From the Marbles

Power Rankings: If it’s hot, Smoke is rising

The race is done, and that means it's time for 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. It is not scientific, nor is it meant to be. And remember, whoever your favorite driver is, we're biased against him and like someone else better. We continue with a guy who's back again...

1. Tony Stewart: You know, just when you're about to write ol' Smoke off as coasting until he hits the Chase, he goes and rips off three straight top-3 performances. He is never. Going. Away. And anybody who takes him for granted until the final lap of Homestead is going to be chasing him before they know it. Last week: 5.

2. Jimmie Johnson: When an unremarkable week for Johnson is a fifth-place finish, you know we're in for something good come Chase time. Could this be the year that we finally get an all-out battle between the guys who've held the Cup every year since 2004? It very well could be. (And yes, the clown-wig pic stays. Deal with it.)  Last week: 3.

3. Greg Biffle: The Biffle/Kenseth fan bases are going to scream that the top two drivers in the series are ranked third and fourth, but tough. Both guys were good but not good enough at Sonoma, which is reason enough that some people might not want to scream too loudly about adding a road course to the Chase. It's a decided disadvantage to a large chunk of drivers. Last week: 4.

4. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth tooled around the lower edges of the top 10 most of the afternoon before settling for a 13th-place finish. For him and others not completely at ease on a road course, that's ... well, that's not a victory, but it's still good news, and now he's gotten away from the right turns for a few weeks. Last week: 2.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: You remember when you were in school, and you busted your butt to get an A average, and then you hypothetically slept through just one freaking exam, hypothetically, and it destroyed your grade? Same principle applies here. Junior could get right back up top, but in the meantime: CAN JUNIOR SNAP HIS LOSING STREAK IN KENTUCKY? Last week: 1.


6. Clint Bowyer: Great run by Bowyer, who's validating all the faith shown in him by Michael Waltrip. He's now ranked 7th in the Chase standings and is becoming a legit threat to last halfway through the Chase as a contender. One question: what happens when you mix wine with Five-Hour Energy? Last week: 8.

7. Kasey Kahne: This is why Kahne's ugly start was so damaging; he's now got to run well every single race in order to have any prayer of getting into the Chase. Right now, he sits fourth in the wild card standings, behind Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano. No margin for error any longer. Last week: 9.

8. Jeff Gordon: On the season, he's been wretched, but over the last two weeks, he's notched two sixth-place finishes, which averages out to ... hey, sixth place! How about that? As with Kahne, he may have waited too long to make his move. But coming back to finish so well after running out of gas on Sunday was a definite step forward ... after running over your own foot. Last week: 12.

9. Martin Truex Jr.: Time's a-wasting for the Other Junior. He's already gotten passed as the marquee driver in the Waltrip stable, and he's now in ninth place in the standings. He ought to be able to hold the 41-point edge he has over 11th place, but he'll need to put together some stronger full-race runs. Last week: 7.

10. Kevin Harvick: Another double-digit finish for Harvick, who hasn't finished higher than 10th since Dover back in the first weekend of the month. No reason to worry yet, of course, but no reason to get particularly inspired, either. He's like the Nickelback of NASCAR at the moment. Last week: 6.

11. Marcos Ambrose: Oh! So many hopes dashed for Ambrose this weekend! He had it all right there in front of him ... literally, since he started on the pole. But it wasn't to be, and now he's left to wonder if he let one of his best chances slip away. (Spoiler: yes, yes he did.) Last week: 11.

12. Denny Hamlin: Two straight finishes in the 30s, and it's time for the Denny Hamlin fans to push the panic button! Really! His season is on the brink! He's screwed! It's all gonna be a - wait, what? He's got two wins? Oh, right. Never mind. Keep calm and carry on, Hamlinoids. Last week: 10.

Dropping out of the rankings: Nobody.

Lucky Dog: A tie between Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers. Two guys written off at the start of the season come back to post top-5 finishes. Great job by both of 'em; will it lead to more work?

DNF: Juan Pablo Montoya. There was reason to hope for JPM at Sonoma, since it's one of two tracks he's won on in Sprint Cup. Alas, it wasn't to be, and he's in real trouble now.

All right, your turn. Fire away, friends.

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