Wednesday, June 3, 2009

NASCAR Top 10 Power Rankings: Week 13

By Jeffrey Boswell

Note: the quotes in this article are fictional.

1. Tony Stewart — Stewart took the lead on lap 392 of the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover, his first lead of the day, and held it for six laps before succumbing to Jimmie Johnson with two laps to go. It was Stewart's third runner-up finish of the year, and his series-leading ninth top 10, and it vaulted him ahead of Jeff Gordon into the points lead, where Stewart now holds a 46-point cushion.

"I could see Jimmie coming," says Stewart. "It was like staring down the barrel of a '48.' I haven't seen anything gaining on me like that since weight."

"It's great to be atop the point standings. It's great for my fans, and it's bound to earn me new fans. And you know me, I'm all about my 'peeps.' Even more so, I'm all about my 'peeps shows.'"

2. Jimmie Johnson — Johnson controlled the action at Dover, leading 298 of 400 laps in the Autism Speaks 400, but his dominance was nearly undone during the final pit stop with 36 laps to go. Johnson entered with the lead, but exited the pits in ninth after a relatively slow stop. Then, systematically and without prejudice, Johnson picked off the leaders, and overcame Tony Stewart for the lead after a thrilling two-lap duel.

"Although Tony has slimmed down quite a bit," says Johnson, "you could still say I 'Smoke-d a fat one' with my pass of Stewart."

"But that was quite a battle with Stewart. And that's just what NASCAR needed after 227 boring laps at Charlotte, and 398 more boring laps at Dover. If Charlotte put a wet blanket on excitement, the final laps at Dover whetted the fans appetite for more. I haven't seen that much nose-to-tail action since Brian France campaigned to succeed his father Bill as NASCAR chairman."

"As for the change in crew chief for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Junior's loss is my gain. Tony Eury, Jr. is heading to South Carolina with me to test at a road course, with the intention of helping me win at Infineon later this month. We're hoping Tony's knowledge can help spice up our road course program. That's why we've nicknamed him 'Canned Heat.'"

3. Jeff Gordon — Gordon suffered his second-worst finish of the year, his troubles compounded twofold by a backup car and a bad back on the physically-demanding Dover concrete. Some early adjustments to the car failed to work, and Gordon fell a lap down early, eventually finishing two laps down, in 26th. He also tumbled from the top spot in the Sprint Cup points race, and now trails Tony Stewart by 46 points.

"To borrow a phrase from Sir Mixalot," says Gordon, "'Baby Got Back-ache.' But, there's nothing fun about back pain, except the massages. Of course, there was no happy ending at Dover. The car was as unresponsive to adjustments as my back was to treatment."

"But it's a pain I'll just have to deal with, kind of like my first marriage. Treatment is my only option; medication is out of the question for now, or at least until a NASCAR official comes back down from atop Mount Sinai with a List of Banned Substances etched in stone."

4. Ryan Newman — On a day when Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart seized the Sprint Cup points lead with a near-win at Dover, Newman complemented that result with a solid result of his own. Newman finished eighth, his fifth top-10 finish in the last six races, and leapt two places in the points to fifth, and now trails Stewart by 173 points.

"The sky's the limit for this team," says Newman. "Working with Tony as my car owner and teammate has really given me a boost. You could say he's the 'Rocket Launcher' to my 'Rocket Man.'"

"But I feel rejuvenated here. There was a time in my career when I was so unhappy, it felt like my driving skills were deteriorating. I can only describe it by saying I felt 'Rusty.'"

"But now, things are different, thanks to Tony. There are three words I want to say to Tony, and they are 'You complete me.'"

5. Kurt Busch — Busch scored a solid fifth at Dover, steadily climbing from his qualifying position of 19th to make a run at the victory in the Autism Speaks 400. Like eventual winner Jimmie Johnson, Busch took four tires during the race's final caution, but the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge couldn't catch Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet, which was clearly the fastest car.

"The best car won the race," says Busch. "Johnson was easily head, shoulders, and eyebrows above everyone else out there."

"But the Chrysler bankruptcy issue is like my old set of ears — it's really weighing heavily on me. I'm having this recurring dream in which I find myself in a Fiat, flanked by two Italian supermodels, circling the track at Daytona in a victory lap. The supermodels, as well as the victory lap, tell me it's just a dream."

6. Kyle Busch — While running sixth on lap 344 at Dover, Busch felt an odd vibration that initially was thought to be a tire issue. When new tires didn't completely remedy the issue, it was soon learned that a broken splitter was the source of the mysterious vibration. Repairs in the pits left Busch a lap down, and he eventually finished 23rd. He maintained the sixth position in the points, and trails Tony Stewart by 219.

"It's not easy pinpointing a vibration at 150 miles per hour," says Busch. "I'm not accustomed to that. Heck, I spent a year with Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing. The source of the vibration then was always traced back to one of Tony's parties."

"But enough about that. Let's talk about something newsworthy in NASCAR. No, not Jimmie Johnson's dramatic win in Dover, but anything to do with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Lookie here. Hendrick unloads Tony Eury, Jr. as Junior's crew chief, and what do you know? Junior finishes 12th, which is way better than his average finish. So, I guess you could say that team is 'firing' on all cylinders."

"I think when all is said and done, Earnhardt's crew chief won't really make that much difference. That team is in a permanent state of 'E'-nertia. Junior's m-E-diocre at best. But at least he has the decency to keep his mouth shut about overhyped stories, like me winning 200 races, for example."

7. Matt Kenseth — Kenseth finished fourth at Dover, his best finish this year since his wins at Daytona and California to open the season. Continuing his steady climb up the point standings since a dismal four-race stretch in March, Kenseth improved one spot, and now sits in eighth, 228 out of first.

"It's been such an up and down season so far," says Kenseth. "Hopefully, we've found our way out of that hole we dug ourselves earlier this year. There is no quit in this team. They won't back down from a fight. Now, I wish I could say the same for myself."

8. Greg Biffle — Biffle came home third at Dover, capping a strong day for Roush Fenway Racing, which put three cars in the top 10. Biffle was running fourth when the race's final caution came out, and crew chief Greg Erwin went with a two-tire stop, which gave Biffle the lead. However, he couldn't hold off Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, and settled for a solid third.

"Sure, I'm a little disappointed," says Biffle, "but I did have a front row seat for Stewart and Johnson's battle for the lead at the end. That was a classic, and one that people will be talking about for a long time, or at least until the next saga involving Dale Earnhardt, Jr. emerges."

9. Denny Hamlin — Hamlin was cruising in second behind Jimmie Johnson when his right-front tire blew on lap 232, sending him hard into the outside wall. The damage to Hamlin's No. 11 FedEx Toyota was beyond repair, and he headed to the garage with a 36th-place finish, and he fell two places to seventh in the point standings.

"Going into the race," says Hamlin, "I felt confident we'd make an impact. I was right — hard right."

10. Carl Edwards — Edwards finished seventh at Dover's Monster Mile, a solid finish yet one that could have been better. Crew chief Bob Osborne opted for four tires on a late pit stop while most others took two tires, leaving Edwards mired in lapped traffic as the leaders pulled away. Edwards maintained the No. 11 spot in the points, and is 266 out of first and 46 clear of 13th.

"Things didn't really work out as planned," says Edwards. "But then again, what has this year, except for my media blitz and talk show forays after my spectacular Talladega crash? That all went like clockwork. Heck, there's even a documentary about the crash in the works, tentatively titled 'Talladega Flights: Carl Cleared For Takeoff, Safe Landing Optional.'"

"Anyway, if you would have told me in February that I'd be thirteen races into the season without a win and trailing Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle in the points, I would have told you to prepare yourself for a random drug test. Hey, have you ever wondered why none of the big names in NASCAR never test positive for banned substances? It's because they're never randomly tested. Danica Patrick is right — it's not cheating if you don't get caught, and you can't get caught if you're not tested."

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