A fantastic finish at Bristol shook up NASCAR's power hierarchy a bit.
A close finish under the Saturday night lights at Bristol Motor Speedway reminded everyone what NASCAR's pending Chase for the Sprint Cup could be—and should be—all about.
Except for one thing: the driver of the second-place car, Kasey Kahne, didn't appear to do everything he could to move the first-place car of Matt Kenseth out of the way to steal the post-race spotlight in Victory Lane. Under the circumstances, that could perhaps be excused for points-racing and Chase-positioning reasons, plus the pair in question put on a pretty awesome example of how exciting clean racing can be.
But let's hope that all changes over the last two races of the regular season and throughout the Chase. These guys should be racing for wins, all holds barred. The fans deserve it and the rich history of the sport demands it.
With that in mind, the latest Power Rankings take into account not only who has momentum and has been running the fastest heading into the final two races before the Chase, but whether they have their heads wrapped completely around the all-out approach it likely will take to win a championship.
Despite a rough ride this season, Ryan Newman is poised to make the Chase.
Previous Rank: NR
Why He's Here: Yes, Newman is the odd man out at Stewart-Haas Racing and doesn't have a ride lined up yet for next season (Furniture Row Racing is beginning to look like his best remaining option). And yes, Newman is 15th in the point standings with two regular-season races left before the Chase cutoff. But with one win already in the bank, he's still likely to make the Chase as one of the two wild-card entries.
Chase Outlook: He's only four points behind Martin Truex Jr., who will have to finish out the rest of the regular season and at least a good portion of the Chase with a special cast protecting the broken right wrist he suffered during a crash last Saturday night at Bristol. That could provide Newman with a chance to make up the points deficit and move up to the No. 11 seed for the Chase, although that will mean little in the long run and he is not expected to be much of a championship contender—largely because of his suddenly lame-duck status at SHR.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 11
His night was a wreck at Bristol, but Martin Truex Jr. has had a solid season.
Previous Rank: NR
Why He's Here: Although Truex Jr. is 14th in points, he's poised to qualify for the Chase by virtue of his one victory this season. The only way he can get shoved out of the way is if one of the three drivers currently ahead of him in the standings wins one of the final two regular-season races at Atlanta or Richmond, and even then Ryan Newman, who also has one win, would have to leapfrog him in the points.
Chase Outlook: Suffice it to say that Truex will be doing whatever he can to stay in front of the aforementioned trio of drivers at Atlanta and Richmond because those three -- Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch -- are all former Sprint Cup champions who have the potential and the moxie to finally get to Victory Lane for the first time this season. He'll have to do it with a broken right wrist he suffered during a wreck at Bristol, as reported by USA Today and other media outlets. Fitted with a special cast, he'll likely make the Chase but will be a long shot to do much else after that.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 12
Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to regain lost momentum.
Previous Rank: 10
Why He's Here: The fact that Earnhardt Jr. is seventh in points won't mean much when the Chase starts. He would have to have a disastrous final two regular-season races to miss qualifying, but is a virtual lock to enter the post-season party as the lowest seed among the non-wild-card entries because he has yet to win a race this season and isn't likely to at either Atlanta or Richmond.
Chase Outlook: Earnhardt wouldn't mind seeing Michigan added to the Chase schedule. Although he struggled there in both visits this season, it's the only race track where he's visited Victory Lane in the last seven seasons. History has proven that drivers nearly always need to win multiple Chase races to capture the title (Kurt Busch with only one Chase win in 2004, Jimmie Johnson with one in 2006 and Tony Stewart with none in 2005 are the only exceptions, and all three won multiple races overall throughout the course of the entire season, per racing-reference.info). Junior appears destined for another sub-par Chase run.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 10
Greg Biffle is looking to climb in the Sprint Cup standings.
Previous Rank: 9
Why He's Here: With one win, a 13-point cushion over Joey Logano in 10th and two others in the top 10 who enter the final two races winless (Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Biffle seems to be solidly in the Chase. All he has to do is avoid major trouble at Atlanta and Richmond.
Chase Outlook: There is no sense that Biffle and his No. 16 Ford team are building any kind of real momentum for a run at the championship. But there are some tracks where he has performed well in the past early in the Chase schedule—he's won in his career at New Hampshire, Dover and Kansas, three of the first four Chase tracks—and he'll need to make a statement at one of those venues if he's going to surprise and actually contend.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 8
Joey Logano's star finally seems to be on the rise again.
Previous Rank: 12
Why He's Here: After years of failing to follow up his tremendous success in the Nationwide Series with similar results in Sprint Cup, Logano finally is showing signs of regaining his lost stardom. It could be argued that no driver has been hotter over the last five races, when he's finished in the top eight each time with one win and an average finish of 5.6, per racing-reference.info.
Chase Outlook: Despite the fact that this is his fifth full-time season in Sprint Cup, he's only 23 years old—so the best is yet to come. That means for his career and quite possibly in this Chase as well. Consider him a darkhorse to continue his hot streak and at least make a run at contending for the championship for the first time in his young career.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 9
The No. 99 team of Carl Edwards is scrambling to find more speed for the Chase.
Previous Rank: 6
Why He's Here: Edwards' solid but not spectacular season took a hit when his engine failed at Bristol after he led 119 laps. He took it as a positive sign, telling his team over the radio: "Listen, guys, that was a bad-ass race car. We're going to kick their butts at Atlanta and Richmond, both," according to a FoxSports report. Love the optimism, but we'll believe that when the engine durability matches the speed and he actually gets back to Victory Lane.
Chase Outlook: Currently third in points, Edwards could earn as high as the No. 3 seed if he wins both of the remaining two regular-season races or as high as fourth if he wins one of the two. But if he doesn't win one of the next two, he'll enter as a middle-of-the-road No. 7 seed that perfectly fits the solid but not spectacular theme of his season thus far. He needs to show he can win now if anyone is going to take him seriously in the Chase.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 7
Clint Boywer has been consistent, but needs to prove he can win.
Previous Rank: 5
Why He's Here: Although second in points at the moment, Bowyer has yet to win a race this season. But that could change soon. He's always a contender at Richmond, the last regular-season race before the Chase cutoff that determines which 12 drivers will battle it out for the championship over the season's final 10 events.
Chase Outlook: He needs to win at Richmond (or Atlanta prior to Richmond) to avoid a freefall in the Chase seedings—where his current pile of points will do him little good without a victory to go along with it. Win one of the last two and he goes in as high as the No. 6 seed. Two more winless nights and he'll be seeded ninth, lacking momentum and entering the Chase with a steeper mountain to climb to contend for the title.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 6
Kevin Harvick hopes to go out a champion at Richard Childress Racing.
Previous Rank: 4
Why He's Here: Harvick's season already has been a triumph beyond the expectations of many who expected him to falter after announcing to USA Today and other media outlets before it even began that he would be leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing at season's end. Fourth in the points with two victories, he's in great shape for the Chase and could even move up one spot in the post-season seeding if he wins one of the two remaining regular-season races—and two if he wins both. Of course that's not likely to happen, but he has won at both Atlanta and Richmond in the past, if not back-to-back.
Chase Outlook: Harvick certainly will go all-out to finish his long run at RCR in the finest fashion possible. It could help him immensely that he'll be the only RCR car in the Chase, as that removes any temptation to favor a returning RCR team over his in terms of providing information and resources. Team owner Richard Childress is no dummy and understands that chances to win championships don't come around every season, so he'll throw every available resource behind Harvick's title effort. Don't count them out.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 4
Kasey Kahne couldn't quite get around Matt Kenseth at Bristol.
Previous Rank: 7
Why He's Here: Kahne may have lacked the will to knock Matt Kenseth out of the way for a win at Bristol, but in reality his decision not to risk wrecking himself in that situation was the smartest thing he could have done. He knew he was going to finish first or second, and he needed the points to solidify his position in the point standings, plus he already had two wins on the books for the season. In other words, he was mature about it and was thinking about the bigger picture.
Chase Outlook: Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis always seem to heat up as the season progresses and they're really clicking at the right time now. He'll be a strong threat to challenge five-time Sprint Cup champion and fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson to see who finishes atop this latest Chase.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 5
No one questions Kyle Busch is almost always fast, but he needs consistent finishes in the Chase.
Previous Rank: 2
Why He's Here: He's fifth in points, but with three wins and strong evidence of plenty of speed he's in better position to contend for a Sprint Cup championship than perhaps at any other time in his career. Only Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, Busch's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, have led more total laps this season, according to USAToday.com.
Chase Outlook: The issues with Busch and JGR's Toyota engines are always the same heading into the Chase. That means two things: if Busch encounters early adversity, will he give in to it or find a way to fight back? And secondly, will his equipment, primarily the Toyota engines, hold up over the whirlwind that comprises the final 10 races to determine this season's champ?
Projected Regular Season Finish: 3
Matt Kenseth's win at Bristol was his fifth of the season.
Previous Rank: 3
Why He's Here: Who is this guy, Marty McFly? With his latest win at Bristol, where he held off a hard-driving but clean challenger in Kasey Kahne over a thrilling duel that covered the final 12 laps, Kenseth matched his career-high total of five wins for a single season—first set in 2002 when he still drove for car owner Jack Roush per racing-reference.info. His Back to the Future romp through 2013 has him currently in position to be the No. 1 seed when the Chase commences.
Chase Outlook: Two regular-season races remain and five-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson is not going to stand idly by and simply hand over the top Chase seed to Kenseth. But even if Johnson wins at Atlanta or Richmond (Atlanta is the better bet) and they both enter the post-season with five wins, they'll begin the Chase in a virtual tie with the same number of bonus points. Bottom line: Kenseth is in great shape to challenge for his first title since 2003, the last year of the non-Chase era.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 2
Bristol put a dent in Jimmie Johnson's plans to be top seed going into the Chase, but he's still the favorite.
Previous Rank: 1
Why He's Here: Sure, if the season ended now he would enter the Chase as the No. 2 seed, trailing Matt Kenseth. But it doesn't. Fans and foes alike are about to find out how Chase-ready and Chase-worthy Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are this season. No one is more prepared.
Chase Outlook: Since embarking on the first of his five consecutive title runs in 2006, Johnson has made a habit of winning races with incredible frequency during the Chase. He's visited Victory Lane 16 times at eight different tracks during the Chase since then—far more than anyone else per racing-reference.info. He and Knaus and the entire No. 48 Chevrolet team have been on a mission all season: to win championship No. 6 after missing out on the celebration the last two years. Someone else is going to have to step up in a big way to stop them, because they aren't going to beat themselves with many mistakes.
Projected Regular Season Finish: 1