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. The Chase has begun, though some drivers need a little wake-up call ...
1. Kevin Harvick. Let's take this time to talk about the conventional wisdom about each of these drivers heading into the Chase, and we'll see how well they stacked up in Week 1. CW held that Harvick was on a long, slow slide to irrelevance after a hot start to the year, but between last week's victory and this week's just-needed-one-more-lap runner-up finish, it's safe to say that Harvick is in fine Chase form. Last week's ranking: 5.
2. Tony Stewart. This is how fast things can change in this year's NASCAR: Stewart went from irrelevant three weeks ago to "no chance in the Chase" over the weekend to potential Cup contender now. As with so many other drivers, consistency is key, but outside of Harvick, nobody's more consistent than Stewart right now. Good timing. Last week's ranking: 10.
3. Jimmie Johnson. Interesting result from Monday's live chat during the race: a full one-third of respondents were cool with Johnson winning his sixth straight Sprint Cup. And yes, there were more than three respondents. CW on Johnson is that he's got another switch that he flips come Chase time, and for much of the race Monday, that seemed to be the case. Six-time isn't a certainty, but it's a distinct possibility. Last week's ranking: 2.
4. Carl Edwards. Conventional wisdom held that Edwards is a reliable frontrunner who can't quite get to the front on a regular basis. In the Chicago race, Edwards was a reliable frontrunner who couldn't quite get to the front on a regular basis. So, yeah, it appears we were all dead-on with Edwards. Last week's ranking: 3.
5. Brad Keselowski. You have two schools of thought on Keselowski: one states that he's going to fade now that it's crunch time, the other states that he'll hang tough and perhaps, perhaps, challenge for a championship. And on Monday, Keselowski gave plenty of ammunition to both sides of the fence. Overall, though, he came through the first race better than most. Last week's ranking: 4.
6. Kurt Busch. I'm starting to think that maybe Kurt Busch needs to be on the edge of completely losing control in order to drive his absolute best. He screamed at his pit crew about how godawful his car was, and then finished with another top 10. Hey, whatever works to get that fire lit. Last week's ranking: 7.
7. Jeff Gordon. This was exactly the kind of week that Jeff Gordon didn't need. Sure, he can rebound from this ugly outing and challenge once again for the championship; he's not the only guy whose fuel issues shot him in the foot. (Wait, that's a tortured metaphor.) Anyway, he'll be all right, but he's sure not the Cup contender everyone thought he would be. Last week's ranking: 1.
8. Matt Kenseth. Kenseth ran the race exactly like we expected he would, reliably up front but quiet, and then came that last-lap fiasco. Kenseth accepted the punishment from NASCAR for getting a push from J.J. Yeley, but still undetermined is whether Kenseth actually told Yeley, "Next time you want to help out the 17 team, grab a broom or something like that." Last week's ranking: 8.
9. Kyle Busch. This is a demonstration of just how tight these power rankings are; Busch is only a couple good runs from being back on top. If there's anyone in this Chase who can rebound from the sub-20 finish that Kyle suffered, it's Busch himself, but you never want to have your one rotten race in the Chase come first. Last week's ranking: 6.
10. Ryan Newman. Newman ended up with a top-10 finish, but that's not going to come close to cutting it in Chase time. He put together exactly the kind of race we expected from him: decent but unspectacular, the kind of quiet competence that'll keep him running but not scare the frontrunners overmuch. Last week's ranking: 9.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Look, let's be honest here: Junior is going to get all kinds of garbage for running well in a race where everyone around him ran out of gas. But the truth is that he wouldn't have been in a position to get a third-place finish if he hadn't fought his way up through the field throughout the final quarter of the race. Mock if you want, but the guy had a decent little run even without the fuel-aided finish. Last week's ranking: NR.
12. Clint Bowyer. Clint Bowyer was the highest-finishing non-Chaser, which has to be something like having your hot ex-girlfriend tell you that if it weren't for this new guy she met, she'd totally still be into you. We put Clint here to make him feel better, and maybe get him a job in 2012 once and for all. Last week's ranking: NR.
Dropping out of the rankings: AJ Allmendinger, whose run of quality races came to a quick end in Chicago. Also, Denny Hamlin ... see below.
Lucky Dog: Mark Martin, who snuck into a top-10 spot. And if his prospective future boss wins a race, that can only mean good news for the Stewart-Haas bottom line, and thus potential good news for Martin.
DNF: Denny Hamlin, whose already-rickety Chase chances took a perhaps-mortal blow with his poor finish. 2010 seems a long time ago.
Charging upward: David Ragan followed up last week's fourth-place finish with an 11th-place one this week. Another four months running like this and he's a lock for the Chase!