Halfway through this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, the main title contenders remain Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin, who hold the first three positions in points.
After Sunday, pundits need to interject Clint Bowyer's name back into the title discussion.
Bowyer has become one of the ultimate fuel-saving drivers of NASCAR's modern era, scoring his third win of the season on Saturday night by keeping his car running just long enough to take the checkered flag. With it, he's now within 28 points of Keselowski for the championship lead, as the battle tightened up when the Penske Racing driver could only muster an 11th place finish.
With that in mind, it's time to power rank the top 20 drivers in Sprint Cup for this week. Let's get going:
Even though Keselowski ran out of gas near the end and could only come back to finish 11th, he and crew chief Paul Wolfe are one of the most formidable tandems in the sport these days. Despite qualifying mid-pack, Wolfe's strategy got Keselowski to the front early, and he led the most laps to score an important two bonus points.
If you've never seen Bowyer's Twitter feed the day after a victory, you're missing out. Let's leave it at this:
WTH happened last night. Woke up with a blue jacket, trophy, bottle of jack, a keg, a dog, a new watch, a driveshaft, and a headache! Haha— Clint Bowyer (@ClintBowyer) October 14, 2012
Before this weekend's race, Johnson had been conceding "Charlotte's best driver" status to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne. Then, he qualified fifth and led 53 laps to finish third and cut Brad Keselowski's championship lead in half. Was it gamesmanship, and if so, can Johnson fool people into thinking he's more vulnerable than he is just because of last year's struggles?
Hamlin was undoubtedly frustrated not to come out of Charlotte with the victory, after spending the majority of this year running up front on similar 1.5-mile tracks. In fact, his driver rating was an impeccable 130.7, over 18 points better than Bowyer's and nearly nine full points better than any other driver on Saturday night.
After leading the regular season points coming into the Chase, Biffle is now back up to sixth in points after posting a fourth place finish on Saturday. Even more encouraging: In a Thursday night qualifying session when everyone thought the track record was bound to fall, Biffle posted a speed of 193.708 MPH to set a new mark. If Doug Yates' engines can keep powering Biffle to strong starting spots, things could get even better.
Kahne, who won the Coca-Cola 600 in May, was solid but never spectacular during Charlotte's fall race. He started tenth and finished eighth, but in his first race for new sponsor Time Warner Cable, he failed to lead a lap and score an ever-important bonus point.
Gordon's Saturday night was a fine example of the law of averages finally coming into play to haunt a driver. Coming in, he'd finished second or third in six of the past seven races, an incredible skew given that Gordon only had four top fives in the previous 23 races. Though he earned his sixth bonus point in the past seven races by leading a lap, he finished two laps down in 18th.
It's really too bad that Busch missed this year's Chase, because he would be in the thick of the title hunt. He's earned 177 points since the Chase began in Chicago, which would put him sixth in the standings and only two points out of the top five. He also has three of his nine top-fives on the season in that span.
Another week, another consistent top-half finish for 2011's most improved team. It's clear right now that Clint Bowyer is the better bet for race wins and a championship bid at Michael Waltrip Racing, but when your number two driver is running as well as Truex has this year, there's no reason to be ashamed, even without a race win (so far).
Stewart wasn't too happy about getting bunched up on a very early restart and requiring some significant cosmetic work on the front of his car. Given the circumstances, however, a 13th place finish—especially coming from a 32nd place starting spot—isn't all that bad.
Spinning out to cause the first caution of the race isn't quite how Kenseth wanted to build on the momentum from last weekend's win at Talladega. A 14th-place finish wasn't the best way to continue it, either, as the only spot he gained in Chase points came from Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he sat out with a concussion.
Martin and former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle had an incredible battle for the lead in the opening laps of the race. Although the two laps Martin spent out front there were the only laps he led all race, he still came home in sixth place as the final driver on the lead lap. If he was running a full schedule this year, it's almost a given that he'd be in the Chase.
Newman's finishes have been so-so as of late, but it's interesting to note that his qualifying mojo is beginning to come back. Although he hasn't scored a pole this year (and has only five races to avoid the first pole-less season of his Cup career), his average start of 9.7 this season is actually his best since he posted a career-high of 6.3 in 2005 and the fourth-best of his career so far.
One of only two winless drivers in the Chase, Harvick's long-awaited reunion with crew chief Gil Martin hasn't actually improved the team all that much. Excluding the fifth-place finish they scored upon their reunion at Atlanta, Harvick has an average finish of 12.2 in his past six races with Martin on the pit box. In his last six races with Shane Wilson calling the shots, he posted an average run of 15.2.
There really hasn't been much to smile about for Edwards this year, as the No. 99 team clearly spent all it had on last year's unsuccessful title run. A seventh-place finish at Charlotte marked only the second top-10 finish for the team since Bristol, as Edwards sits a season-low 15th in points.
Penske Racing has to be confident in their new signing for 2013, as Logano has posted some decent finishes in the Chase despite his status as Joe Gibbs Racing's third driver and only lame duck. He's posted four top-10 finishes in the past five races, with the wild and unpredictable Talladega event the only exception. That being said, Logano wouldn't have stood a chance in the Chase; his 154 points would only rank him 11th in the standings if he had made it.
Well, the world didn't end in Busch's first race for Furniture Row Racing. That being said, his average finish this season has been 24.9, and he came home 21st. At least in week one of this experiment, Kurt, yes, it's been a lateral move.
It was too bad that Smith's engine gave out early at Charlotte, as we never got an honest shot to see what last year's Southern 500 winner could really do with a championship-caliber race car at Hendrick Motorsports. He'll get another shot at Kansas next week, and if regular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. elects to keep missing races to recover from his concussion issues, he can only hope to stay on track for a bit longer this time around.
An honest "welcome back" to the Dinger after successfully completing NASCAR's Road to Recovery program and bringing home the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet 24th in his return to Sprint Cup action. He may never again have options as good as his ride at Penske Racing was, but if nothing else, he's resumed his career—more than many drivers with personal demons can say.
Finally, best wishes to Earnhardt Jr. as he recovers from his concussions and takes another race off at Kansas. It takes a lot for an athlete in any sport to resist his competitive nature and listen to his body when it clearly needs time to heal. While nobody wants to see Earnhardt Jr. off of the track, watching the careers of drivers like Ricky Craven and Steve Park post-concussions suggests that he made the right decision to play it safe.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.