Tom Bowles
Tuesday September 16th, 2008

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
For the two-time defending champ, going for title number three has never come so easy. In his last four Chases, Johnson has never left Loudon with the points lead, coming up with an average finish of just 16th. But a solid runner-up finish -- his third in the top two in as many weeks -- left him tied with Carl Edwards atop the rankings with all of his best tracks still ahead of him. Sure, Johnson would have loved to win, but with a bigger trophy on the line come Homestead, it's a whole lot easier to temper that frustration. "Second anytime is no fun," he said Sunday. "But with the big picture ... we did what we needed to."
2Carl Edwards
Last Week: 2
Carl Edwards
No one was happier with their finish on Sunday than Edwards. In eight career starts he had led just two laps at Loudon and was hoping to simply sneak away with a Top 10. Knowing his driver has a difficult time on the Magic Mile, crew chief Bob Osborne tried to pull a rabbit out of his hat this weekend, coming up with a radical new setup for Sunday. "He showed me the sheet [Sunday] morning and I said, 'Man, I hope it works,'" Edwards said about the gamble. Well, 61 laps led and one third-place finish later, there's no doubt that it did. Tied with Johnson atop the standings after Kyle Busch's bad luck, the big question for the No. 99 is whether they can take the upper hand at Dover -- a track where they finished second in June.
3Kyle Busch
Last Week: 8
Greg Biffle
In hindsight Biffle's surprising trip to Victory Lane was something we should have seen coming. All of the five Chase openers have been won by a playoff contender -- just never by the top two seeds. That opens the door for longshots like Biffle, and he couldn't have picked a more perfect time to snag his first win of 2008. After a late-race caution allowed him to switch from fuel conservation mode to full-bore aggression, Biffle blew by Jimmie Johnson to take his second Top 3 finish in the last three weeks. His fifth career win in the Chase -- only Johnson has more -- boosted him to third in points and left a Cinderella slipper sitting on his doorstep. "I feel like we're a definite threat because of the momentum we've had," he says. "And how good the race tracks are in the Chase for me. Dover, Texas, Kansas, Homestead -- we've won at them all."
4Kyle Busch
Last Week: 3
Kyle Busch
Who knew that a broken left heim joint on a sway bar could cause such a mess? For Busch it's the difference between leading the points race and watching a regular season of dominance slip away in the matter of 300 laps. When the part failure occurred on lap 19 he was running in the Top 5. Less than 100 laps later he had lost two laps, spun out on the backstretch and been hit by Jamie McMurray. That's how much the handling of the car is affected by a part that you see break on the track, oh, about once in a blue moon. "It's one of those things you can't do nothing about," said crew chief Steve Addington after slumping to 34th. "It cost us, so we'll just have to go back and re-evaluate." The question is whether Busch, exasperated on the radio before leaving the track in a huff, can get his emotions in line to do that.
5Kevin Harvick
Last Week: 4
Kevin Harvick
Most drivers would be satisfied with a Top 10 finish in the first race of the playoffs. But Harvick -- who led 54 laps at Loudon in June -- knows this was a missed opportunity to run up front. "If we had a long run, we were fine," he said. "But we were pretty much terrible from the drop of the green flag. It's a Top 10, but it is not what we wanted." The winner of this race back in 2006, Harvick lost a chance to gain on his competition at one of their worst tracks -- and one of his best. Now, his streak of seven straight Top 10s will be severely challenged at Dover, where he finished 38th in the spring.
6Tony Stewart
Last Week: 5
Tony Stewart
One week after blasting his team on the radio at Richmond, Stewart had no one to blame but himself for an eighth-place finish that could have been far better. During an early pit stop he misjudged an exit out of his stall, pushing in a left front fender after making contact with Johnny Sauter. That put them behind, and when Stewart tried to make it up during a green flag stop, he was slapped with a speeding penalty. Falling a lap behind the leaders, the No. 20 needed to rely on a Lucky Dog and a series of timely cautions in order to work its way back up through the field. "Last week, it was a mistake in the pits, and this week it was a mistake on the driver's part," Stewart admitted. "To fight back to eighth -- I'm pretty happy with that."
7Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last Week: 9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Lots of people think I'm a Junior-hater these days, and that couldn't be further from the truth. I just don't like it when two good people are stuck in a bad marriage, and Junior and crew chief Tony Eury have needed counseling for months. Once again the No. 88 car started out as the fastest thing on wheels at Loudon, and once again it went backward during the middle portion of the race. Junior swears it was a bad set of tires that bit his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, but the fact remains that this team has a pattern of starting out on top -- only to let a once-certain win slip away. But armed with back-to-back Top 5 finishes for the first time since June, Junior's still got plenty to smile about: He's tied for fourth in the standings, only 50 points off the lead.
8Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 6
Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's confidence is fragile these days, and it took a hit at Loudon after dropping from a certain Top 5 to a ninth-place finish. After making a pit stop on lap 216, crew chief Mike Ford brought Hamlin down less than 15 laps later during another yellow flag for fuel. But none of the other leaders pitted with him, and Hamlin wound up banished to the back of the pack. While Ford thought the rest of the cars would wind up stopping for fuel, a litany of cautions allowed everyone to make it the distance -- leaving Hamlin with poor track position that he could never fight his way back from. "I need to learn how as a driver to get better fuel mileage," said Hamlin after the event, trying to hide the frustration of another poor-luck performance.
9Jeff Burton
Last Week: NR
Jeff Burton
With Greg Biffle's surprising win, Burton flew under the radar at his favorite track with a surprising fourth-place finish. The No. 31 team has been off the radar after a sickening summer dropped them out of the points lead and seemingly out of title contention. But all of a sudden the 40-year-old appears to have his groove back, and the master of the Top 10 finish has a chance to prove that this two-week resurgence isn't just a fluke. "That's the kind of runs we need to get back to having," he said. "I feel like our best stuff is coming." With the Monster Mile ahead -- a track where Burton won just two years ago -- we're about to find out.
10Kurt Busch
Last Week: NR
Kurt Busch
Penske Racing went from a 1-2 finish in the Daytona 500 to an 0-for-2 showing in the Chase, but one-time title-favorite Busch is trying to make the most of the final 10 races. Back at the track where he snagged his lone win of 2008, Busch came through with a sixth-place finish to score back-to-back Top 10s for just the second time all season. "We're still struggling at the end of the race keeping up with the race track," Busch admitted, a sign that perhaps he should start a support group with the whole Tony Eury-Dale Earnhardt Jr. crowd.

Dropped Out: Matt Kenseth (9), Jeff Gordon (10), Clint Bowyer (11)

Fan submission of the week: Don't see your driver in the power rankings? Want to make a case for why we're missing the boat? E-mail Tom Bowles at and tell us why your driver should be included. We'll pick one lucky fan who sticks up for his or her favorite and include their rant in the rankings each week!

This Week's Submission: Jeff Smith, Fort Worth, TX:I think you're completely underestimating Jeff Gordon's ability to win a fifth title. If it wasn't for Jimmie Johnson and the Chase, he'd have rolled to the championship over the final 10 races last year ... what makes you think he can't do it again?

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