Tom Bowles
Tuesday June 9th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
Smoke followed up taking over the points lead at Dover with another momentous achievement Sunday: the first win for an owner/driver in the Cup Series since Ricky Rudd in September, 1998. Accomplishments like these should always come with the drama we saw at Pocono, when Stewart ran the final 102.5 miles on one fuel run to complete a sensational drive from 43rd to 1st following a Saturday practice crash. Not known as a fuel mileage-specialist, Stewart used a calm, steady demeanor down the stretch -- in which he often cut the engine down the straightaways to save gas. It's a trait that can be attributed to the blossoming, trusting relationship he's developed with crew chief Darian Grubb. "He knows what pace we need to run," Stewart said. "And he just kept backing me down when I would get going too hard or too quick." A former Daytona 500-winning crew chief with Jimmie Johnson, Grubb's demeanor on top of the pit box combined with Stewart's new-found maturity has this team better than anyone could have imagined.
2Ryan Newman
Last Week: 2
Ryan Newman
Just as with Tony Stewart, the development of Newman's team at Stewart-Haas Racing has been fascinating to watch. Pulling a Three Stooges routine over the first four races, the No. 39 crew did everything from dropping the jack at the wrong time to leaving loose lugnuts during pit stops. But as we saw on Sunday, the team's ability to troubleshoot on pit road illustrates its rapidly developing maturity. After going through the distributor cap and all wires connected to the engine, their diagnosis of a faulty spark plug put their car back on all eight cylinders -- and back on course to a top-5 finish. "It was a good run for our guys to be able to fight back," Newman said. "They did a great job not giving up." The normally unemotional Newman was left so happy, in fact, he jumped out of character by giving his owner a giant "man hug" in Victory Lane.
3Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 4
Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's car may have run out of gas on Sunday, but his No. 48 team looks like it's just beginning to pick up the pace. Sliding to a seventh-place finish after the fuel tank ran dry, the three-time champ still made an impressive recovery after a penalty on pit road left him stranded at the back of the lead lap. And while Johnson rightfully complained that the red light signifying pit road was closed is nearly impossible to see -- NASCAR needs a better system -- he couldn't get upset about a car that paced the field for 31 of 200 laps. Here's a key stat to remember as races begin to become much more important: Johnson has now led at least one lap in 12 of 14 races. Not only is he tops in that category, but no one else is even close as this perennial championship contender continues to show his versatility.
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 6
Jeff Gordon
So often, the greatest athletes are defined by their ability to keep performing when circumstances dictate they fall apart. Sunday was one of those days for Jeff Gordon, as he took both his ailing back and a Chevy he called "junk" within the first 100 laps to a fourth-place finish on fuel strategy. At one point, crew chief Steve Letarte left Gordon in the lead under the race's final caution, gambling that a rain shower would force the race to be called. When it didn't, an extra stop on Lap 164 left the No. 24 car at the back of the pack -- but that splash of gas combined with a late-race adjustment more than made up for the loss of track position down the stretch. Still, when it comes to the sport's new double-file restart rule, this old dog has to learn some new tricks. "It was a handful there in all that dirty air," Gordon said. "The aerodynamics were totally different and I was just out of control and lost a bunch of spots."
5Carl Edwards
Last Week: NR
Carl Edwards
NASCAR's resident gymnast may not be doing backflips over being winless halfway through the regular season, but after looking out of sorts to start 2009, this year's pre-season favorite to challenge Jimmie Johnson is finally showing signs of being up to the task. Pocono's second-place finish was nice, but it didn't do justice to a car that led a race-high 103 laps -- 49 more than his total all year. "The cool part about it was, it kind of felt like we're in the form that we were in at the end of last season," Edwards said. "We ran really well, I could pass people, and I felt like if Tony [Stewart] and I had to race there at the end, I felt really good about my chances of being able to win the race on speed." Most importantly, Edwards jumped five spots to sixth in the standings as he tries to establish some breathing room in the most competitive Chase race in years. That doesn't mean he's not frustrated; but as he'll explain in his SI diary this week, all that melts away when he looks at the bigger picture. "You've got to keep your pride in check," he said. "And know that the real race is with 10 to go."
6Mark Martin
Last Week: 3
Mark Martin
Martin's second win at Darlington seemed to signify the No. 5 team was heading toward a cakewalk into the Chase. But it's slightly troubling to see that in the three races since (Charlotte, Pocono, and Dover), he's finished 17th, 10th, and 19th at what are arguably his three most consistent tracks. This Sunday, it was the bad luck bug -- Martin's lifelong buddy -- that returned in the form of a late-race splash of gas. Too many others could make it to the finish, leaving the No. 5 car further down the running order and one point outside the Chase in 13th. Suddenly, that battle for Martin to make the top 12 is looking like one heck of a dogfight.
7Matt Kenseth
Last Week: 5
Matt Kenseth
Who would have thought that after starting the season 2-for-2, Matt Kenseth would hold the only pair of wins for five-car Roush Fenway Racing four months later? Ford may be the only American car manufacturer in this series not going bankrupt, but it's got plenty of work to do to catch up to the Hendrick/Stewart-Haas Chevys that have collected six of the past eight victories on the circuit. Even when the Fords seem ready to come out of their shell -- besides Edwards, both Kenseth and Greg Biffle were running in the top 5 for much of the race at Pocono -- a problem like pit road penalties or poor fuel mileage always dooms them at the finish. The latter was the problem for Kenseth on Sunday, as a late-race stop for gas ruined what was a top-10 car literally the entire day. A dry Kenseth made his comments short and sweet afterward: "We ran third all day and finished 16th. I don't know what else to say about it." Ouch.
8David Reutimann
Last Week: NR
David Reutimann
Michael Waltrip Racing in the Chase? It's a line so many never thought they'd see, but every week Reutimann brings it one step closer to becoming reality. Two weeks after his upset victory at Charlotte, he proved the win wasn't a fluke with a top-10 car that rose up to third at the finish. Now back up to 11th in points, Reutimann's key is to keep the momentum going with a horde of established veterans, including Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, and Clint Bowyer behind him. Reutimann is a better driver than most give him credit for -- now the trick is getting him to believe it. "I'm not exactly the most confident guy," he admits. "But it's worked out so far. We have definitely had some races that we would like to forget, but for the most part it's been a pretty good year. I'm really happy with everything."
9Greg Biffle
Last Week: NR
Greg Biffle
It's hard to dissect Biffle's 2009 season to date. Sure, he's struggled along with the rest of the Roush Fenway team, but keep in mind last year's late-season championship bloomer is keeping pace with his 2008 numbers. His 1,753 points are just 28 less than last year, and that zero in the win column doesn't mean much to a guy who went 2-for-2 to start the Chase last September. Of course, that's small consolation this week for a man who wouldn't have minded a few extra drops of fuel at Pocono. "We had a great car, but when we don't need to have good fuel mileage, we've got good fuel mileage, and when we need it, we don't," he said of his drop to 11th on Sunday. Still, look for the No. 16 to be a favorite to take the checkers at Michigan, a Ford factory that's pumped out five victories in the last nine races for Jack Roush.
10Kyle Busch
Last Week: 7
Kyle Busch
So much has been made of Busch's guitar-smashing incident, in which he won the Nationwide Series race Saturday in Nashville only to attempt to break the trophy in Victory Lane. Right or wrong (my opinion: wrong), the whole incident has become a distraction for him at the worst possible time. Don't look now, but to me the bigger story is Busch finished 22nd in the Cup race -- you know, the series he's supposed to be focusing on -- and is in very real jeopardy of not making the Chase. Yet with his Cup team floundering as of late, the 24-year-old is racing in Trucks, Nationwide, and Cup this weekend in a 48-hour stretch? It was at this point last year that Busch was accused of stretching himself too thin -- and it's exactly when his Cup team started to sag. He should think twice of pulling triple duty this time around, because this time, he doesn't have the cushion he needs to survive a second slump.

Dropped Out: Kurt Busch (8), Joey Logano (9), Kasey Kahne (10).

Underdog of the Week: Usually, a 36th-place finish, four laps down, is nothing to write home about, but for young Dexter Bean, it was a promising start in his Sprint Cup debut at Pocono. The No. 51 Dodge started 41st and was never competitive, but the young rookie stayed out of trouble and brought the car home in one piece.

It's true that Dexter -- the owner's son -- is a former ARCA driver who, at 22, needs plenty more experience. But in talking with the family-owned team on Friday -- in between Dexter working on his own car -- you were reminded of NASCAR's roots. In this disturbing age of start and parks, too many owners are out there with no intention of becoming competitive. But that's not the case for the Beans, whose family-owned operation has sponsorship from Livewire Energy, and plans to race in each event it qualifies for. That's a welcome relief for a part of the garage that's recently been reduced to simply collecting a paycheck to survive.

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