By Tom Bowles
October 20, 2009
NASCAR Power Rankings
1 Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
Halfway through this year's Chase, the three-time champ is an overwhelming favorite to make it four straight. With a second straight dominating win, he's now 90 points in front of Mark Martin -- the biggest lead under this format with five races left. Yet despite a perfect weekend that had to deflate his competition (he was first in all practices, qualifying, and the race itself) don't expect this team to take its foot off the accelerator anytime soon. "We've got good tracks ahead for us, so from a team standpoint we're excited and optimistic," he said, looking ahead to this weekend and his six career wins at Martinsville. "But at the same time there's a lot of danger out there, and we've just got to be smart. We don't want to get ourselves too emotionally wrapped up in this thing, then have something come by and slap us in the face and take us out. We're just trying to keep our guard up." But as long as bad luck stays away, the title is all but theirs at this point.
2 Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 4
Jeff Gordon
You want to know how little margin for error there is in this Chase? Gordon's got four top-six runs so far, leading 70 laps and posting a runner-up finish to his teammate Jimmie Johnson at California. But add those to a 15th-place run at New Hampshire, and he's suddenly 135 points behind the No. 48 with five races remaining. "All you really want to do is get maximum points and finish ahead of the guys you're racing in the points," said Gordon, whose average finish of 5.8 has lifted him to third in the standings ... but pales in comparison to Johnson's 3.2. "Other than Jimmie, we're doing that." For his personal Drive For Five to have a ghost of a chance, he'll have to take home the checkers at his favorite track: He's the only active driver with more wins (seven) than rival Johnson at Martinsville.
3 Mark Martin
Last Week: 3
Mark Martin
The bad luck defining the 50-year-old's career finally struck at Charlotte, the same place where a frightening crash with J.J. Yeley derailed his last title bid in 2006. This time wasn't quite so scary, but a slam into the back of Juan Pablo Montoya's car on a restart was more than enough to permanently damage the front of his No. 5 Chevy. While the team fought hard to keep him in contention, the car just was never the same, even losing a lap at one point before limping home a mediocre 17th. "We had a lot of issues tonight and we could have given up and none of them did," he said, commending his crew in the face of adversity that now leaves them fighting from behind. "I [just] got really tight at the end." So are the nerves of his longtime fans, as he's virtually guaranteed to lose more points to his rivals at Martinsville (he hates the paper-clip oval) before the lotto at Talladega will ultimately determine the fate of his championship bid.
4 Kurt Busch
Last Week: 6
Kurt Busch
As I'll explain more in a feature later this week, incoming driver Brad Keselowski thinks Penske needs 100 more people to even compete with his soon-to-be-former organization with Hendrick. Well, if there's that much of a personnel gap you've got to give credit to the highest-ranked team in the points not running HMS chassis and engines (fifth place). As he has for the past three weeks, Busch didn't have the speed to run up front at Lowe's, but kept his car on the lead lap and in position to capitalize on others' misfortunes. And wouldn't you know it, when the checkered flag waved he was 10th on a night where a playoff-low four Chasers finished in the top 10. In fact, he would have run even better if not for a flurry of late cautions that bunched up the field for yet another race. "That's the general trend in the Chase," he shrugged. "You get into a marathon-type pace early on and then you have a 100-yard dash at the end. It's almost like clockwork."
5 Tony Stewart
Last Week: 5
Tony Stewart
The regular season point leader continues to search for the same type of consistency in the Chase, struggling to 13th at Lowe's to fall to fourth in points, 150 behind Johnson and without the momentum he needs to close the gap. "Where we got hurt the most was on starts and restarts when we were all packed up there," he said. "We couldn't make up any ground and couldn't get in the gas hard. We just gave up a lot of time on the front of runs." It's a problem plaguing a lot of drivers as of late, as the new car makes it so hard to pass that if you lose five or six spots on the double-file restarts, it could take an entire green flag run to get them back.
6 Juan Pablo Montoya
Last Week: 2
Juan Pablo Montoya
Who knew it would take a guy like Count Chocula to break this Chase Cinderella's glass slipper? That's what happened at Charlotte when an awkward restart (see what I just said above?) caused a ton of cars to check up, leaving him no choice but to smash into the back of Clint Bowyer en route to an in-race spin and 35th place finish, four laps behind. "Every time the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon) restarted it was the same thing," he said afterwards in claiming the four-time champ started off too slow, a brake-check trick many drivers have pulled to try and get a bigger jump. "It is what it is, and you've just got to move on." Of course, those comments were made long after he jumped out of the car; while in it, he berated everyone under the sun in a desperate tone you'd expect from a man whose title hopes were washed away. Now 195 points behind, he can now focus on winning a race instead of going after the sport's biggest prize.
7 Matt Kenseth
Last Week: NR
Matt Kenseth
I asked Kenseth Saturday night if missing the Chase was the best thing that could have happened to this team. His answer: "If we got in, we weren't going to do a lot anyway," he claimed in refusing to admit the failure lit a fire underneath both driver and crew. "If we would have slid in and been 12th leaving Richmond and been in the Chase, our approach and how we prepare cars and everything would be exactly the same as they are right now, because we were looking to try to get things better even if we got in." Yet those are seemingly contradictory comments from a man experimenting with a "next generation" Roush Fenway chassis on a night his two Chase compatriots, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, were not. And while those two never so much as sniffed the front of the pack, the No. 17 Ford was a factor all night before coming home second to Jimmie Johnson -- his second top-five finish in five playoff races to date.
8 Kasey Kahne
Last Week: NR
Kasey Kahne
Love him or hate him, you've got to give an attaboy for the way this guy has handled the drama over at Richard Petty Motorsports. With Jack Roush touring the RPM facility last week, some thought the team would come to the track running Fords (and it's a question of when, not if, they'll make the switch). There's still the matter of whether a merger with Yates will go through, how many people on the team will lose their jobs at the end of the year, and whether the team will be moving to a new shop. Add in an engine failure at the first race of the Chase at New Hampshire, and it'd be no surprise to see the No. 9 team running dead last in the Chase at this point. Instead, they've got three top 10 finishes in the last four races (including a third at Charlotte, where he was the only serious threat to Johnson) to move up to eighth in points.
9 Casey Mears
Last Week: 9
Casey Mears
Another guy handling adversity well, Mears continues to impress despite increasing uncertainty over his future with RCR. This Monday, Bobby Labonte went off on a hunting trip with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, fueling speculation he'll come back signed, sealed, and delivered to run Mears' RCR car in 2010. Should that happen, it leaves the current driver of the No. 07 in the awkward position of finishing a "lame duck" and auditioning as a free agent when most of the Silly Season rides have been filled. But he's not letting the pressure get to him, with a seventh place finish Saturday night his fifth straight top 20 in the Chase. ?We finally have the finishes we deserve,? he said of a stretch that?s bumped him up to 18th in points. "We're really starting to click as a team and we're looking forward to carrying this momentum over to the final five races of the season." But will he be allowed to continue that in 2010? That's the (multi)-million dollar question.
10 Clint Bowyer
Last Week: NR
Clint Bowyer
Continuing the upward swing of the RCR fleet as of late, the No. 33 Chevy survived the three-car accident with Montoya and Martin best of all, jumping up to sixth at the finish with a car that was even better at times during the race. "We got a little behind because we got a little too tight at the end, so we couldn't really go," he said of a car that put together another solid performance at intermediates. Usually known as RCR's Achilles' Heel, he's now scored six of his 14 top-10 finishes on tracks 1.5 to 2 miles in length.

Dropped Out:

Underdog of the Week: David Gilliland Mike Bliss Kevin Buckler

Do you have a nominee for Underdog of the Week? Email 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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