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 it's all down to this...
1. Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart. We're giving both these cats the top ranking, because you know what? They both deserve it. Nobody's running even close to as well as these guys right now, so why even try to differentiate? Each one brings different strengths to the table. And this should come down to the very last turn. Last week's ranking: 1 and 2.
3. Kasey Kahne. HurriKahne has made himself a lot of new fans in the last few weeks by the way he's raced. Not because he's necessarily been good, although that's nice. But no, Kahne has had every opportunity to roll over and start planning for the good times to come at Hendrick in 2012, and he's now taken his lame-duck team to victory lane. That's impressive mental toughness right there, buddy-boy. Last week's ranking: 9.
4. Kevin Harvick. Harvick's one of those cats who's either dominating the headlines or completely absent, and for most of the Chase, he's been the latter. Sure, he's stayed out of big trouble, but when you let the leaders keep finishing five spots ahead of you, well, you end up eliminated after Week 9. It's true, math tells us so. At last, math is good for something! Well, unless you're Kevin Harvick, and then math sucks. Last week's ranking: 4.
5. Matt Kenseth. The best part about this Chase, and indeed this season in general, is the way we're seeing a total turnover at the top of the NASCAR pyramid. Sure, we'll have a new champion; more on that in a moment. But we've seen the rise of a bona fide star in Matt Kenseth. Sure, he's been around for awhile, but this was the year everybody started realizing that he might just be the go-to guy for all opinions NASCAR. Last week's ranking: 3.
6. Brad Keselowski. And here's the other breakout star of the 2011 season. While it's way too early to say if Keselowski can sustain this momentum, he's certainly become a media darling and seems to have the foundation now in place for a long, strong career. Last week's ranking: 5.
7. Jimmie Johnson. Let's all raise a glass to Jimmie Johnson now, shall we? It's OK, doing it now doesn't make you less of a NASCAR fan or whatever nonsense people use to avoid giving Vader his due. This was an exceptional run, and we won't see its like again anytime soon. (Not for four more years, at a minimum.) The guy is incredible, and it's all right to admit you're impressed. (That said: Jimmie being done is a MUCH better story than Jimmie winning No. 6.) Last week's ranking: 7.
8. AJ Allmendinger. It starts to drop off pretty severely here, once we get into the Chasers who are underperforming and the non-Chasers who picked a bad time to have a good run. That said, The Dinger has now carded three top-10s in his last five races. That's fairly impressive, and that'll give him confidence that he can do more of the same in 2012. He'd better. You don't want to see The King when he's angry. Last week's ranking: NR.
9. Clint Bowyer. Bowyer is, of course, to some degree responsible for David Reutimann losing his ride. The garage is a small place. I wonder what happens if these guys happen to run into each other somewhere along the way. Or worse, if their wives/girlfriends run into each other. Or how about the drivers with kids? There's a little playground in the drivers' section of a lot of tracks. You think one kid's going around saying, "My daddy took your daddy's ca-ar"? I do. Kids are jerks. Last week's ranking: NR.
10. Kurt Busch. Oh, I'm going to avoid the easy segue from that last one and simply say that Kurt Busch just flat-out has to get his head together. The guy is an unbelievably good driver, and has the potential to be one of the best in the sport. But there's no way you can say the horrible things KuBu does to his crew every week and not break them down like Bob Cratchit in "A Christmas Carol." God bless us, every one ... except for that foxing tire changer! Last week's ranking: 10.
11. Jeff Gordon. The sooner this Chase is over, the better for Jeff Gordon. He just hasn't done anything worth writing home about. (Or IM'ing/Skyping/Twittering home; nobody writes home anymore. And your mom is sad about that.) Anyway, enough with 2011. If I was Jeff Gordon, I'd start, park and drink away the pain of this year at the Fontainebleaue on South Beach. Last week's ranking: 8.
12. Kyle Busch. Oh, Kyle. Kyle, Kyle, Kyle. What are we to do with you? You've veered from supervillain to pathetic figure faster than anybody, and that includes ex-presidents who leave office in disgrace but get recast as victims of circumstance. Like Gordon, it's probably best if Kyle just wraps up the season as quickly as possible and heads off to the beach. But I'd recommend he keep his shirt on, for any number of reasons. Last week's ranking: 11.
Dropping out of the rankings: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle.
Lucky Dog: Jeff Burton. Carl Edwards won't be buying The Senator any beers anytime soon after being unable to keep Stewart from getting to third, but in and of itself, Burton's fourth-place finish is pretty darn impressive.
DNF: Geoffrey Bodine, who spun three times in this race. Best part of that: his brother Todd protesting on Twitter that he (Todd) wasn't the one causing all these problems, as if people thought he would be checking Twitter during the race.
Charging upward: David Reutimann, who got a 7th-place finish at a really tough track. Yep, he sucks. Cut him loose.