Matt Kenseth won the first two races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup and came in seventh in the AAA 400, yet the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has just an eight-point lead over Jimmie Johnson.
It was an impressive showing for Earnhardt, but he still isn't in a position to crack this list. After car troubles knocked him out of the Chicagoland race early, Earnhardt has a huge hole to climb out of. After his second, he is still 57 points behind Kenseth and in 10th place.
That certainly doesn't mean Earnhardt is out of it; he is just too far behind to be considered a top contender at this point—especially when the top three are performing like this:
I'll break down those guys below, but first, take a look at the standings.
No. 3: Kyle Busch
Given Kyle Busch's recent form, it was hard for me to rank him third. However, that is how amazing this Chase is shaping up to be. Just check out this stat:
After a runner-up finish in the first two Chase races, Busch came in fifth on Sunday. This is the exact kind of consistency that Busch needs, but has always lacked, to secure his first Chase title.
His talent and ability to wrack up wins has never been questioned. However, it is the races he doesn't win that have doomed him. Busch has never been the most patient driver, but he is displaying the kind of patience in this Chase that could reward him with the title.
The problem for Bush is that with the two drivers ahead of him, he is going to have little margin for error. And if one of these three guys is going to make an error that costs them the title, my money is still on Busch.
No. 2: Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth has to be ecstatic and dismayed at the same time. He should be buoyed by his great start, but disheartened that start hasn't earned him more than an eight-point lead.
Kenseth is, obviously, in a groove right now. Including his win at the end of August at Bristol, Kenseth has won three of his last six Sprint starts.
Still, prior to that win at Bristol, Kenseth finished 22nd, 23rd and 15th. These are not terrible performances, but it's also indicative of the kinds of spurts of inconsistency displayed by this team all season.
The next race is going to be important for Kenseth. He has to keep this momentum rolling if he hopes to hold off Johnson.
No. 1: Jimmie Johnson
Five-time Sprint Cup champion—and now eight-time Bristol winner—Jimmie Johnson is eight points behind the leader, but in the driver's seat in my book.
Johnson has now finished fifth, fourth and first in the three Chase races. This came after he limped into the Chase with four straight finishes at 28th or lower.
That bout of ineffectiveness would be more troubling if it happened to another driver. However, given Johnson's and his team's experience, it is nothing to get concerned about. These guys have their eye on the prize, and they know how to get it.
Johnson has momentum and vast experience closing out the Chase strong. It is going to be very difficult to keep the No. 48 car from winning its sixth title.