Tom Bowles
Tuesday July 7th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Tony Stewart
Last Week: 1
Tony Stewart
Stewart put together a scintillating performance at Daytona this weekend -- leading 86 of 160 laps at a track where plate racing produces parity, not dominance -- but all anyone's talking about is that last lap tussle with Kyle Busch. For his part, Stewart's standing his ground about a wreck caused by Busch drifting up when his No. 14, sitting in second, already had a run on his outside. Just don't call him a happy camper for taking the trophy when that contact caused a dozen-car wreck behind him. "That's not the way you want to win these things," he said. "You hate seeing a guy get wrecked like that...but we weren't going to give it to him, either." And so, the discussion about the pitfalls of plate racing will roll on -- but one thing that's undeniable is Stewart's grip atop the Sprint Cup standings. He's now a season-high 180 points ahead of Jeff Gordon with eight races remaining until the Chase.
2Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 3
Jimmie Johnson
Johnson came home with a runner-up finish Saturday night, avoiding all the carnage to climb within 14 points of Jeff Gordon for second in the standings. At the moment, only Stewart seems on the level of the No. 48 heading towards the championship Chase this Fall. But will Johnson really stay the bridesmaid when his own team supplies Stewart with all the chassis and equipment? "You know, it's just good to see all of our guys, the teams we support with motors and cars run well, too," said car owner Rick Hendrick back in May. "We're proud of that. But at the end of the day, when it gets down to the Chase, we want to win with these guys."
3Carl Edwards
Last Week: 5
Carl Edwards
Cousin Carl and crew were on top of their game at Daytona, with solid pit stops a key to them collecting a third straight top-5 finish at the track's 400-mile July event. Nighttime brings out the best in Edwards, as these remain the only competitive plate race finishes of his six-year Cup career. But for this driver, the momentum gained on the track and on pit road were of little consequence once a wreck unfolded that reminded him of a terrifying Talladega flip in April. "I was really concerned about Kyle," he said. "I saw the fight side of his car lift off the, that's a hard hit." A scary wreck like the one Edwards went through changes the way you look at these things. He told me in his SI diary to be published this week that he got so worried he'd get caught up in that mess, he chose to drive hard left through the grass in a desperate attempt to avoid it.
4Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 4
Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya left Daytona with a ninth-place finish, but that had to feel like a win after the night the No. 42 Chevrolet had. It didn't take long for the car to be involved in a wreck, as the Colombian caught a piece of Mark Martin's spin on Lap 14. That left him with a damaged car that required several stops to fix, the last of which left him a lap behind the leaders. Damage combined with a tire problem left Montoya needing NASCAR's free pass to get back in contention not once, but twice. But he made the most of the opportunity, with the crew fine-tuning the car so well by the end of the race it would suck up perfectly inside the draft. Now, Montoya has gone from one to 86 points ahead of the 13th-place driver, giving him a little breathing room with Indy still ahead of him.
5Kurt Busch
Last Week: 8
Kurt Busch
Busch has clearly gotten his season back on track, putting together back-to-back top-5 finishes for the first time since this same stretch of races one year ago. But Daytona has to be getting a little frustrating for Busch, who is always the bridesmaid and never the bride at a track where he pushed Ryan Newman to Victory in the Great American Race in February, 2008. At least this one was more a matter of survival than fighting for second, though; Busch's car was damaged goods after contact with David Ragan sent the No. 6 car spinning on Lap 123. "We had a tire shred early in the race, [too]," added Busch. "We were just hoping for a top 10 [at that point]. Fifth was more than we expected." It also served as the best run for Dodge in a race where just two were able to finish in the top 10.
6Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 2
Jeff Gordon
Just when Gordon's team looked like it was ready to take a step back towards championship contention, Daytona's poor performance leaves them back at square one. Leading just one lap all day long, Gordon was in the middle of the pack when the day's biggest wreck happened on Lap 78, leaving him an innocent victim and his car looking like a junkyard reject for the next two hours. He limped around on the lead lap, but never could hold the draft, en route to a disappointing 28th place. A six-time Daytona winner, Gordon now has just one top-5 finish in his past nine starts at the track. Considering the team's recent struggles, that makes Chicagoland a key race for the No. 24 next week. With five of the ten Chase races at 1.5-mile ovals, Gordon wants to show well at a place where he's got a career average finish of 10th.
7Denny Hamlin
Last Week: NR
Denny Hamlin
With another podium finish (third at Daytona), the No. 11 team is cementing itself as a Chaser during a down year for Joe Gibbs where even the mighty No. 18 of Kyle Busch may not make it (more on that in a minute). But after 63 laps led never resulted in a serious challenge for the win, you have to wonder if a winless streak -- now at 48 races -- continues to bog down Hamlin's confidence. His 577 laps led this season are third behind Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. The difference is, those cars have a total of five victories between them so far in 2009.
8Kasey Kahne
Last Week: 6
Kasey Kahne
Kahne may be one spot in front of Kyle Busch in the rankings, but it was Kyle Busch's stopped car in the tri-oval which really gave him a scare on Daytona's last lap. Plowing into the back of the No. 18, the impact threw Busch airborne a second time and completely gutted the front end of Kahne's Budweiser Dodge. "It was an awful hard hit for a stock car," he said. Yet despite finishing the race in a million pieces, the 15th-place run allowed Kahne to not only enter the top 12 in the standings, but to create a 65-point margin over his closest competitor, Mark Martin, in 13th. Only in plate racing could you see your car destroyed heading to the finish, and still come out smelling like a rose.
9Kyle Busch
Last Week: NR
Kyle Busch
Busch's roller coaster season reached new heights of destruction Saturday, when the last-lap crash with Stewart sent him airborne and crashing into nearly half-a-dozen cars. Treated like a pinball, Busch's car had some scary moments where it came close to hitting the catchfence. But unlike at Talladega, Daytona allows all its fans to get right up close to the fence on the final lap -- a security lapse that could have had devastating consequences. Angry and distraught, Busch exited his car looking for Tony Stewart, but was instead forced into the infield care center for a checkup. He chose to leave the track without comment, but in failing to mask his disappointment, actions clearly speak louder than words. Winding up 14th, Busch remains without a top-5 finish since winning at Richmond in the beginning of May -- leaving him vulnerable to watching his Chase bubble burst.
10Marcos Ambrose
Last Week: NR
Marcos Ambrose
The likable Tasmanian continues to impress on the Sprint Cup circuit, as lessons learned in drafting from team owner Michael Waltrip continue to pay off. Ambrose was the only one of the three MWR-supported cars to miss the wrecks Saturday night, running near the front for most of the race's second half before eventually settling for sixth. Backing up his fourth-place finish at Talladega this April, it looks like road course racing isn't the only specialty listed on this driver's resume anymore. Now 18th in the standings, Ambrose is still a longshot at best to make this year's Chase. But considering he HAS a shot this late in the season -- something veterans like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kevin Harvick simply cannot say -- is pretty impressive.

Dropped Out: Mark Martin (7), Joey Logano (10).

Underdog of the Week: If Regan Smith ran every Cup race this season for Furniture Row Racing, he'd probably have a lock on this category. Unfortunately, the No. 78 only has enough funding for a limited schedule. But once again, the second-year driver made the most of his opportunity at Daytona. Earning the 43rd and final spot in the starting lineup after qualifying was rained out, Smith showed the type of patience in the draft that's helped him finish every one of his restrictor plate starts. Never getting seriously involved in any of the wrecks, he popped into the top 10 during the race's final segments before a late-race fade left him 12th at the start/finish line. While some contend Smith was the winner of the Fall Talladega race last year (in which he dipped below the line to pass Tony Stewart but was penalized for the infraction), officially this run was his best ever in Sprint Cup. That's good news for this single-car outfit still searching for sponsorship to get back to a full season of competition in 2010.

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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