Tom Bowles
Tuesday October 14th, 2008

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
The two-time champ has been playing defense these last two weeks after opening up a sizable lead in the Chase. At Talladega, Johnson soldiered home a disappointing ninth after rivals Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle wrecked themselves out of contention. Six days later, he had another case of the late race blues, fading to sixth at the finish with an "ill-handling" car that couldn't compete down the stretch with eventual winner Jeff Burton. "I hated the last third of the race," he said. "We got out in left field and couldn't get back." Whether you believe that or think Johnson was just "playing it safe," there's no denying those two runs have left 50 points sitting on the table. Now, with Burton on the move, Johnson needs to get back on offense at Martinsville to ensure his lead remains in the safe zone.
2Jeff Burton
Last Week: 4
Jeff Burton
Heading into this year's Chase, Jeff Burton was left for dead, so much so most didn't even pick the 41-year-old to finish in the Top 10 in points. But Burton's turned around a disappointing summer for his No. 31 team at the best possible time. Winning his second race of the season at Lowe's, Burton now has a perfect mix of consistency and running up front. Two victories are the most for him since 2001, and his five straight Top 10 finishes have us remembering his streak of seventeen straight Top 15s to start the year. Yet even after last week at Talladega, most people thought Burton wasn't a serious contender. "Nobody's picked us," he said. "You know, I don't blame them. You should have picked Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. You still should. Why wouldn't you?" That's the type of talk you'd expect from an underdog sneaking to within 69 of the top spot.
3Greg Biffle
Last Week: 3
Greg Biffle
As I said a few weeks back, Biffle's contender or pretender status would be defined by three Chase races: Talladega, Lowe's, and Martinsville. As expected, he's struggled to make it through and is barely hanging on to title contention with one tough track still to go. Lowe's was better than his 24th place Talladega disappointment, but considering the Biff had a winning car at one point, frustration boiled over late-race adjustments that sent the No. 16 sliding back to seventh. "I was just too loose," Biffle said at the finish. "I couldn't do anything. I couldn't turn the steering wheel and give it gas and, man, it just murdered me." Actually, it'll be Martinsville that should take what little life remains out of his title bid; Biffle's never had a Top five finish there in 11 career starts.
4Carl Edwards
Last Week: 2
Carl Edwards
A few months back, Jack Roush made the comment that his driver wasn't mature enough to win a championship until this year. Turns out the key words in that statement were "until this year." Edwards created a distraction last week by responding to Kevin Harvick's ill-advised comments about his driving at Talladega. Instead of digesting that criticism over starting the Big One, Edwards fought back in what ended as a public fight between the two that made national headlines. Yes, it was an electrical problem that caused him to drop to a disappointing 33rd place finish Saturday night. But it's the old wounds about his mood swings made public that will probably prove the knockout blow for his title chances. "I can guarantee you that if I had the week to do over again," he said. "The last seven days would be a lot different."
5Clint Bowyer
Last Week: 5
Clint Bowyer
When you've got a teammate running as well as Jeff Burton is, it's easy for a younger teammate like Bowyer to live and learn. With eight straight Top 12 finishes, Bowyer's established that Burton-like consistency needed to contend for a title one day. It's just he can't take those Top 12s and turn them into the crucial Top fives he needs to make a serious challenge. This week, it was the lost time caused by a practice crash that proved the likely culprit in leaving him just one step below the top contenders. "Everyone on the Jack Daniel's team did a great job fixing the car," he said. "We just came up short."
6Tony Stewart
Last Week: 6
Tony Stewart
Stewart tends to win races in bunches, so it's no surprise he came out swinging with a dominant car at Lowe's. Leading 42 of the first 109 laps, he was firmly in control before a poor pit stop left him mired back in traffic. From that point on, the No. 20 car got thirsty for clean air it never received, the dreaded "aero push" of being in traffic keeping him from ever resurfacing as a serious contender. After a penalty for speeding on pit road finished off his hopes for two in a row, it was simply a struggle for Stewart to work his way back to 11th. He left the track without comment, but expect him to continue to go for broke over the final five races this season. His divorce from this team is close to becoming reality, so he has nothing left to gain but more trophies.
7Kyle Busch
Last Week: 9
Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch finally showed up for the 2008 Chase for the Championship Saturday. There's just one problem: the playoffs started in September. Busch showed focus and determination at Lowe's, overcoming his own pit road speeding penalty to charge to a fourth place finish. "I made a mistake," he said afterward in an all-too-rare moment of humility. "We had a shot for the win tonight -- we could contend with those guys up front and race with them. Our car was fast at the end." It's the type of optimism Busch needed four weeks ago to work his team through its rough patch. Instead, he became the 12th and final Chaser to score a Top 10 finish, accomplished long after his title chances went south.
8David Ragan
Last Week: 8
David Ragan
It wasn't the win that Ragan was looking for, but a Top 10 finish at Lowe's keeps him ahead of Kasey Kahne in the 13th place battle for "Best of the Rest." "We'll learn from it," Ragan said of a run that could have wound up far better. "We've just got to take care of the details." They always say you need to lose something before you can win one, and it's clear coming oh-so-close in his battle for a playoff spot will serve Ragan well as he rebuilds momentum for a bid in 2009.
9Kevin Harvick
Last Week: 6
Kevin Harvick
Harvick's jumped on board the consistency train over at RCR, but this one-time aggressive driver just doesn't have the speed he needs to run up front. We've said it time and time again in this space; Top 10s and Top 15s are nice, but runs like the 13th place finish at Lowe's, without any sort of run at the lead, aren't what you need to succeed in this Chase long-term. "Track position was everything tonight because clean air was the ticket," he claimed. "We just couldn't quite get clear of the traffic to get up there where we could get clean air on the nose of the car." Harvick's also trying hard to put his conflict with Carl Edwards behind him, but one wonders whether that old aggression might do some good on the race track, not off it.
10Jeff Gordon
Last Week: NR
Jeff Gordon
The Rainbow Warrior looked like his goose was cooked after hitting the wall at Lowe's within the first 20 laps. Needing a green flag pit stop to repair extensive right side damage, Gordon fell a lap behind and needed a Lucky Dog to even get back in contention. But the 37-year-old showed more fight than we've seen in recent weeks, charging hard to even take the lead for a stretch from Lap 204 to 250. It looked like the winless streak was nearing an end; that is until crew chief Steve Letarte forgot what a difference track position makes. "I'm so frustrated with that," Gordon said after Letarte's call to pit left him back in traffic and struggling to eighth at the finish. "It's unbelievable how good my car drove out in front. It was on rails. And it was like having the best car, and then like having the worst car when I was five or six cars back."

Dropped Out: Paul Menard (10)

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: Larry Mendehlson, Atlanta:He doesn't run all the races, but Mark Martin hasn't finished outside the Top 20 since Michigan at June. At the very least, his consistency deserves a mention as he prepares to team up with Hendrick Motorsports for one last shot at the title in 2009!

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