Thursday, March 3, 2005

NASCAR Top 10 Power Rankings: Week 2

By Jeffrey Boswell

Note: The quotes in this article are fictional.

1. Kurt Busch — The phrase of the weekend at Fontana was "We've got Busch!" And not because a film crew was documenting the shower scene in Porky's LXIX. Instead, it was quite a weekend for the Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle. 19-year-old Kyle became the youngest pole-sitter in NASCAR history when he set a track record in Saturday's qualifying session.

"Excuse me," says Kyle Busch. "Please don't describe me as a "pole-sitter" right after mentioning the Porky's line of movies."

Oh, sorry Kyle. Anyway, bigger brother Kurt followed up his second-place finish at Daytona with a third in California, giving him the Nextel Cup points race lead. Busch has served notice that he has all intentions of defending his crown.

2. Jimmie Johnson — Johnson trails Busch by only five points, and 2005 is shaping up similarly to 2004, when Johnson and Busch battled down the stretch for the Nextel title. This year, Johnson hopes the two can reverse positions.

"Here's hoping," says Johnson. "Last year, Busch was on top, with Johnson on bottom. I think it's time Johnson got on top, with Busch at the bottom."

Dang, Jimmie, are we talking racing here, or is there something else on your mind? In any case, Johnson hopes to improve on last year's car setup at Vegas, where he qualified 12th and finished 16th. Johnson's Lowe's Monte Carlo avoided the engine gremlins that haunted other Hendrick Motorsports cars driven by Jeff Gordon, Joe Nemechek, Scott Riggs, and Terry Labonte at Fontana, so engine problems are on the minds of the Johnson crew. Expect a top-10 for Johnson in Vegas.

3. Mark Martin — Martin's consecutive top-10 finishes prove that the old man's still got it, and, powered by the No. 6 Viagra Ford Taurus, his rise should continue (in the power rankings), as he moves up five spots from number eight. The dominance seen by Roush Racing in '03 and '04 continues, as the team headed by the man in the straw hat holds four of the top five positions in the Cup standings.

"I figure, at best, I can win that elusive points title," says Martin. "I figure with my status and ability, I can command some team orders around here. That means Busch, [Matt] Kenseth, [Carl] Edwards, [Greg] Biffle: let me get to the front, and then you guys block for me. But I'm not Michael Schumacher, so I know it's not going to happen."

Martin has been fine on his own so far, as the No. 3 man in the points.

4. Jeff Gordon — After a difficult qualifying session, Gordon worked his way up from 30th to third before the Hendrick engine problems led to his retirement four laps from the finish.

"I knew it was a bad idea to let Wiley E. Coyote order those parts from the Acme Company," explains Gordon. "Have you seen Looney Tunes? If that doggone coyote can handle a pair of rocket-powered roller skates, how on earth can he deal with high-tech auto parts? That's the last time I let his pal Bugs Bunny appear on the hood of my car. Suffering succotash! I hates varmints."

Historically, Gordon has had only moderate success at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with a best finish of 15th in the last three years.

"Luckily," says Gordon, "what happens in Vegas, stays in the Vegas. As soon as the race is over, I'm gonna drop five G's on myself to win the next race in Atlanta.

5. Tony Stewart — In his 17th-place finish in California last Sunday, Stewart found himself sandwiched between Scott Wimmer and Kyle Petty.

"Not that I'm complaining," notes Stewart, "but usually, a finish sandwiched between Scott Wimmer and Kyle Petty means a result somewhere in the mid-to-high 30's. We struggled with adjustments all day, so I'm just glad I was able to bring the Home Depot Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo home for a top-20 finish. If you folks are wondering why every time drivers say something, they always mention their major sponsor, race team, and car make and model, well, it's in our contract. If you haven't noticed, there's a NASCAR official off to the side ready to tag us with a cattle prod if we fail to say it right."

Stewart must like the track in Vegas, as he has two fifth-place finishes and a third in the last three years there. Expect nothing less than a top-10 for the No. 20 Home Depot Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo. See, Tony — I said it for you. Now send me a check.

6. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. — A miserable weekend for DEI culminated with a 32nd-place finish for Junior, while teammate Michael Waltrip blew an engine and finished 40th.

"I felt like I was on an episode of American Idle," explains Earnhardt. "You know, just driving around the track and feeling like I was going nowhere."

Actually, Junior, you were going somewhere: down in the Nextel Cup point standings, to 14th to be exact, the first time you've been out of the top 10 in 71 races. So don't feel too bad, that's a pretty impressive streak. This Bud's for you.

"Of course this Bud's for me," adds Junior. "I pretty much sell half of the Bud in this country anyway. They could put some maker of prune juice on my car and my fans would start drinking that stuff."

If Earnhardt can forget the flat tire problems that struck three times in California, he should get the No. 8 Chevy back on track. Either way, Junior will be a factor in the Chase when all is said and done.

7. Greg Biffle — Hey, Greg Biffle! You're the 2000 Craftsman Truck Series champion, and the 2002 Busch Series champion. You also just won the 2005 Auto Club 500. What are you going to do?

"Well, I can tell you what I'm not going to do," replies Biffle. "I'm not going to Disney World. I am, however, going to break into song: Fontana bo bontana, Fontana fana fo fana, fe fi mo mana, Fontana. The name game!"

Awesome, Greg. Not only are you a master driver, but you're a lyrical genius, as well. You should sing with The Wiggles, so you can be hated by the parents of every two-to-five year old in the country.

All silliness aside, Biffle may be this year's breakout star. He certainly has the driving capability, and with a Roush engine under the hood, he could go places. All he needs now is the sponsorship of a company that rhymes with his last name; that would be none other than the Wiffle Ball and Bat Company. Then, he could promote yourself with the slogan "Biffle and Wiffle ... Fo' Shizzle," and maybe get Snoop Dogg to co-sponsor your car.

"Awww. You know if we do that, he'll want to put spinners on the tires."

Good point, Greg. You just stick to racing. Keep up the good work, and you'll be one of the Big Dogs.

"Yeah! Who wants to be a Gillette Young Gun anyway?"

8. Elliott Sadler — Sadler has won the USG Improving The Finish Award for the first two races of the season. At Daytona, Sadler qualified 39th and finished 11th. In California, he turned his 41st qualifying effort into an eighth-place result. What does it all mean?

"It means I suck at qualifying," laments Sadler.

Yes, that's right. But, as you have proven, Elliott, qualifying doesn't mean crap in NASCAR. With so many pit stops and cautions in a race, you can start last and move to the front without doing anything incredible. Now, if you want to see racing in which qualifying means everything, watch Formula One. With only one to three pit stops per race and virtually no cautions, there is very little opportunity to move up if you start near the rear. Of course, one of the biggest problems with F1 is that you see hardly any lead changes, and when you do, it's the result of a pit stop.

So, Elliott, lay off the M&M's and maybe your qualifying will improve. Or, keep feeding your chocolate habit and continue with your sorry qualifying, and you will be in the Chase.

9. Tie: Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin — When you hear the names "Rusty Wallace" and "Sterling Marlin," you're left with a decision to make. Do you feel like drinking Coors Lite, or are you in the mood for Miller Lite? More importantly, as a NASCAR fan, do you feel like casually knocking back a 12-pack, or do you want to get ripped with a case?

"Hey, I don't advocate the excessive consumption of alcohol," says Marlin, "but I love being associated with Coors Lite. I love promoting the brand. I love wearing the Coors Lite suit and driving the Coors Lite Chip Ganassi Dodge. And I LOVE TWINS!"

That Sterling. Always a joker. But you have to admit, he's got the coolest name ever in NASCAR, except for Dick Trickle. With a name like "Sterling Marlin," one would expect him to talk with an English accent. But he's straight Tennessee hillbilly.

Wallace is not only known for his beer; he's also know for selling cars and trucks to consumers all across the state of Tennessee at one of his many auto dealerships.

Collectively, along with Martin, Marlin, and Wallace give the Chase an old school flavor, as the over-40 set occupies three of the top 10 points positions. Experience and patience go a long way in the sport, especially when the young bucks don't think twice about running somebody over to get to the front. Expect these old-timers to hang back and be around when it counts.

10. Carl Edwards — Previously, Carl Edwards was known as that guy who did a back flip after a Craftsman Truck Victory at Daytona last year. Now, Edwards is still known as that guy who did a back flip after a Craftsman Truck victory at Daytona last year. Seriously though, Edwards has to be the biggest surprise thus far in the 2005 season. Currently fourth in the points, Edwards followed up his 12th place finish at Daytona by crossing the line fifth at Fontana. But what do you expect for a driver working for the Roush Racing juggernaut?

"Hey, pal," snaps Edwards, "what are you saying? I'm not a good driver? And what does a big-chested astronaut have to do with anything?"

What? I'm sorry, Carl. A juggernaut is defined as an "unstoppable force that crushes everything in its path." Nice try, though. That would make a great magazine. I can see it now, in its plastic cover: the first edition of Juggernaut, featuring the ladies of the International Space Station.

"I'd do back flips for that issue," says Edwards.

If Edwards ever makes it to Victory Lane, expect a back flip and a stuck landing. For now, though, Edwards is content with his number four slot in the Cup standings.

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