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 performance, recent history and general gut feelings. And we continue with a newcomer to the top spot:
1. Kyle Busch. He wasn't able to bring home the Phoenix sweep, but he came as close as you possibly can to doing so; he just simply got outrun by Jeff Gordon in the final laps of the Phoenix race. Still, the way he dominated the weekend, and the way he was contrite and forward-thinking after the incident that took out Carl Edwards, should have the rest of the field very, very nervous. Last week's ranking: 8.
2. Carl Edwards. Wrong place, wrong time for Edwards, who looked like he would be in the mix for the victory at Phoenix. But an early-race scuffle with Kyle Busch sent him to the garage early, killing any chance for what he said was a race-winning car to show its stuff. He surrendered the Sprint Cup points lead, but chances are he'll be back in the mix soon enough. Last week's ranking: 1.
3. Kurt Busch. Early on in Phoenix, Kurt Busch had the best car in the field, and was winning restart after restart. He faded late, and that's a matter of concern. But for now, Busch is sitting second in the Sprint Cup standings, and he's a serious threat every week to take the win. Last week's ranking: 2.
4. Jeff Gordon. Any questions? Gordon's performance at Phoenix demonstrated total mastery of every element of the race, from green-flag runs to restarts to pits to strategy. Every single player on Team 24 showed up at the top of their game, and if Gordon is able to sustain that this year, he'll have few rivals. Last week's ranking: 9.
5. Jimmie Johnson. Yes, he finished third at Phoenix, but that was as much about attrition as Johnson's driving. A late pit mistake cost him a chance at a win, and he wasn't able to make up ground on Gordon in the open field, a surprising shift of power in the Hendrick stable. So, yes, finishing third is what passes for vulnerable on the 48 team. Last week's ranking: 3.
6. Tony Stewart. Smoke just didn't have the horses — or, more to the point, the tires — to run with Kyle Busch and Gordon this week. He cursed his tires on one restart, using language not suitable for a Burger King commercial. And then he decided to take two tires rather than four late in the race, and that was that. Still, Stewart was a legit challenger this week, and will be from here on out. Last week's ranking: 5.
7. Denny Hamlin. Still really cruising on potential rather than performance; he's been fairly quiet the first two races of the season. He hasn't done anything particularly distinguished, but he hasn't screwed himself up too badly either, which at this point is all you want out of a race. Last week's ranking: 7.
8. Kevin Harvick. After Daytona, when he was the second man off the track, Harvick had to come up big at Phoenix, and he did, with a fourth-place finish despite being involved in an early wreck. So good news for Harvick, though others have put together stronger two-week runs to leapfrog him. Still, he's in the mix at a time when others (Jeff Burton, for instance) might already be fried for this season. Last week's ranking: 6.
9. Mark Martin. Again, Mark Martin gets involved in an early wreck, and again he's able to work his way out of it for a decent finish, this time 13th. Conventional wisdom was that Martin got the worst of the Hendrick crew swap, but he seems to be handling it just fine. Of note: he was the lowest-ranked Hendrick car, and that's not bad. Last week's ranking: 10.
10. Juan Pablo Montoya. This has to be the quietest Juan Pablo Montoya has been over a given two weeks of a season in his entire career. He had an unspectacular run at Phoenix, but stayed out of trouble. Main key for Montoya this year is not making dumb mistakes that cost him huge points, and so far, so good.. Last week's ranking: 9.
11. Ryan Newman. Rocket Man led seven laps at Phoenix, following a solid run that ended too early at Daytona. It's possible that 2010 was the aberration and that he's returning to form from 2009, when he made the Chase after outstanding qualifying runs. Keep an eye on this kid; he's going places fast. Last week's ranking: NR.
12. AJ Allmendinger. Wait, what? No fooling, he's sitting in third place behind the Busch brothers, and he's done so by remaining out of trouble and capitalizing on moments at the right time. Can he remain this high in the Chase? Highly doubtful, but so far this season, the mantra is "stay on the track," and so far he's done that. Last week's ranking: NR.
Dropping out of the rankings: Greg Biffle (11), Jamie McMurray (12). Don't worry, fans of these guys and Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others; chances are that they'll be back in the mix with a good run.