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 now with the most unexpected ranking of the entire season ...
1. Brad Keselowski. Yep, I can't believe it either. Brad Keselowski, deep in the field as late as June and a cute-but-unremarkable story as late as, uh, early this month, is without a doubt the hottest driver in NASCAR. Going 1-2-3-1 over four very different tracks will do that for you. Does this mean he's a legit Cup competitor? I'd have said no until Bristol, but now ... ? Hey, get hot at the right time, anything can happen. Last week's ranking: 3.
2. Jimmie Johnson. Dig it, Vader is leading the points race (tied with Kyle Busch). There's something about him this year that doesn't inspire much confidence in me for his Cup chances, but then I look at the fact that he's the five-time champ, and the fact that he's leading the points race, and I start to think that maybe we shouldn't be so quick to write him off after all. Strong race for him this last weekend at a track that historically wasn't among his best. Last week's ranking: 2.
3. Kyle Busch. And this is why they run the races. Sure, Kyle Busch had won every race at Bristol dating back to the Kennedy administration, but when the time came on Saturday night to run, Busch apparently decided to obey the speed limit. The 45 mph speed limit. Not that it really matters; Busch is already in the Chase. Last week's ranking: 1.
4. Jeff Gordon. Without a doubt, Gordon had the best car of the race Saturday night. But it's not always about the best car; sometimes it's about where you can put that car. And the pit road speeding/not speeding issue bit Gordon right on the Drive To End Hunger fork. Still, although Gordon is settling nicely into the "cranky old man" role in NASCAR, this is a case where you can't be that bitter because someone figured out an edge within the rules. Last week's ranking: 5.
5. Matt Kenseth. Another strong run for Kenseth, who's looking like he could stick around and cause trouble for at least some of the front-runners. And another note on the "speeding" by him and Keselowski: I understand the safety concerns, which are valid, but this is NASCAR's loophole to close, not the drivers'. And I'm betting it'll be cinched up tight next time around at Bristol. Last week's ranking: 6.
6. Carl Edwards. Oh no! Edwards is falling like a stone! Well, not really, but he's not exactly running the way he had most of the season. Of course, as he's noted, as long as you're in the Chase, you've got a chance. And he's almost in the Chase. Another win or two somewhere along the line might help, though. Last week's ranking: 4.
7. Ryan Newman. So, uh, think that things are getting a little testy around Stewart-Haas Racing these days? When you're outrunning your boss week after week, there's only so much of the "well, that's racing!" that you can do before you start wondering if the boss is going to come pilfer your entire car, team, hauler, whatever. Newman is probably sleeping with one eye open, just waiting to catch a whiff of Burger King in the air. Last week's ranking: 7.
8. Kevin Harvick. Good to see the Harvick-Kyle Busch feud rearing up again. These guys will make the Chase incredibly interesting. Would one try to spin the other for a win? Would one hang back and retaliate if that happened? The answers are: possibly and absolutely. Don't deny us a great story, gentlemen. Last week's ranking: 6.
9. Kurt Busch. Not the best time of year for Busch to be slowly removing himself from the conversation, but as we've seen, he can get hot (and hot under the collar) at a moment's notice. Sounds like it's about time to make another crewman cry with one of those vintage Kurt Busch diatribes. Those always seem to work wonders. Last week's ranking: 7.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. The end times are nigh: barring total catastrophe, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make the Chase. He's not thrilled with it from a championship perspective; just being in isn't worth much if you don't have a chance to win. Still, it'll provide validation for a stronger-than-usual season, and it'll give TV and media something to do rather than focus on all those frontrunners. Last week's ranking: 10.
11. Denny Hamlin. Tough days for Denny Hamlin, but you've got to give him credit for rallying from a spin to notch a top-10 finish. That could have been the moment his Chase hopes went out the window; instead, he's looking like he'll be able to hold strong to his lead. Tony Stewart's sudden vulnerability only aids Hamlin's chances by taking some of the spotlight off the 11. Last week's ranking: NR.
12. Clint Bowyer. Really didn't want to give this spot to Bowyer, because he didn't run very well at a time when he needed to, but he's still our pick to sneak into the Chase, either with a win (highly possible) or a top-10 finish (less likely). Plus, his meltdown at Bristol over a media report that he was demanding a helicopter in his contract negotiations was epic. Of course Bowyer doesn't want a helicopter to each race. Everyone knows he wants a personal jetpack. Come on. Last week's ranking: 12.
Dropping out of the rankings: Tony Stewart, who looks like he's already thinking of what kind of havoc he'll cause in Australia this holiday season.
Lucky Dog: Martin Truex Jr., who had his best race in years on Saturday night. It's probably a good thing for Junior Nation that Truex didn't win, since he's the one major-team Cup regular with a longer losing streak than the 88.
DNF: Mark Martin, who saw his slim Chase chances crumple like his No. 5. Tough go for the old man, but it's looking more and more like he could have a ride at Stewart-Haas next year ... and as long as your name isn't Tony Stewart, that's good news.
Charging upward: Marcos Ambrose, who had a top-10 finish and now sits just outside the top 20 with one win. Hail Mary time? Hail Mary time. Go for it, Marcos!
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