved to Dodge's new R6 engine in the middle of May.
 
7Mark Martin
Last Week: NR
Mark Martin
Martin continues to set a new standard for 50-something athletes, winning his league-high fourth race of the season Saturday night. At one point, it looked like his dominant car would fall short of Victory Lane after Johnson snookered him on the restart mentioned above. But the difference this year for the sport's Charlie Brown is he has the confidence the bad luck bug won't bite him. He's reamaining calm and patient behind the wheel and fighting back against the adversity that always seems to find him. With 17 laps to go, there he was sailing back into the top spot, letting circumstances fall back his way on a night in which the No. 5 car was capable of lapping the field at one point. Now, the key for Martin is developing some of that trademark consistency. While he's won three times in the past nine races, he's only managed one top-10 finish -- hence his spot on the Chase bubble.
 
8Carl Edwards
Last Week: 3
Carl Edwards
What the heck is going on with Ford? The only American manufacturer not to cut funding in the sport this year, the Blue Ovals' cars continue to struggle -- they're now winless on the tour since California in February. Carl Edwards has been doing his best to carry the torch, but contact with Jeff Gordon, which messed up Edwards' car, was emblematic of a rough day in which he struggled to 14th -- the only one of eight Fusions in the race to crack the top 20. What's it going to take to turn things around? Well, one area that needs to be addressed is something you don't even need to spend money on: making the right moves on and off pit road. Between Edwards' decision not to pit with 20 laps to go -- a move that left him struggling with old tires in mid-pack -- and Greg Biffle's handful of pit road miscues, the Fords were reminded how easily the little things can bite you.
 
9Marcos Ambrose
Last Week: 10
Marcos Ambrose
The Tasmanian Devil may have been fast in his day, but he's got nothing on Ambrose's No. 47. On the verge of giving David Reutimann a run for his money as top dog at Michael Waltrip Racing, Ambrose drove to an 11th-place finish Saturday night. As we said last week, this team remains a longshot to make the Chase -- it's 217 behind 12th-place Matt Kenseth with seven races to go -- but the way those close to the bubble have been running, stranger things have happened. Remember, the next stretch of races includes what could amount to an automatic top 5 for Ambrose at Watkins Glen, a place where he could gain plenty of points on Chase contenders who are far from road-racing experts.
 
10Brian Vickers
Last Week: NR
Brian Vickers
After collecting his fifth pole of the season on Thursday, Vickers failed to turn that position into a weekend trip to Victory Lane once again. You'd think that after so many weeks of starting up front, the No. 83 would be able to keep it there at some point. Instead, the team is just one short of tying the all-time record for most poles in a season without a victory (six), set by Alan Kulwicki in 1989 and matched by Ken Schrader in 1993. "I'm getting tired of near-misses," he said afterward. ""I felt like we had a top-three car -- at minimum a top-five -- and we finished seventh."


Dropped Out: Kurt Busch (5), Kyle Busch (9).

Underdog of the Week: It was a tough week for the underdogs, but in a race with few diamonds in the rough, we'll hand this one to Bill Elliott and the Wood Brothers. Qualifying 8th on Thursday, the No. 21 continued to impress when it got to the track. This after it chose to cut back to a limited schedule this year. The key is to finish what they started, as a litany of small miscues during the race eventually dropped the team two laps off the pace to 29th.

Still, after the race, Elliott's enthusiasm was palpable as he spoke about the team's steady upward climb. "Man, I'll tell you what, we had a great car, but you're gonna have nights like that," he said. "We just had a bunch of miscues and then I spun the tires on that last restart, but there's no doubt we're making progress. We're getting there."

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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