Tom Bowles
Tuesday September 29th, 2009

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 3
Jimmie Johnson
It didn't take long for the three-time champ to flex his muscle in this Chase. Making mincemeat out of the Monster Mile, he completed a season sweep in dominating fashion, leading the final 224 laps while coasting to victory over teammate Mark Martin. That closed the gap between them in the standings to just ten points, and with the series headed to Kansas -- where he's the defending champ -- it looks like his bid for four straight titles is just getting warmed up. "I'm excited to see that we've gapped some of the other chase contenders," he said, referring to his 55-point gap over Juan Pablo Montoya and the rest of the 10 drivers behind him that makes only Martin his major rival right now. "It might not be exciting for the fans and everybody else, but the bigger gap we can put between us and those guys to single out the cars, the easier my job is. That's what I hope we can keep doing."
2Mark Martin
Last Week: 1
Mark Martin
Only in Charlie Brown's world can the point leader act and feel like the first loser. NASCAR's lovable runner-up finisher added another second place to his resume at Dover, watching rival Johnson cut into his lead and steal the momentum in a championship race that's looking likely to come down between just those two. "I'm pretty sure that dude's Superman," he said, paying homage to the reigning champ who just whooped his butt without trying to sound defeatist. "I have had the opportunity to see up close. I'm telling you, I see why he is so successful. He works harder at it than anybody else on the circuit." Kansas will be a true test of who's working harder right now: while Johnson is the defending winner, Martin's won a race of his own there back in 2005.
3Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 5
Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya's fourth place at Dover was particularly impressive, considering his team ran 30th back in the spring. "The car would take a couple of laps to get going, and on scuffed tires it was a little harder," he said. "We were just too tight at the end. But all in all, can't complain." He's fighting hard to stay a title contender, one of just three drivers to score two top 5s to start the Chase. But the one troubling stat on his resume moving forward is zero career wins on ovals, something that has to change to have any hope of competing against Johnson and Martin. The longer that drought continues, the more you'll see that on-track aggression return as he knows a trip to Victory Lane is the key to his chances.
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 7
Jeff Gordon
Gordon looked to have a second-place car at Dover, but his run became undone by the type of mistakes you just can't have in the Chase. An air gun malfunction during a late-race pit stop dropped him from second to seventh, and the team never recovered from there en route to winding up sixth. "I'm really disappointed," he said afterwards, knowing he let a momentum-building run slip away. "I believe you make your own luck. Putting yourself in position, communication, preparation and just hard work. I don't know what happened to the gun. We've got to find out why that happened." But after falling 122 points off the lead, it seems he's just too far off the pace of his Hendrick teammates for an answer to make much of a difference.
5Kurt Busch
Last Week: 8
Kurt Busch
Busch is pulling off a surprising start to the Chase considering the status of "lame duck" crew chief Pat Tryson. After two straight top-6 finishes, the driver claims his pending departure is actually causing the team to work more efficiently, as Tryson's allowed to visit the shop just once a week. "We had excellent pit stops," Busch said, making sure to give as much credit as possible to his crew. "I felt like we had a nice rhythm." Holding steady at fourth in points, the key is whether he can stay there now that the crew sees their leader less and less. Sure, it's fine now ... but the second they hit a stumbling block, won't it hurt them Tryson's no longer allowed to work overtime?
6Ryan Newman
Last Week: 9
Ryan Newman
The second driver in the Stewart-Haas stable seems to be in better shape between the two, with his fifth straight top-10 finish going hand-in-hand with 29 laps led at Dover -- the most for the U.S. Army Chevrolet since Darlington in May. But to show what a blistering pace Martin and Johnson are setting up ahead of him, those solid runs have still left him 110 points off the championship lead already. "I'm happy that we're still validating it in some people's eyes that we made it in," he said in halting the team's late summer slump with some early fall success. "But it doesn't really matter to me. We need to run better." Indeed.
7Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 2
Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's a guy who lets his emotions rule his world, the type of personality that can be both a blessing and a curse for an athlete. At Dover, it was a curse, with a career's worth of struggles at the track leaving him unhappy from the second he walked in the door. On Friday, he was busy complaining Goodyear's tire compound was the cause for his ill-handling Toyota. A wreck with Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide race Saturday then left him feuding, escalating in a post-race shoving match that distracted him from his full-time job. And after struggling to a 22nd-place finish Sunday, the worst of the 12 Chasers, it was clear he couldn't leave the Monster Mile soon enough. "It was just a bad day," he said, armed with the knowledge his title hopes took a serious hit. "We just gotta get better on these types of race tracks before we can contend." He also needs to keep his roller-coaster emotions from messing with his head.
8Tony Stewart
Last Week: 10
Tony Stewart
Speaking of emotional wrecks, Stewart left the Monster Mile a bit of a mess. His failing championship bid notwithstanding, slight contact just after the green sent his former ride, the No. 20, into a frightening barrel roll ahead of him that was easily the worst wreck since Carl Edwards' flip at Talladega in April. Tapping Joey Logano near the entrance to turn 3, that Home Depot Toyota was left a pile of junk as a 23-minute, 38-second red flag was needed to clean up the multi-car incident. Stewart's car may have wound up physically unscathed - his car just needed a small patch on the front end - but it left him visibly shaken despite a decent recovery to ninth, the team's first top 10 finish in a little over a month. "I've never felt sicker in my life than when we hit Joey like that," he said. "We hit him a ton. I didn't see it coming -- that was the worst part."
9Brian Vickers
Last Week: 4
Brian Vickers
Vickers may be the king of intermediate tracks, but his team needs to improve on every other type of speedway for him to be considered a serious title contender. Struggling from their race setup from the moment they unloaded at Dover's Monster Mile, things never improved as Vickers went backwards for the first time in months. His 18th-place finish was his worst since Loudon in June, coming at the worst possible time as the No. 83 struggles to remain within striking distance of the points lead. "We made some wholesale changes Saturday night," he said of a crew chief/driver meeting that usually pays off - just not this time. "Some I think helped. Some hurt us. We were probably better center-off, but worse in. We fought that all day." Kansas is now a must win for a team that scored its only win at a similar track, the 2-mile oval at Michigan in August.
10Carl Edwards
Last Week: NR
Carl Edwards
What a difference a year makes. Last Fall at Dover, Roush cars ran 1-2-3 and fought tooth-and-nail for the win over the last few laps. This year, only one of those cars ran in the top 10 (Matt Kenseth, third) while the rest were simply fighting to keep from going a lap down. In the end, Edwards came home 11th, one of five Roush Fenway cars that all failed to lead a lap in a rough performance. "That's the best possible finish we could've hoped for with this race car," he said, after spending the race desperately searching for any line on the track that would work - even asking his spotter to identify other lines where the Chasers were running. "I'm really proud of my guys on pit road. Our mousetrap just wasn't good enough today." Heading to Kansas, where he finished second in '08, it's likely his last, best chance to live up to the hype as the trendy preseason title pick.


Dropped Out: Kyle Busch (6)

Underdog of the Week: It's been a tough few weeks for A.J. Allmendinger, who's been part of the RPM-Yates merger drama that's playing out in the public eye. With a lack of leadership and funding right now in an organization switching from Dodge to Ford, the 'Dinger doesn't even know what type of car he's going to drive the rest of the season.

But a team that needed a shot in the arm finally got it at Dover on Sunday. The No. 44 car ran consistently in and around the top 10, coming home seventh for their best finish on an oval since -- get this -- a third at the Daytona 500 in February. "The conditions were tough. At one point, it felt like the water was seeping up through the racetrack, it was so slick out there. We just kept fighting," he said afterwards of Dover's treacherous track that threw most drivers for a loop in what amounted to follow-the-leader, single-file racing. At least he was one of the lucky ones who came out with a solid finish. "Hopefully, we can run strong like this in the final eight races," he said. "To show everyone what kind of team that we have."

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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