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. And what's up with all these first-time winners mucking up our rankings, huh?
1. Kyle Busch. Busch has now won four times this season, the first driver to do that. He's clinched at least one of the wild cards. Which means that if I were him, I'd go head off to Barbados for three weeks and come on back at Chicagoland. But his sponsors wouldn't like that much, I'm guessing, so we'll probably still see him hanging around. Oh, and there's that "win Bristol with his eyes closed" thing, too. Last week's ranking: 1.
2. Jimmie Johnson. Everybody, ourselves included, is more than happy to start shoveling dirt onto the Chase chances of Jimmie Johnson. But that's wishful thinking more than anything else. Dude got a second-place finish Sunday at a track that's not historically one of his best. The only guy to outrun him is the top driver in NASCAR this year. That, forty-haters, should give you pause. You need 15 guys who can outrun Jimmie, not just one. Last week's ranking: 5.
3. Brad Keselowski. Keselowski has finishes of 1, 2 and 3 over the last three weeks. Continue that trend out and he'll finish 16th at Homestead. So where are we with Keselowski? Some are considering him already a championship contender. I'm not there yet; it's not that I don't trust the guy, I just need more than a few weeks of stats for verification. Still, if he finishes the season inside, say, the top 8, this'd have to be one of the best non-Cup-win stories of the last few years. Last week's ranking: 3.
4. Carl Edwards. This is the first time Edwards hasn't been ranked first or second since, I dunno, April or something. And Cousin Carl deserves to lose that lofty ranking, because his recent runs haven't exactly been championship caliber. Again, it's not to say he can't turn it around and make a charge, but as so many drivers have shown, looking pretty in the regular season isn't the same as looking pretty in the Chase. It's like coming from a small town and suddenly going to college: the attractive people there have a hotness to them you couldn't even imagine. Carl Edwards and hotness? Time to kill this metaphor. Last week's ranking: 2.
5. Jeff Gordon. Yes, it's a little unfair to drop Gordon despite a sixth-place finish, but hey, them's the breaks. He's continuing to prove that he's legit; this Chase season is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory, if not ever, because there are so many compelling stories and so many guys whom you'd be OK with winning if it wasn't your guy. Gordon fits into that category; anybody still carrying around an Earnhardt-inspired grudge against him probably needs to look into this new thing called "e-mail." Last week's ranking: 4.
6. Matt Kenseth. Say this for Kenseth: the dude's not afraid to run a splashy paint scheme. The mysterious yellow-and-blue-flame Kroger car he drove at Michigan Sunday was ... well, let's not say "crime against nature," but when he pulled into the pits and his crew, still in the Crown Royal purple duds, jumped over the wall, it looked, as one of our chatters put it, "like a rainbow threw up in the 17 pit stall." Perfect. Last week's ranking: 8.
7. Kevin Harvick. We haven't heard a whole lot out of Harvick the last few weeks, and that's probably a good thing: Harvick spent so much time obsessing over how to get back at Kyle Busch that his own results seemed to suffer. It's a psychological mind-screw, like Harvick was chasing the Great Yellow #18 Whale. (NASCAR sponsorship would make most classic literature better, by the way.) Did somebody talk to him and set him straight? If so, I've got a pretty good idea who it was. Last week's ranking: 6.
8. Ryan Newman. Combine Newman's near-silent top-5 finish Sunday, which you heard almost nothing about, with Kurt Busch's flameout, and Rocket Man has pretty much locked down a Chase spot. Impressive work, and emblematic of the strong season Newman has constructed right from Daytona. He's exactly where he ought to be, and a break or two and he could start throwing some real scares into people. Last week's ranking: 9.
9. Kurt Busch. Busch's season has been the equivalent of online dating: when everything clicks properly, it's absolutely magical and gives you faith in humanity; when it falls apart, you end up stuck with someone who's got hair in all the wrong places. Sunday at Michigan was undoubtedly one of those hairy days. Last week's ranking: 7.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. We got grief here last week for saying Junior's 15th-place finish was "solid." He finished 14th this week. Is that "solid+"? For a guy who lurked in the 20s for most of the last couple years, sure, a finish in the teens is solid. Junior ought to make the Chase, which is an indisputable success, but he probably ought to back that up with a win. Last week's ranking: 10.
11. Clint Bowyer. Bowyer has a habit of making the last few weeks of the regular season interesting, either because he barely makes it or he barely misses. That's gotta be stressful around the ol' Bowyer motorhome. Everybody probably lets him win at cards, cornhole and "pull my finger" for the months of July and August, just to give him some small victories to build on. Last week's ranking: NR.
12. Tony Stewart. Can't imagine that Stewart has ever regretted anything he's ever done in his life, but if he did, he'd probably start with wanting to play NASCAR deputy at Sonoma. That was the point where he started losing focus on the track and started focusing on the people around him, which is a sure sign that you're in line for trouble. And now he is. Last week's ranking: 12.
Dropping out of the rankings: Denny Hamlin, who's got a lot of work to do to stay in the Chase.
Lucky Dog: Marcos Ambrose, the road-course expert who finally won a road-course race! We'd also add Greg Biffle to that list, because I think Boris Said would win against him in a rout, road course ringer or no.
DNF: Greg Biffle, who was in line for a win and a temporary spot in the Chase before fading late. He may have seen his last, best chance vanish, but the fact that he's in the mix at all is testament to the wild card's vitality.
Charging upward: Mark Martin and AJ Allmendinger, who join Bowyer and Biffle as "win and they're in" candidates. It's a long shot, sure, but it's a shot.
- Kyle Busch