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 looking like we're going to have a new champion in 2011 ...
1. Carl Edwards. We're getting very close now to the time when we're going to have to question whether a Chase competitor without a win in the Chase is a legitimate champion. Edwards has four races left, and while he's hit his marks at several of these tracks, there's no guarantee he'll win any of them ... or, for that matter, that he'll win the Chase. I'll stop talking now. Last week's ranking: 1.
2. Matt Kenseth. Fine, fine, we give. Kenseth is now a legitimate Cup competitor. He's there. Happy, you purple freaks? In all seriousness, Kenseth is doing things exactly right: consistency over all. Which is really what he's done all along, I guess. It's Kenseth's world, and we're just now catching up to him. Last week's ranking: 2.
3. Tony Stewart. Toss-up here for the third spot between Stewart and Brad Keselowski, but we're going with Stewart just because of the experience factor. This is what we're working with in this Chase: several apparent misfires and subsequent rebirths. One more good run and Stewart's right there. And I can't wait to see how he'll gripe at the media with a Cup in his hand. Last week's ranking: 6.
4. Brad Keselowski. What else can we do but applaud Keselowski at this point? He's hung around long after anyone could have possibly expected. One season isn't a guarantee of another, but the guy's racing with the savvy of a decade-long veteran. Plus, imagine how many times we'll see that Talladega wreck from '09 if it ends up being him and Edwards going for the Cup. Last week's ranking: 8.
5. Kevin Harvick. I was tempted not to give anyone the five-spot, but then I looked and saw that Harvick is only seven points behind Keselowski. It seems like a ton more, but you count out Kevin Harvick at your own peril. Seriously. I did that once in the Chase last year, and he showed up at my house with Jimmy John's sandwiches. And he ate them in front of me and didn't share. The man is cruel. Last week's ranking: 3.
6. Clint Bowyer. Holy sweet jumpin' catfish, Clint Bowyer won the race! He was one of the lap leaders, and he continues to impress as he runs out the string at RCR. Matter of fact, almost everybody'll be sorry to see him go except Jeff Burton, who didn't quite get what he wanted out of Talladega. Last week's ranking: NR.
7. Jimmie Johnson. We'll talk more about this later on, but it looks like for all realistic purposes, the reign of Five-Time comes to an end at Five. (Stop playing "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead!" Stop! He's a nice guy!) Still, Johnson has looked surprisingly vulnerable these last few weeks. It's unsettling. Last week's ranking: 4.
8. Kyle Busch. This is why you can't waste a single race in the Chase. Busch had a legitimate chance to win this Cup as recently as Sunday. But he didn't get the finishes he needed early in the Chase to offset the bad run he had at Talladega. He hadn't been terrible, notching a 22 and two 11s, but if he could have added an aggregate 20 places in finish to his first five races, he'd be right there with Stewart and Keselowski. The more you know. Last week's ranking: 5.
9. Kasey Kahne. Kahne spun but managed to recover and finish 6th. Even more impressive, he and Brian Vickers made for an impressive drafting tandem. Man, those two are seriously going to be something else in 2012 now that they've got a year of working together under their belts. Perhaps a double-Chase run isn't out of the ... what? Why are you laughing at me? Last week's ranking: 7.
10. Kurt Busch. I got the great pleasure of getting to sit atop the 22's pit box for the first part of Sunday's race. They gave me headphones and everything, and my headset even had a microphone. Which got me to thinking of all the damage I could do to the 22 team with an open mike. Turns out Bobby Labonte did just fine all on his own, and now Kurt's Chase hopes are, alas, gone. (But thanks to Shell and the 22 guys for letting me up there anyway.) Last week's ranking: 9.
11. Denny Hamlin. Was there a sadder sight at Talladega Sunday than poor Denny Hamlin, motoring around the track without a partner as everybody else paired up? Well, I'm sure there was a sadder sight, but not until much later and in the infield, and we probably can't recount that here. Oh, but hey, Denny rebounded and fought his way back up into the top 10. Kind of like the Ugly Duckling who becomes the prom queen. Last week's ranking: NR.
12. Dave Blaney. Dave Blaney finished third. Say it again, louder: DAVE BLANEY FINISHED THIRD! The dude who's been a walking (well, driving) punch line for the last who-knows-how-long finished ahead of every single Chaser. Plus, he won every kid in America a free meal at Golden Corral on Monday. Belly up, kids! Last week's ranking: NR.
Dropping out of the rankings: Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose.
Lucky Dog: Jeff Burton. Man, how ticked do you think he was that Bowyer vultured that win from him? But he's the classiest cat in the garage, so he said all the right things. I envy him that ability.
DNF: Newman, who got spun out by his boss and fell all the way to the bottom of the Chase. Ouch.
Charging upward: Brian Vickers, who may not have a ride yet for 2012, but nonetheless roped in a 5th-place finish that'll go on his resumé for next year.