Time for our latest round of Power Rankings. Each week throughout the season, we'll size up who's rising and who's falling, based on current standings, behind-the-scenes changes, expected staying power, recent history and general gut feelings. Two races in, and look who's at the top now...
1. Tony Stewart. So we can now add "dead weight" to "golden horseshoe" as one of this year's key quotes, right? And we can add Tony Stewart to the list of legitimate Cup competitors. Matter of fact, we can put him right at the top. Fun fact that I bet you didn't know: Stewart was the last guy to win a Chase other than Jimmie Johnson. It's true. Kids, ask your parents; it really happened. Last week's ranking: 2.
2. Brad Keselowski. After the race, Keselowski pointed out that the last time NASCAR was in Loudon, a whole 10 weeks ago, he was in 23rd place. Now he's within 11 points of the lead in the Chase. That's flat-out unbelievable. Has anyone gone from nobody to star this fast? He didn't even have time to embarrass himself by saying anything dumb during his "up-and-coming" phase. He's here. Last week's ranking: 5.
3. Kevin Harvick. Dangerous times for Harvick; he's shown a tendency to be hot for short periods of time but fades over longer stretches of the season. He needs a good finish at Dover to keep on solid ground, because as we've seen, there's no margin for error now in the Chase. Last week's ranking: 1.
4. Jeff Gordon. Of the three Chase drivers in the back of the pack last week, Gordon did the most at Loudon to put the memory of Chicagoland behind him. Spending much of the race at the front, bringing home a respectable fourth-palce finish ... that's how you regain that "Cup contender" label. Last week's ranking: 7.
5. Matt Kenseth. Kenseth had a very Kensethian race, which is to say he ran well without a whole lot of notice. But take a look at his driver chart: four separate huge climbs in relatively short spaces of time. That's what keeps you in the Chase hunt, son, and if you can start higher than 28th, that's what wins you races. Last week's ranking: 8.
6. Carl Edwards. You've got to wonder how much longer Edwards can maintain this "keep the leaders in sight" routine. As Stewart continues to gain ground on the field, it'll be up to Edwards to close the gap and prove that all those weeks spent at the top in the regular season weren't a mirage. Last week's ranking: 4.
7. Kyle Busch. After "mindset" (as in, "what's your mindset heading to Track X?"), the most hack, overused phrase in sportswriting is "panic button." So we won't say that Kyle Busch ought to be looking for such a mythical button, only that he might want to consider more drastic measures toward running better in the Chase. Nobody's going to hand this to him; he's going to have to take it. Last week's ranking: 9.
8. Ryan Newman. Late tire problems killed what had the potential to be a strong, defining run for Newman this Chase. Like many of the other drivers here, though, he's seeing the leaders gain ground quickly, and his own margin for error diminishing rapidly. That's not to say he can't win this, but that he has to start moving forward now. Last week's ranking: 8.
9. Jimmie Johnson. Some people are taking the 48's weak finish and on-radio spats as a sign that the Johnson Era is done. Not so fast, I say. If anyone could figure a way to get maximum points in the last eight races of the year and win it all, it'd be Jimmie. Need proof? Know what the maximum points are in a given race? 48. Yep, I rest my case. Last week's ranking: 3.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. We're holding off on cranking the Junior Bandwagon into high gear. He's had two solid, didn't-shoot-himself-in-the-foot runs, but that's not enough to raise him into the elite level of Chase drivers yet. But just remember Junior fans (and haters), this time last year we were talking about whether he knew which direction to drive on the track. Progress. Last week's ranking: 11.
11. Kurt Busch. There's absolutely no middle ground when it comes to Kurt and problems with his car: either it's going to spur him on to kick the world's butt, or it's going to chew away at his team and his mindset (dammit!) and he won't be able to finish anywhere within sight of the lead. This Chase is perilously close to vanishing for him, and not because of numbers. Last week's ranking: 6.
12. Clint Bowyer. Rawhide was a couple gallons of fuel from an immensely awkward situation: Bowyer standing beside his soon-to-be-ex owner. We had it at Talladega a few years back with Jamie McMurray and Jack Roush, and oh, that was uncomfortable theater of the highest order. Last week's ranking: 12.
Dropping out of the rankings: Nobody.
Lucky Dog: Brian Vickers, who picked a very good time to have a very good race. He's still looking for a ride. Don't make him post one of those sheets with tear-off phone numbers on the bottom of it at tracks from here to Homestead. That'd be embarrassing for everyone.
DNF: Denny Hamlin. Hey, thanks for playing, Denny, and sorry about that whole "second to Jimmie Johnson" curse thing. Better luck in 2012.
Charging upward: Hey, didn't you used to be Greg Biffle? Welcome back!
- Tony Stewart
- Jimmie Johnson