By Tom Bowles
March 10, 2009
NASCAR Power Rankings
1 Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 2
Jeff Gordon
The Sprint Cup point leader has come awfully close to ending his winless streak this season, and at this point, it's only a matter of time. After the No. 2 of Kurt Busch pushed ahead during a green/white/checkered finish at Atlanta, Gordon's Chevrolet drove it deep into the corner both times in the final lap, winding up just a handful of car lengths behind the Miller Lite Dodge at the finish. "I really thought that restart was our one shot at it, because the No. 2 [Kurt Busch] was definitely better than us in the long run," he said. "I'm certainly impressed with how fast our cars are and that we're battling up front for the lead." With a point spread that's up to 43 over Clint Bowyer, I have a sneaking feeling that good impression has spread throughout the NASCAR community. So far, Gordon's the man to beat for the '09 title.
2 Kyle Busch
Last Week: 1
Kyle Busch
The younger Busch played second fiddle to Big Brother in the Cup race -- he struggled to 18th, three laps off the pace -- but the weekend wasn't a total loss. During the Truck Series race the day before, Busch lost both second AND third gear, dropping him from first to ninth on a restart with fewer than 10 laps remaining. That allowed the 23-year-old to put on an impressive show, charging through the pack and passing Todd Bodine with five laps left to retake the lead and cruise to yet another win. Busch now has four victories across NASCAR's top three divisions in 2009...and we're only one month into the season!
3 Clint Bowyer
Last Week: 4
Clint Bowyer
He continues to quietly impress with the new Richard Childress Racing team this season. Sometimes, you need a little racing luck to fall your way, and the No. 33 team got it when the infamous "crewman caution" trapped all but a half-dozen cars a lap down on Lap 67. Jumping up as high as third with all his competitors so far behind him, Bowyer remained in contention all day before a slow fade to sixth at the finish. In a weird twist, it's the fourth time in the last five races Bowyer has wound up sixth at Atlanta, a landmark of the type of consistency which has defined his four-year Cup career. Now, it's time to work on running up front; despite being runner-up in the season standings to Gordon, Bowyer's led just nine laps this year.
4 Carl Edwards
Last Week: 5
Carl Edwards
Cousin Carl had the only car capable of challenging Kurt Busch last weekend at Atlanta. But after starting 29th, Edwards run through the field was hampered by an awful performance from the guys on pit road. Edwards had a net loss of 15 spots in the pits Sunday, leaving him stuck to battle back in traffic while Busch's stayed out in clean air. Edwards' pit box position (trapped between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) was a major reason he struggled. Even with so few cars on the lead lap, the No. 99 had to dodge a car both behind and in front of its stall. The frustrations led crew chief Bob Osborne to choose two tires for the green/white/checkered finish in hopes that starting up front would finally solve their problems. But Edwards couldn't hold off those behind him with fresh rubber, and dropped to third with what could have been a winning car.
5 Matt Kenseth
Last Week: 3
Matt Kenseth
After charging to victory in both Cup races to start 2009, the No. 17 team comes back to Earth with finishes of 43rd and 12th the last two weeks. Trapped two laps down at one point after the "crewman caution," Kenseth worked hard to earn both of them back, actually charging as high as 5th place. But when the race got extended for debris from Robby Gordon's shredded tire, the DeWalt Ford ran out of gas under yellow, forcing Kenseth to fill up when pit road was closed and fall to the back of the lead lap. Oh, well, at least NASCAR's driest wit gave us the most entertaining quote of the weekend, mouthing off on crewman Jimmy Watts' infamous excursion onto the race track in order to retrieve a runaway tire. "Maybe he's new," he said of the incident that trapped so many helplessly behind during a round of green flag stops. "Maybe he hasn't seen us drive, but we tend to wreck a lot. I wouldn't want to be out in the middle of that grass."
6 Kurt Busch
Last Week: NR
Kurt Busch
For the first time in quite awhile, Big Brother showed Little Brother how it's done on Sunday. Leading 234 of 325 laps, Kurt came home from Atlanta with just his second Cup victory in the last 18 months, as compared to nine for Kyle during that span. But after a year in which he struggled to 18th in the Sprint Cup standings -- his lowest finish since 2001 -- Big Brother is showing signs of knocking on that championship door again. The new Dodge R6 engine is definitely paying dividends for this group; and at the very least, Kurt's got himself an "A+" victory celebration after doing a lap around the track -- with the car in reverse? "They called it the Donkey," Busch said of his new postrace routine, thought up by a group of buddies one night. "I don't know if I want that to stick. I'm thinking, we had a good Hot Rod today. Let's do that. We'll nickname our reverse victory lap Hot Rod."
7 Tony Stewart
Last Week: 7
Tony Stewart
It's been a tale of two teams for NASCAR's newest Sprint Cup car owner. While the No. 39 car of Ryan Newman has struggled through every type of problem imaginable -- he's 32nd in Sprint Cup points four races in -- all the good luck has dropped right into the hands of Stewart's No. 14. Midway through the race at Atlanta, Stewart's team didn't fully refuel the car, leaving them in a precarious position to pit almost 40 laps earlier than everyone else. But after a timely caution gave them a lucky break, Stewart made up one of his two lost laps, eventually working his way back on the lead lap. That gave him a third top 10 finish in four races this season, good enough for sixth in the season standings and the label of "big surprise" after most thought he'd struggle in his transition away from Joe Gibbs.
8 Brian Vickers
Last Week: 9
Brian Vickers
After Vickers got turned in front of the Sprint Cup field at Daytona and batted around like a pinball in the race's biggest wreck, the psychological damage could have left him limping through the first four races. Instead, he's used it as a motivating factor, charging through the three intermediate tracks of Fontana, Las Vegas, and Atlanta with an average finish of 7.7 to climb back up to 11th in points. In the closing laps on Sunday, Vickers even had an outside shot at the win, charging to second and reeling in Kurt Busch before his final stop under yellow dropped him to fifth. "We would've finished [that race] first or second, or wrecked trying," he said. Vickers' recovery is a far cry from Daytona's other player in the Big One -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. -- who has struggled to just 24th in the season standings.
9 Kevin Harvick
Last Week: NR
Kevin Harvick
It's always a special time for Harvick to return to Atlanta, site of his first career win just three weeks after Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001. But Harvick hasn't had a top-5 finish at the track since the Fall of that same year -- making Sunday's fourth-place run an important finish as the team looks to strengthen its portfolio on intermediate tracks. "We've run good every week," he said about a section of the schedule where the No. 29 usually struggles. "At Vegas, we got caught on pit road when a caution came out; it cost us a lap, and we made it up. At California, we ran in the top 10 all day and had an oil filter issue. All in all, the performance has been good, and we're where we need to be [heading to the short track portion of the schedule]."
10 Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 10
Jimmie Johnson
If you didn't know better, you'd be worried about the three-time Sprint Cup champ, who's stumbled to 13th in the standings. Atlanta brought another uncharacteristic mistake out of the driver's seat, with a pit road speeding penalty trapping Johnson at the back of the lead lap with a top-5 car late in the race. Only able to fight back to 9th at the finish, the No. 48 has yet to finish better than that despite leading 177 laps this year. But crew chief Chad Knaus always likes to experiment with different setups in February and March in hopes they'll wind up paying dividends come playoff time. With that in mind, one has to take the struggles of the No. 48 with little more than a grain of salt.

Dropped Out: David Reutimann Greg Biffle

Underdog of the Week: A.J. Allmendinger

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email with your driver and the reasons why he should be featured. If you're lucky, we'll include your fan comments in this very space next week!

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