Tom Bowles
Tuesday October 6th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
The three-time champ holds on to the top spot this week, albeit barely after a poor pit call by Chad Knaus opened the door for his competition. After dominating the first half at Kansas, the crew chief put four tires on the No. 48 in a cycle during which everyone took two, dropping the team from first to ninth and leaving them trapped in traffic. With dirty air not a strong point, the car never recovered and ninth is exactly where Johnson finished on a day where he could have retaken the point lead and struck a near-fatal blow with a second straight win in the Chase. "I hate losing points," he said afterwards. "But, still a lot of racing left. Ninth isn't too bad." Considering he's got a 9.8 average finish this season at the next six tracks, best among the 12 title contenders, there's not too much reason to be concerned here ... yet.
2Mark Martin
Last Week: 2
Mark Martin
The Sprint Cup points leader stumbled a bit on Sunday, falling flat after winning the pole and leading the first 11 laps. But these are the types of days championship performances are made of; fighting hard to simply stay inside the top 10, he engineered a late surge to seventh that actually allowed him to pad his lead a bit. "We finished as high as we could," he said in opening up an 18-point gap over Johnson. "We raced our guts out, and that's what you've got to do in all of them and see how they (points) tally up." With an average finish of 3.3 so far in the Chase, the question is whether he can maintain that pace. The grizzled vet now has to handle two difficult tracks ahead: Calfornia (where he blew his engine in February), then Charlotte (where his title bid ended in a fightening crash with J.J. Yeley in '06) in order to move from "sentimental favorite" to "serious contender."
3Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 3
Juan Pablo Montoya
The Colombian had quite the mood swing Sunday: from anger to agitation to simply feeling awesome after jumping from 8th to 4th in the final 27 laps. "We fought hard all day to get the car handling right," said Montoya, who threw some expletives at Brian Pattie with less than 100 to go, forcing the crew chief to use some code words on the radio to calm things down and break the tension. "It was a long day but we got it together towards the end and were running fast lap times." That effort paid off as he now holds the unique distinction of being the only driver with three top 5s in the first three Chase races. But that's where no trips to Victory Lane is absolutely killing him, as he remains 51 points behind Mark Martin after perhaps putting his best foot forward. The team rolled out three new cars the last three weeks, but rest assured there aren't 10 new Chevys behind that shop door.
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 4
Jeff Gordon
Hendrick's former number one driver is learning a harsh lesson about second place being the first loser. With the fastest car late in the race Sunday, Gordon got busy running down Tony Stewart but track position left him too far behind to catch him. That left the No. 24 team with its seventh runner-up finish this season on a day when a win would have done wonders for its Chase chances. "He had clean air," Gordon said of the big advantage that makes the leader all but invincible in the new car. "As long as he didn't make any big mistakes, I wasn't going to catch him." But is the four-time champ still capable of catching Johnson? In three Chase races, the one stat that sticks out for Gordon is zero laps led. It's hard enough to win the title without a trip to Victory Lane in the final 10 races, but if you're fighting from so far behind you can't even get out front -- well, that's not a good sign.
5Tony Stewart
Last Week: 8
Tony Stewart
Quieting critics (including me) who claim Stewart won't have the equipment needed to make noise in the Chase, the Hendrick-supported driver had his best race since August in taking home the checkers at Kansas. Stopping a streak of six straight races without a top 5 finish, he relied on crew chief Darian Grubb to make a gutsy two-tire call that got him out front on the last stop. "We were hanging out with them all day, but we couldn't get in front of them to be able to outrun them," the crew chief explained. "So we knew we had to do something there at the end to get that track position." It worked out, and now the No. 14 is back within 67 points of the championship lead he held for so much of this season. Just don't remind him he'd be out front by 195 under the old point system, as he got a little testy about that in the media center Sunday. "I don't even talk about the old system because we don't use it anymore," he snapped. "Unless they go back to it, who cares?"
6Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 7
Denny Hamlin
After watching Hamlin's emotions and title chase unravel at Dover once again, one was left to wonder whether the Joe Gibbs Racing leader would bounce back. He provided the answer on Sunday with a fifth-place finish, his first career top 10 at Kansas. "We just got to keep chipping away at the lead," he said, while noting their biggest weakness still lies ahead: four of the final seven races are held at these intermediate-style tracks where JGR has spent the year struggling to find extra speed. "I have some ideas on what we need to do when we unload at the next mile-and-a-half that I think [will] put us in the ballpark. That way, we can fine tune it in practice."
7Greg Biffle
Last Week: NR
Greg Biffle
After a year-long slump in which Ford has gone winless in 27 straight races, Biffle came the closest to giving the Blue Oval a breath of fresh air. Leading 116 laps Sunday, he built nearly a 10-second lead at one point before Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s blown engine bunched up the field and led to a critical final pit stop. Crew chief Greg Erwin wanted two tires, but as the No. 16 stopped in its stall, Biffle held up four fingers. That made all the difference as the fresh rubber dropped him to fourth and left him unable to track down Stewart at the finish. "I should have held up one," he joked of a move of the hand that's just the latest in a long list of pit road mistakes from Roush Fenway Racing this year. Now eighth in points, 114 behind, he remains a long shot for the title unless he orders up a trip to Victory Lane at Fontana this Sunday.
8Kurt Busch
Last Week: 5
Kurt Busch
It took three weeks, but this whole Pat Tryson-locked-out-of-the-Penske-shop story that's turned into a high school drama is finally affecting their championship hopes. It looked like the Miller Lite Dodge was playing catchup from the moment the cars unloaded on Friday, and by the time the crew chief got everything in order the car had qualified 39th, its driver spending the entire day busting through traffic only to stop short at 11th by race's end. No one will admit it, but you wonder what an extra few days of prep with his crew would have done for Tryson and Co. at a track where they've never finished in the top 10. "We could never find the right balance between tight and loose," Busch said afterwards. "When you look at the leaderboard and see 11 out of the top 12 guys Chase drivers, it makes it really tough to gain spots and earn points." Actually, Kurt, it was nine of the top 10, but who's counting?
9Carl Edwards
Last Week: 10
Carl Edwards
The first thing I'll ask Carl this week when we do our SI diary is, "Can you still win the championship?" And I know exactly what he'll say, because this man is the special type of athlete that gives 110% in the face of impossible odds. But any sort of comeback is going to be tough. Falling 165 points behind, he's facing the same deficit rival Jimmie Johnson had before coming back to win the title in 2006. But here's the big difference between them: Johnson already had his share of wins, while Edwards is still searching for his first trip to Victory Lane. A pit road speeding penalty kept him from contention on Sunday, a tough reminder of how one small mistake can be all it takes to kill your chances in this championship fight. "It's a frustrating day," he admitted after settling for 10th. "We have just got to be a little faster, a little better."
10Brad Keselowski
Last Week: NR
Brad Keselowski
On a day where nine of the top 10 finishers were Chasers, Keselowski deserves a shout-out for a solid day behind the wheel of the No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Driving a limited schedule with former Earnhardt crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. calling the shots, he was a top 5 driver until an unlucky caution left him trapped in traffic after a green-flag pit stop. Falling outside the top 20, he was still able to work his way to 13th on a day where track position meant everything. But perhaps more intriguing was a warning he got not to mess with the Chasers after trading paint with Juan Pablo Montoya just one week after getting into it with Denny Hamlin during a Nationwide race. "They were racing me hard," the rookie said in his defense of a call many think should have never been made. "When they did that, it forced my hand and made me race them hard. We didn't wreck -- it was just good racin.'"


Dropped Out: Ryan Newman (6), Brian Vickers (9).

Underdog of the Week: It seems like every time the Wood Brothers show up to the track these days, they're a shoo-in to earn this award. Coming back from three cracked ribs suffered in a dirt bike accident, Bill Elliott put together a masterful performance again behind the wheel of the No. 21 Ford, turning a 16th-place starting spot into a 19th-place finish despite some damage to the front bumper of his race car. It's the fifth time in 10 races the team's finished in the top 20, giving them plenty to build on for the same type of limited schedule on intermediate ovals next season.

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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