Power Rankings: As Chase arrives, some are pointed backwards

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 while the Chase has started, that doesn’t mean it has the 12 hottest drivers running …

Jeff Gordon1. Jeff Gordon. Saturday night provided us with one of the most entertaining evenings of the year. No, not the race; the press conference. Since we were there and watched every single one of the Chase drivers come through, we’ll give you our take on their performances right here. Gordon was the most composed of the lot, briefly ticked that Paul Menard spun at such a convenient time but overall clear-eyed and full-hearted. (Also, Gordon fans ought to keep in mind that if the guy can’t win restarts, even dubious ones, he’s not going to win Chases.) Last week’s ranking: 4.

Jimmie Johnson2. Jimmie Johnson. The assassin. Johnson was one of the last to arrive for his five-man media scrum, and one of the drivers suggested he do the introductions. He didn’t even acknowledge the idea, just grabbed a chair and sat down. He’s not in a mood for joking around now, and anyone who thinks they’re in his head might want to see where they actually are. Don’t let his terrible finish fool you; he’s still the man to beat. Last week’s ranking: 2.

Carl Edwards3. Carl Edwards. Part of the most relaxed panel of the evening, with a chill Brad Keselowski on one side of him and a “no, I wasn’t nervous” virtually trembling Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the other. Actually joked around with Keselowski without throwing him into the wall, which still would have been pretty cool to watch. That strong near-victory was exactly what he needed. Last week’s ranking: 4.

Brad Keselowski4. Brad Keselowski. Happy to goof around with Edwards and relaxed about his prospects in the Chase, Keselowski was having fun all night, from goofing on Edwards about fatherhood to checking on the Michigan-Notre Dame score after his session was over. If he’s upset about losing those bonus points, he certainly doesn’t seem like it. He ran well for portions of the Richmond race; he’ll need to sustain in order to get back to “dark horse champion” status.  Last week’s ranking: 3.

Kevin Harvick5. Kevin Harvick. Harvick had a solo spot for his race win, and he was calm, confident and visibly relieved at having put several months’ worth of substandard runs behind him. One race does not a championship contender make, but it’s a very good start. If Harvick can run at Chicago the way he did in Richmond, he could stake out his turf at the top of the rankings in a hurry.  Last week’s ranking: 8.

Kyle Busch6. Kyle Busch. Nobody on the panel was more thrilled than Kyle, simply for the fact that the controversy had nothing to do with him. In the Richmond race, he ran reasonably well, though his American flag car proved a conflict for many anti-Kyle fans; they wanted to see him in the wall, just not while driving the stars and stripes.  Last week’s ranking: 6.

Kurt Busch7. Kurt Busch. You know how he acted, so we don’t need to detail it here. Look, let’s just put this whole Kurt-Busch-ripping-transcripts thing in its proper perspective: it was a stupid and disrespectful move, yes. The bigger issue is that Busch apparently can’t keep his own temper under control even during calm moments. That’s a bad sign for a guy who’s going to be taking hit after hit while behind the wheel of a hot race car.  Last week’s ranking: 7.

Matt Kenseth8. Matt Kenseth. The savior of the evening, Kenseth came out of Richmond’s infamous press conference having shown the world exactly how funny he can be. He’s had a rocky few weeks on the track, relatively speaking, and since he has a history of running in the high-single/low-teen digits in the Chase, he’ll need to step up quickly to make a legitimate run at the championship. Also a world champion stroller driver, apparently.  Last week’s ranking: 5.

Ryan Newman9. Ryan Newman. Newman was Switzerland, the neutral party directly in the middle of the warring nations of Buschopotamia and Johnsylvania. He smirked his way through the entire press conference. And yet another top-10 run adds to his strong season and the likelihood that he’ll at least stay in the hunt for the first half of the Chase.   Last week’s ranking: 9.

Tony Stewart10. Tony Stewart. Sat through the entire press conference just daring someone to ask him anything. I was seriously considering asking him whether he thought, given the rise of Chinese manufacturing efficiency, the weakening of the United States dollar against international currencies, the hardening of theological lines between secularism and fundamentalism and the United States’ weakened stature in the court of world opinion truly meant that we are entering the post-American era of world history, but I thought he might call it a stupid question and yell at me. Oh, and he had another top 10 this week.  Last week’s ranking: 11.

Denny Hamlin11. Denny Hamlin. Hamlin seriously looked like he was about to cry from relief at making the Chase. Which is a stark contrast from his radio transmissions, where at one point he bemoaned the fact that he never got any breaks and nothing good ever happened to him. No kidding. He was one more caution from just taking his No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota and going home.  Last week’s ranking: 10.

A J Allmendinger12. AJ Allmendinger. I can’t really comment on Allmendinger’s behavior in the press conference, because he wasn’t there. And if he’d started his run of strong races in May rather than July, he would have been. Richard Petty Motorsports isn’t yet a force in NASCAR, but a surging Dinger and a potential new hire in Clint Bowyer could change all that.  Last week’s ranking: NR.

Dropping out of the rankings: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Enough. He’d stayed in the top 12 in much the same way as he’d stayed in the Chase hunt: by virtue of strong early-season performances. But he’s not a top-12 driver right now, and even though he’s in the Chase, he’s not long for relevancy unless he can turn it around quickly.

Lucky Dog: The fans at (and watching) Richmond, who got the greatest race of the season and enjoyed an inspiring moment from laps 9-11 as everyone went silent.

DNF: Greg Biffle, who appeared briefly to pose a threat to win and throw the Chase standings into a tizzy. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

Charging upward: David Ragan, who picked exactly the wrong time to get hot. Is his latest top-10 run enough to get him more UPS sponsorship?

Next up: Chicagoland, where everybody’s going to be trying to get off to a good start in the Chase. Send comments to us via Twitter at @jaybusbee, email by clicking here, and via Facebook at The Marbles page.

Power Rankings: As Chase arrives, some are pointed backwards

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