NASCAR Power Rankings: Darlington

Jeffrey BoswellAnalyst IMay 13, 2009

DARLINGTON, SC - MAY 09:  Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Cheez-It/CARQUEST Chevrolet, waves the checkered flag while doing a victory lap after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Southern 500 on May 9, 2009 at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Note: the quotes in this article are fictional.

1. Jeff Gordon— Gordon rebounded from sub-par finishes at Talladega and Richmond with a strong fifth at Darlington, joining Hendrick Motorsports teammates Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson in the top five. Gordon remained the Sprint Cup points leader, with a slim 29-point margin over Tony Stewart.

"Hendrick engineering accounted for all of the cars in the top five," says Gordon. "That's pretty impressive. I haven't seen that kind of dominance since Tony Stewart's whips-and-chains-themed hauler party of 2008. Yeah, and Aaron Fike got handcuffed at that one, too."

"But what can you say about Mark Martin? The man is a machine. I'm glad he's on board with Hendrick through 2010. Being behind the wheel of a Hendrick car is like career Viagra."

2. Tony Stewart— Stewart recorded his fifth top-five finish in the last six races, finishing third at Darlington, as Stewart-Haas Racing continued to make its presence felt. Stewart's teammate Ryan Newman finished fourth, his third straight top-five result, and the two seem more than ready to give Stewart-Haas its first victory.

"To put two cars in the top five at a track as demanding as Darlington is a big deal," says Stewart. "With the amount of wrecks and cautions, I'm just happy my car is still intact. That's called 'bringing it home in one piece,' not to be confused with 'bringing home one piece,' which I try to do every night."

"Now, should Darlington get a second Cup date? I love this track, but you know how I roll. If you can't get what you want by the first date, then why bother with a second?"

3. Jimmie Johnson— With a crash in qualifying relegating him to 42nd on the grid in a backup car, Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team started in a hole. Things didn't get much better in the early going, as Johnson was pinned a lap down after the caution flew as he was making a green-flag stop.

But showing the perseverance for which they've become known, the Lowe's team regrouped, overcoming a spin on the track and an incident in the pits, to steadily gain track position. Chad Knaus opted to keep Johnson on the track during the final caution, and Johnson drove to an unlikely second-place finish.

"Things weren't looking so good early," says Johnson. "I'm not sure I can say this without being 'randomly' drug-tested, but we were 'behind the 8-ball.'"

"The NASCAR drug policy is pretty 'cut and dry,' which is exactly how some guys in the garages like their cocaine. I'm not sure I buy Jeremy Mayfield's explanation that he tested positive because of a mix of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Should you even be driving at all when you're mixing those types of medications? I think not."

"But cheer up, Jeremy. Maybe you didn't qualify for the race, but you did qualify for a drug suspension."

4. Mark Martin— Martin won a grueling Southern 500 at Darlington, navigating through a record 17 cautions and leading the final 46 laps for his second win this season.

Martin recently announced that he'll return to race another full-time season for Hendrick Motorsports in 2010, and seems committed to capturing that elusive Sprint Cup championship. Martin moved up four places to 11th in the point standings, and is 285 out of first.

"I'm here to say that I'm officially retiring," says Martin. "That is, officially retiring all talk of retiring. Dang, I make Brett Favre sound decisive."

"But if you're just as tired of hearing about the extending of my career as you were about my so-called retirement, then consider yourself re-'tired.'"

"These two wins this year have given me the confidence to consider myself a legitimate Cup contender. I think my experience gives me an edge, as does my fitness. You know, I stay in shape with a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, and an exercise regimen featuring Richard Simmons' 'Sweatin' to the Oldies.' And that's just what these youngsters on the track are doing when they see me zoom past—'sweatin' to the oldie.'"

5. Jeff Burton— Burton outlasted a tight-handling car, as well as a broken shock, to post a 12th-place finish in the Southern 500 at Darlington. Burton has now reeled off nine-straight finishes of 15th or better after a relatively slow start to the season, and is sixth in the points, 217 out of first.

"I think the No. 31 Caterpillar team is finally coming into its own," says Burton. "Earlier this year, we stumbled, as if in a 'cat-atonic state. Now, I feel that our run of top-15s will 'cat'-apult us to greater things, like fifth, or maybe fourth, in the points. It appears that Caterpilla' got her groove back."

6. Ryan Newman— Newman finished fourth in the Southern 500, his third consecutive top-5 result, and second that didn't launch Carl Edwards skyward, following third-place Tony Stewart to give Stewart-Haas both cars in the top five for the second-straight race. After finishing out of the top 20 in the first five races this season, Newman has paced the No. 39 US Army Chevy to seven top-20 finishes, including five top-10s.

"This team is on fire," says Newman, "which is probably the same thing Michael Waltrip said on lap 75. That should go down as a lesson on the perils of running jet fuel in your car."

"But racing at Darlington requires you to use every ounce of energy you can muster. I'm drained. In fact, I'm suffering from Army fatigue."

7. Kurt Busch— Busch started eighth at Darlington and battled a loose-handling No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for the majority of the night. Those handling issues, in conjunction with Darlington's tricky surface and a surfeit of spins and cautions, left Busch with an exhausting 16th-place finish and a beat-up car. He fell one place in the points to third, and is 55 behind Jeff Gordon.

"It's true what they say," says Busch. "Darlington is 'too tough to tame.' That's also what they used to say about my ears, until advancements in the field of cosmetic surgery made it possible to take the wind out of those sails."

"But I was none too happy with my car on Saturday night. I tried to get Roger Penske on the radio to tell him about it, but he's got my number blocked."

"Apparently, Roger's got better things to do than listen to me whine about my car, like watch Helio Castroneves win the pole for the Indianapolis 500. It's a good thing Danica Patrick doesn't drive for Roger; otherwise, he'd be hearing it in both ears."

"I guess the question on everyone's mind is where will Danica be next year? In an Indy car or in a stock car? I think most red-blooded racing fans could care less, as long as Danica's in a bikini. In all three cases, 'grip' and 'handling' play important roles."

8. Denny Hamlin — Hamlin survived an eventful night in the Southern 500, piloting the No. 11 Farm Bureau Insurance Toyota to a well-earned 13th-place finish. Hamlin banged a spinning car early in the race, the damage from which compromised the car's handling. Several pit stops and a "Lucky Dog" free pass later, Hamlin was back on the lead lap.

"With a record number of 17 cautions," says Hamlin, "Farm Bureau picked the right time to sponsor the No. 11 Toyota. Luckily for them, they only cover reckless drivers on the street, and not on the track."

"This team is desperate for a win, though. Unlike Jeremy Mayfield, I don't get to do a victory burnout every day. And what's this about NASCAR not accepting Mayfield's excuse that he tested positive because he was taking allergy medication? I thought it was common knowledge that he was allergic to not being stoned."

9. Kyle Busch— Busch cut a tire on lap 274 and hammered the wall, sending the No. 18 M&M Toyota to the garage for major repairs. A frustrated Busch returned to complete 29 more laps, but finished 34th, 64 laps down. On Friday night, Busch's dominance in the Nationwide race was negated by a flat tire that cost him the win.

"Do I have an attitude problem when things don't go my way?" says Busch. "It certainly seems that way. When I'm 'down and out,' I 'frown and pout.'"

"Maybe I got a little too caught up in the hoopla surrounding my win at Richmond. And, as the winner of last year's Darlington race, I was confident. I guess the Darlington 'stripe' outweighed the Darlington 'hype.'"

"Maybe this is karma at work. Last week, after my Richmond win, perhaps my ego became overinflated. That flat tire on Friday took care of that."

"My guess is you won't be hearing about 200 wins again, unless I happen to win again, and the NASCAR media machine again becomes infatuated with me, baiting me into making outrageous claims, like winning 200 races."

"I guess it's up to me to knock myself down a few notches and say what everyone else is afraid to: 'Kyle Busch is ready to win races, but he's not ready to win a championship."

10. Greg Biffle— Biffle led the most laps at Darlington, but a spin on lap 295 all but ended his chances for the victory. Biffle also made contact with the car of teammate Carl Edwards a few laps earlier, sending Edwards into the wall. Biffle finished eighth, and improved two spots in the point standings to ninth, where he is 256 out of first.

"Between the wall and Carl's No. 99," says Biffle, "I guess you could say we left our mark out there."

"That's three races in a row in which Carl's been in the wrong place at the wrong time. And speaking of 'the wrong place at the wrong time,' that pretty much sums up what it's like to be a Roush Fenway driver this year."


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