For a good portion of the season, Tony Stewart looked like a stone-cold lock to win his third championship. He’s still very much in the running, but looking more vulnerable than anyone imagined. Remember when Mark Martin was just a shade inside the top 35? It seems like a distant memory now.
There are some drivers who’ve caught fire of late: Juan Pablo Montoya, Denny Hamlin (up until Sunday) and before them, Brian Vickers. Still, you get the feeling it’s going to be the consistent ones- the Johnson’s, the Stewart’s, the Gordon’s, and the Kurt Busch’s that will be there at the top echelons when it’s all over.
But for now:
#10- Brian Vickers (ranked 3rd last week)- Some of the luster is off his star after finishing 18th at Dover and 11th at New Hampshire. Vickers is better, to be sure, than he’s ever been. It’s just going to take more to run with the big dogs.
#9- Kasey Kahne (unranked last week)- I nearly gave this spot to Greg Biffle. Kahne gets big time props for not mentally packing it in after New Hampshire, but he’s showing enough fight to not be completely written off. To be quite honest, I think he’ll be better than Edwards, Biffle and Vickers before the Chase is over. He won’t likely win it, but he’ll finish better than where he is now.
#8- Ryan Newman (ranked 8th last week)- For a while Sunday, Newman had us believing he might pull off the win. You get the feeling Rocket couldn’t buy luck if he somehow could. He’s still got chances coming up.
#6- Denny Hamlin (ranked 1st last week)- Nobody seemed to expect much from Hamlin, therefore there was little disappointment. Suddenly, it seems like he isn’t taken as seriously as he was.
#5- Jeff Gordon (ranked 6th last week)- What we saw last Sunday has been pretty typical of Gordon his season, and I don’t mean in a good way. For a portion of the race, he looks like a winner- then something happens and he has to race like a fiend to get a top five or top ten.
#4- Kurt Busch (ranked 5th last week)- Kurt seems to have found some new energy. With all the Pat Tryson stuff going on, you get the feeling he’s out to prove it doesn’t matter. I don’t know how ready I am to call Busch a serious title contender, but he’s very close. We may have a dark horse.
#3- Juan Pablo Montoya (ranked 8th last week)- He’s not going away. It remains to be seen how long he can keep it up. Montoya looks like he has staying power, but it’s just like the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team last year- the waters are uncharted, so there’s no history to work off of. The car’s good, the driver’s good, the crew chief’s good….JPM is making a compelling story.
#2- Jimmie Johnson (ranked 4th last week)- So Johnson dominates at a track where he always dominates. Everybody’s getting the trophy engravers fired up again. It’s early yet, but yeah, we’ve seen this movie before. There’s still eight races to go.
#1- Mark Martin (ranked 2nd last week)- If you think about the struggles he had with his car, Martin’s second place finish behind Johnson was pretty remarkable. There’s no denying he’s Johnson’s fiercest competition and his average finish of 2.8 over his last five races is just stout.
FALLING OFF THE PACE
No driver has had a more vexing season than Kyle Busch. He’ll be a threat to win one week, then the next, he’s banging walls.
READY TO STRIKE
Greg Biffle continues to hang tough. Kansas may be one of his last, best shots to win a race in 2009.
Kudos to Matt Kenseth. His third place run at Dover was his best since….Dover.
PHOTO CREDITS- Marathon runner by danslens.com, to see more visit flickr.com ,or click on the hyperlink. Brian Vickers by Jerry Markland/ Getty Images for NASCAR, Tony Stewart by Rusty Jarrett/ Getty Images for NASCAR, Juan Pablo Montoya’ #42 by Jamie Squire/ Getty Images for NASCAR.