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 we continue with a leader no one can dispute:
1. Carl Edwards. Can't really argue with this one, can you? He's won three of the last five races he's run and took second in the fourth. He's looking as dominant as ever, and with everything clicking right now on all phases of the team, he's setting himself up as the contender to beat. Plus, no violation like the last time he won at Vegas. Last week's ranking: 2.
2. Tony Stewart. Once you get past Edwards, there's a knot of drivers in the hunt for second place. Stewart gets the nod this week for his near-win at Vegas. One little penalty avoided, one break here or there and he wins at Vegas. But it didn't happen, so he'll again have to comfort himself with looking up at Edwards. Last week's ranking: 6.
3. Kurt Busch. It wasn't a good day for the Busch boys from Vegas, and only the fact that they've run so well in the past keeps them from dropping any further. Kurt took a spin thanks to a close encounter with Juan Pablo Montoya. He recovered for a top 10, but those early-season performances in Daytona are fading into the distance. Last week's ranking: 3.
4. Kyle Busch. It's not really fair to drop three spots when your engine blows, but just like quarterbacks losing the starting spots to injury, sometimes it happens. This also illustrates the volatility of the standings right now; last week Busch was No. 1 and this week he's all the way down to 14th. He'll be fine. Last week's ranking: 1.
5. Jeff Gordon. Like Kyle, he takes a hit because of car troubles. Better that than talent troubles, which appear to be the issue with certain drivers out there right about now. (No names. Yet.) Unlike recent years, Gordon looks primed to make a run back at the checkers before too long. Last week's ranking: 4.
6. Denny Hamlin. He's done well but not well enough just yet. He hasn't finished any higher than 7th in any race this year, but seriously, you don't think this is a less-than-7th-place driver, do you? Like Kyle above, he'll be just fine. Last week's ranking: 7.
7. Ryan Newman. Overachieving? Perhaps. But he's posted two straight fifth-place finishes after an underwhelming 22nd at Daytona. Not many people are hotter than him right now. The off week comes at a bad time for Mr. Newman. Last week's ranking: 11.
8. Jimmie Johnson. Who? Oh, yeah, five-time. Johnson has been nothing but ordinary this year, a far cry from his usual domination. But hey, it's the third race of the year. We all know where Johnson is going to be come Chase time. Don't get too down, 48 fans; don't get too cocky, 48 haters. Last week's ranking: 6.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya. And once again, Montoya relatively quietly works his way up through the ranks. He did have a little to-do with Kurt Busch, and he did get passed late in the race by Stewart. But he's continuing to stay in the hunt, quietly, and for Montoya, that's a definite improvement. Last week's ranking: 10.
10. Kevin Harvick. Happy continues his slow slide down the rankings, like much of Richard Childress Racing. It's not that he's doing anything particularly poorly, it's just that he's not doing anything particularly well. And in the early stages of this season, standing still is the same thing as backing up. Last week's ranking: 8.
11. Mark Martin. He's run 10th, 13th and 18th this year, not spectacular but not godawful either. He's sliding a bit, but he's got the potential to jump back up into the hunt at any time. Anybody need a driver for 2012? 'Cause we can think of a good one who doesn't have a ride. Last week's ranking: 9.
12. Paul Menard. Paul Freakin' Menard? Paul Freakin' Menard. He's run 9th, 17th and 12th this year, and yet he's ranked 6th in the Sprint Cup standings, which is a testament to the fact that most of the people beneath him are wildly inconsistent. Still, he's the highest-ranked RCR driver right now, and that's pretty dang amazing. Last week's ranking: NR.