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 just like in the real races, we have a late pass for the top spot, but this time, Kyle Busch isn't the one being passed:
1. Kyle Busch. Two straight third-place finishes would seem to be a time for celebration, but if you've given up the lead just before the checkers in both, not so much. Still, Kyle Busch proved that he's going to be in the Cup mix for months to come with these last two races, and be assured he's carefully studying Harvick's finishing moves. Last week's ranking: 2.
2. Carl Edwards. Edwards had an outside chance at vulturing a win on Sunday at Martinsville thanks to some fuel and tire strategy, but it wasn't to be. He got in a few laps led, but did little else of note this week. But the 18th-place ending slot was his worst running finish of the season, by a long shot. Last week's ranking: 1.
3. Kevin Harvick. After car troubles took him out of Daytona almost before it began, Harvick scoffed at the idea that he was already playing from behind in 2011, and runs like the last seven days are why. Two last-second wins? That'll play in any league. He's all but already locked up a Chase spot, and it's barely April. Last week's ranking: 7.
4. Ryan Newman. Early on in the Martinsville race, Newman's battles with Denny Hamlin in the field and later for the lead were some of the best on-track dueling of the day. (Before those last couple laps, of course.) Engine troubles shuffled Newman back in the field and left him a nonfactor in the race, but underestimate him and you're likely to get a fish hook in the lip. Last week's ranking: 3.
5. Jimmie Johnson. Wait, a speeding penalty on Jimmie Johnson? They can't do that, can they? They can, and they did, nailing Johnson with a speeding penalty that cost him any shot at a late charge at victory. Considering how strong Johnson is at Martinsville, that may well have cost him the race. Chad Knaus was so angry he fired three crew members, hired them back, and fired them again. Last week's ranking: 6.
6. Kurt Busch. The good vibes from Daytona are a fast-fading memory now. Busch continues to struggle, this week posting a 16th-place finish amid frustration at, well, pretty much everything. He needs a strong win to turn his current woes around; Texas couldn't come at a better time. Last week's ranking: 4.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Oh, it was so close, so very, very close. For a brief moment there Sunday afternoon, all of Junior Nation's years of heartbreak and frustration were about to be erased. Yes, Harvick ran Earnhardt down; no, Junior didn't get that win he so badly wants. Still, he was legitimate, he was in the lead very late, and he belongs in NASCAR's top echelon of drivers right now. Last week's ranking: 11.
8. Tony Stewart. See also: Busch, Kurt. Early-season successes have started to fade in the grind of the week-to-week. Unlike Kurt, though, we know with near-certainty that Stewart will begin running well once the weather turns. Let us never mention his 34th-place finish at Martinsville again. Last week's ranking: 6.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya is getting sneaky good. He turned in a 4th-place finish this week, his fourth top-10 in six races. He rebounded from early-race frustrations, like getting shuffled backward on the outside line, to edge his way past everyone but the key final trio, and that should have a lot of people very worried. Last week's ranking: 9.
10. Jeff Gordon. The pundits and couch fans were perilously close to calling Gordon's Phoenix win a fluke and dismissing him as over-the-hill and done. Then he goes out and busts off a fifth-place Martinsville performance, leading 37 laps along the way. Done? Not yet. Yes, it's a track where he usually runs well, but you've gotta snag the low-hanging fruit. Last week's ranking: 10.
11. Matt Kenseth. Who knew the quiet, reserved Kenseth had so many fans who are, shall we say, not at all quiet and reserved? Kenseth is absolutely trending upwards right now, and another good run like he had Sunday (6th place) will vault him ahead of falling types like Stewart and Kurt Busch. Think he'll celebrate with gunfire and loud music? Yeah, me neither. Last week's ranking: 12.
12. Mark Martin. Martin continues a reliable run this season with his second top 10 of the year. He's finished no higher than 10th and no lower than 20th all season. That won't get you to meet Miss Sprint Cup, Mark. Come on, pick up the pace and add a little drama to your final year at Hendrick Motorsports! Last week's ranking: NR.
Lucky Dog: David Ragan. Everybody goofs on poor Ragan -- heck, we spent 20 minutes in our chat Sunday coming up with slogans for Ragan's Ford dealership ("We wreck first so you don't have to!"). And yes, after the Daytona 500 people were pretty much ready to boot him out of his seat and give Trevor Bayne his job. But give Ragan credit, he ran a top-10 race Sunday and now sits 18th in points. Stranger things have happened in NASCAR than Ragan making the Chase. Not sure what right now, but we're sure they have.
DNF: Kasey Kahne. Were it not for the fact that he got collected in a vicious wreck with Martin Truex Jr., Kahne was well on the way to a strong finish and a position in our power rankings. But with him out of the race, we don't know how well he would have done, so we're left to ponder what-if. Still, he seems primed to make a run, if he can avoid that Truex fellow.
Dropping out of the rankings: Paul Menard (8). The Menard Empire is built on sandy ground, and two straight weak finishes don't help its stability. Charging upward: Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger.
- Kyle Busch
- Kurt Busch
- Kevin Harvick