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 the Coca-Cola 600 was a race that answered ... well, absolutely no questions at all.
1. Carl Edwards. Yeah, Edwards ran well early and hangs on to the No. 1 spot. But let's talk about why these rankings are so difficult to sort this week. Almost all the top guys had major problems, while half a dozen lower-ranked guys pulled a gem of a race out of their air hoses. (Biffle joke.) What this means is that there are at least 16 drivers who have a legit claim to a top-12 rank. What that means is it's good to be at the head of the pack. Still Edwards' year, even though he didn't exactly tear it up once the sun went down. Last week's ranking: 1.
2. Kevin Harvick. And here we get into the thick of it. I guess Harvick "deserved" the win, since he did actually drive his car first across the finish line. But man, was that cheap. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won that way, he'd have been so barbecued he'd be forced to give the thing back. All a matter of perspective, which is a topic we'll return to later in this column. Still, congrats to Harvick for the win and a locked-down Chase spot. Like Woody Allen said, 80 percent of success is just showing up. The other 20 percent is not running of gas. Last week's ranking: 4.
3. Kyle Busch. I liked the idea that somebody should've done up their car in police black-and-whites just to get in Kyle's head. As it turned out, Kyle was in his own head just fine, to the point that he spun twice and was ready to go to the garage long before his team was. Not a great week for Kyle; he can't afford any of these in the Chase, so might as well get 'em out of the way now. Last week's ranking: 2.
4. Jimmie Johnson. Johnson gets dinged for a few reasons. First, there's expectation. He's supposed to do well in Charlotte; when you don't run well at your most comfortable tracks, you're de facto underperforming. Also, while you can't blame him for the car blowing up or the wrench left on the roof, well, it is a team sport; the driver takes the credit when the crew gets him out of the pits fast, so the driver takes the hit when the team lets him down. Bottom line: 28th-place finish. Say it with me: 28th-place finish. Last week's ranking: 3.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Here we go with the conspiracy theories. And like most conspiracy theories, they depend on the conspirators having infallible intellect, complete black-box security on any leaks, quicksilver reflexes and the ability to know exactly what will happen before it happens. Yep, sounds exactly like NASCAR brain trust. (No offense, guys, I'm actually defending you.) So let's talk about why they didn't throw the flag. Initial NASCAR-favoring reaction: because they wanted the race to finish under green. But that can't be the real reason! Or can it...? Last week's ranking: 7.
6. Matt Kenseth. If you think Kenseth isn't becoming a legit championship contender, you're not paying attention. Which is understandable, given that we're talking about Kenseth. But he's the real deal. Now, back to Junior and the yellow-flag-that-wasn't. People are going to scream no matter what happens, charging conspiracy one way or another. But let's look at some facts ... oh, wait, we're out of space. We'll pick this up with Bowyer. Last week's ranking: 5.
7. Clint Bowyer. Nothing special from Rawhide this week. A 15th-place kind of run, 15th-place finish. Back to the flag: look, it's really simple. There's no way that anyone could have predicted that sequence of events, from Johnson blowing up to bring up the late caution, to Kahne stopping nearly dead and accordioning the entire field. Think with your head, not your spleen: was NASCAR trying to rig a race, or were they trying to give a good finish? See Smoke's entry for the amazing conclusion to this argument! Last week's ranking: 6.
8. Denny Hamlin. We take a break from the Junior-ranting to throw a little love Hamlin's way. This is a guy who was so lost early in the year that he plummeted to the low edges of the top 20. He's still got a long way to go to make the Chase on points, and he needs to finish races stronger, but Hamlin's Hamsters have to be more optimistic about his chances than they were in April. Last week's ranking: 10.
9. Tony Stewart. Weather's heating up, but Stewart's still running midpack. Hmm. Anyway, appropriate space to put a stake in the heart of the no-flag conspiracy argument, since Stewart once called NASCAR a rolling version of the WWE: if NASCAR wanted to rig the race in Junior's favor, wouldn't they have thrown the caution flag on the last lap, giving him the win? If NASCAR wanted to rig the race in Junior's favor, why did they wait so long to restart the race after Johnson's caution when the 88 was low on fuel? What, steam counts as debris now? If NASCAR wanted to rig races in Junior's favor, would they have let him get over 100 winless races? If NASCAR could rig races, don't you think they would have had more than one champion in the last half-decade? Think, people. Last week's ranking: 8.
10. Ryan Newman. Ugly little wreck that took out Newman, along with Mark Martin and David Gilliland. Took awhile to pry apart the 5 and 34, didn't it? Oh, one last point: human influence on a sport is not the same thing as rigging it. There's human influence in every sport, from umpiring to refereeing to polls that determine postseason play. Had NASCAR thrown the yellow on the last lap and given Junior the win, it still would've been less egregious than some of the ugly refereeing/umpiring calls of the last few years. (See: Armando Galarraga's perfect-game-that-wasn't; admitted ref bias against the Dallas Mavericks.) So enough with the whining. Last week's ranking: 9.
11a. Greg Biffle. This is a weird part of the rankings, because both of these guys ran almost the exact same race: ugly early, then impressive mid-race, then astonishing and can-he-win-it late, and finally spent and done as the last of their fuel ran out. We give Biffle the slight nod because he had to deal with equipment issues that led to him getting slapped with the new nickname "Hoser." Last week's ranking: 12.
11b. Kasey Kahne. Kahne needed a good strong run to remain in the top 12, and he got it, coming within two laps of winning the race and once again reminding us that with the right equipment and the right circumstances, he can be a pretty good driver. That said, he caused the pileup that led to the whole yellow flag/Junior conspiracy (relax, we won't bring it up again). Last week's ranking: 11.
Lucky Dog: David Ragan with a stunning second-place finish. Once again, Ragan gets the Lucky Dog, though you could argue that Harvick was the luckiest dog of all. Still, three or four more Lucky Dogs and Ragan will be back on the lead lap! Boy, getting threatened with the loss of your job (implied, anyway) does wonders for a guy's performance, doesn't it?
DNF: Jamie McMurray, who blew out an engine and ended up finishing down in start-and-parker land. Ironically, the guy the McMurray rule was named for will almost certainly fail to even come close to qualifying for it. Those three big wins of 2010 seem a long, long way away right now.
Dropping out of the rankings: Nobody.
Charging upward: Kurt Busch, who actually ran a decent [profane]ing race and didn't cuss much. Think there's a correlation? Also, congrats to Richard Petty Motorsports, which placed both drivers in the top 6. That ain't bad, King!