By Tom Bowles
September 22, 2009
NASCAR Power Rankings
1 Mark Martin
Last Week: 2
Mark Martin
In a career filled with perpetual bad luck, the veteran's switch to Hendrick Motorsports has become his four-leaf clover. Continuing a dream season with his first ever win at New Hampshire, Martin now finds himself leading by 35 with nine races left to run. Sunday was the type of race that would have bit him every which way in the past, with risky pit strategy, three action-packed restarts, and even a crash on the final lap where NASCAR hesitated to call the caution providing plenty of opportunities to make mistakes. But instead of buckling, the No. 5 team was brilliant every step of the way, with Martin's most successful track, Dover's Monster Mile, dead ahead. "Pinch me," he said in Victory Lane after scoring his series-high fifth win of the season. "I'm sure I'm dreaming." At this point, considering there's now a 50-year-old in serious title contention, who knows? Maybe we all are.
2 Denny Hamlin
Last Week: 1
Denny Hamlin
Keeping momentum rolling after his second win of the season at Richmond, a runner-up finish at New Hampshire put this Chaser in perfect position to make his championship case. Still, a series of late-race cautions left him more than a little nervous with a car that was at its best on long runs. "I got killed every single restart on the bottom lane," he said of his late-race battle to stay relevant. "I'd get stuck three-wide in the first corner and then I'd have to battle my way back. To come out second when I should have been about fifth with those restarts, I was pretty proud of that." Now, the series heads to perhaps the most crucial track for Hamlin in the Chase. In each of his last four starts at Dover, he's finished 36th or worse, a monster mistake he just can't make in order to make a serious run at the title.
3 Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 5
Jimmie Johnson
The three-time reigning champ started his quest for a fourth title rather appropriately, scoring a fourth-place run at New Hampshire that was solid but not spectacular. Only leading 14 laps, the team was focused on getting back in rhythm as they put their first top five in the books since winning at Indianapolis. "Strategy got a little weird there in the middle part of the race," he said, referring to a call by Martin and others to stay out on old tires that gave them the track position needed to win. "The way the tires were cycling around, it worked out well. We were running strong all day long, and I'm glad we got a good top-five. Great start to the Chase -- very happy with things."
4 Brian Vickers
Last Week: 3
Brian Vickers
Playing his underdog role to perfection, Vickers struggled all weekend at a track where Team Red Bull has never scored a top-10 finish. Halfway through, it looked like Loudon would be a disaster once again, as a lugnut problem during a pit stop sent him all the way back to 30th place. With just 160 laps to make up the difference on an oval where track position is everything, no one would have blamed the team for falling apart. But wouldn't you know it -- when the checkered flag flew the No. 83 car had climbed all the way up to 11th, allowing them to hold serve on a day where their title bid could have ended before it even started. "It could've been a lot worse," he said afterwards. "We could've been in a wreck, we could've blown a motor, or we could've blown a tire. So we're pleased, but we're not satisfied. We need to be better, and I know that we can be better."
5 Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: NR
Juan Pablo Montoya
The trendy pick as a darkhorse title contender, the Colombian came to New Hampshire with a chip on his shoulder and a nothing-to-lose attitude that translated in his on-track performance. Winning the pole and leading a race-high 105 laps, the driver of the No. 42 Chevy was using a type of aggression we hadn't seen in months, as "points racing" had replaced "pushing it to the limit" in his racing vocabulary. Nearly causing a handful of late-race wrecks by going three-wide several times in the final 50 laps, he came within a whisker of taking out eventual winner Martin after the No. 5 car "cut down on him" with two laps to go. "He probably did a trick that we weren't expecting," Montoya said, which in all reality was a two out of 10 on the scale of aggression. "But it's OK, he deserved to win. It's racing and I'm cool with it." You just wonder if he'll be so cool the next time a win is within his grasp.
6 Kyle Busch
Last Week: 8
Kyle Busch
One week after missing the playoffs, everyone's early pick for Chase spoiler did his best to spoil the fun Sunday. But a top-five finish was literally the best he could do on a day where he failed to lead a lap. "We fought through a lot of adversity," he said. "We made wholesale changes, [took it from] a 30th place car to fifth." On the bright side, that gave Busch back-to-back top five finishes for the first time since Fontana and Las Vegas in March, a sign of consistency the No. 18 team hasn't shown in months. "We're just trying to steal points from these guys," he said, although the sad reality is there's nowhere to put them. He's already 13th in points, and that's the highest he'll be able to finish now that he's officially locked out of the Chase.
7 Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 4
Jeff Gordon
On Thursday, I talked with Jeff Gordon about the fact he's been overlooked entering this title fight, a fact he acknowledged but hoped to overcome. Well, Sunday wasn't a good first step, as the four-time champ faded to a 15th-place finish while teammates Johnson and Martin ran circles around him. Heck, even perennially slumping Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had a car light years better than the No. 24 before crashing out in an incident with David Reutimann late in the race. "It's damage control when you don't have a good run [to start the Chase]," he admitted, blaming some poor handling with the car on short runs that killed the team during the final stretch of double-file restarts. "It wasn't our day as far as tuning on the car and as far as pit stops and just a lot of things. All we can do is put it behind us, [but] when you get in a hole like this, it puts that much more pressure on you that you have to win." And he hasn't done that since April. Not good.
8 Kurt Busch
Last Week: NR
Kurt Busch
The drama surrounding the pending Busch-Pat Tryson divorce hit a new level over the weekend, when the crew chief held an impromptu press conference at the track to dispel rumors their relationship had soured. The session was meant to combat some negative press, but backfired immediately when Tryson revealed he's now only allowed at the shop once a week. That's a decision as baffling as it is crippling to their championship hopes; after all, how can you control your team when you're only involved in debriefing sessions each Tuesday? For now, the two man-tandem is fighting valiantly to keep their heads above the drama, using strategy to overcome contact with David Ragan in the pits and run as high as second late in the race. "We just lost the handle at the end," said Busch of a late-race fade to sixth after possibly even being a threat to win. But that's far from the only time things will head downhill at this rate.
9 Ryan Newman
Last Week: NR
Ryan Newman
Ever so quietly, Stewart-Haas' "other" team in the Chase has been getting their act together with four straight top 10 finishes. While their owner/teammate struggles (see below), the No. 39 has been taking small steps towards working their way back to the front, using tire strategy for a seventh-place finish Sunday as they continue battling back from a devastating midsummer slump. The team's biggest problem at New Hampshire was actually something you wouldn't expect from a guy who once won 11 poles in a single season: qualifying. Newman mentioned to me the team's redoubling their efforts there for the Chase, but a third straight start outside the top 10 became a major obstacle for a team that hasn't won a pole since Memorial Day. "We just didn't have the track position the entire day," he said. "There was a lot less giving and taking [making it hard to move up]."
10 Tony Stewart
Last Week: 7
Tony Stewart
The regular season points champ has now stubbed each one of his toes, extending a season-high slump of five races outside the top 10 after his axle cap broke with a little over 100 laps to go at New Hampshire. "Something got missed when we assembled it," said Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb on the issue. "The car came apart and we had to fix it, so we gave up all that track position on pit road. After that, we struggled the rest of the day to get halfway through the field." That rally was only good enough to get the car back to 14th, leaving Stewart sixth in the standings and scratching his head as to how a season's worth of momentum is slipping away at the wrong time.

Dropped Out:

Underdog of the Week: Bobby Labonte

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