Brad Keselowski lost a fuel-mileage race? Wow, things are certainly getting interesting with only five races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Bad Brad’s mishap has allowed Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer to stay within striking distance and remain a legitimate contender to win this year’s title. Bowyer, who won last week’s race at Charlotte, trails Keselowski by 28 points. By comparison, Tony Stewart was 24 points behind Carl Edwards with five races to go last year – and we know how that finished.
With Kansas Speedway next on the docket, here’s a look at the power rankings at the halfway point of the Chase:
1. Jimmie Johnson (Last Week: 2) – The musical chairs atop the power rankings continue with Mr. Five Time taking back over the top spot thanks to his third-place finish at Charlotte. Johnson put together a solid race at one of his best tracks, riding inside the top- 13 for most of the night and cutting his deficit to Keselowski in the standings in half to seven points. Johnson could see that deficit diminish further if he’s able to continue his run of success at Kansas, a track where he has 10 top-10s, including two wins in 12 career starts.
2. Brad Keselowski (Last Week: 1) – It’s hard to believe that Keselowski came up empty in a race that was dictated by conserving fuel. But that’s exactly what happened in Charlotte. No one led more laps (139) than Keselowski, but it didn’t matter once he ran out fuel with 59 laps to go on Saturday night. His 11th-place finish was respectable, but with Johnson, Hamlin and Bowyer all finishing above him (third, second and first, respectively), it was definitely a tough pill to swallow for Mr. Twitter. Righting the ship at Kansas isn’t out of the question, though, as Bad Brad has a win in five starts at the 1.5- mile oval.
3. Denny Hamlin (Last Week: 4) – One of the pre-Chase favorites, Hamlin is in good position to make a run at his first title. With three top-10s (including a win here at “The Magic Mile”), Hamlin fell out of the top- 10 only once all night at Charlotte and might have had something for Bowyer if it were a 335- and not a 334-lap race. Hamlin is the defending track champion at Kansas, having won at the speedway in April. But while he’s averaging a 3.0 finishing position in the spring races at Kansas, the fall hasn’t been as kind, having never registered a top-10 in six fall starts.
4. Clint Bowyer (Last Week: 6) – If there were a 3B ranking then Bowyer would be in that position. He held off a hard-charging Hamlin to close out last weekend’s race at Charlotte. Running anywhere from first to 30th, Bowyer was in the right place at the right time to pick up his third victory of the season. A win at Kansas would be a bit of a surprise. Bowyer has never finished better than second at the 1.5-mile speedway, and that came back in 2007. He finished 36th back in April and to do so again would be disastrous to his title hopes.
5. Kasey Kahne (Last Week: 5) – A justifiable contender even as recently as last week, Kahne is still 35 points behind the points leader despite an eighth-place finish at Charlotte. Truth be told, with three-career wins at CMS, an eighth was a bit of a disappointment for a team that looked like it might be poised to make up some ground in North Carolina. Now, only a win is going to suffice, and what better place to do that than Kansas, a track where he has two straight top-10s, including a runner-up finish last October.
6. Jeff Gordon (Last Week: 3) – He has eight top-fives since July 29. Unfortunately, when he’s not running inside the top-five, he’s usually outside the top-20. In fact, his 18th at Charlotte was his best finish outside the top-five during that stretch. And it seems that if that 35th at Chicagoland wasn’t enough to knock him out of contention, his sub-par finish at Charlotte will be. Gordon does have two victories in 13 career starts at Kansas, but that was all the way back in 2001 and 2002, his first two races at the track. He’s finished 34th and 21st in his last two races there. Ouch.
7. Martin Truex Jr. (Last Week: 7) – He hasn’t done anything to shoot himself in the foot, but that doesn’t mean Truex isn’t limping through this Chase. While consistent, Truex just isn’t accruing enough points to be a serious threat at this championship. His three top-10s in NASCAR’s playoff have kept him within striking distance, but a 49-point deficit with five races to go leave little room for error … or hope. Truex’s best finish at Kansas came in April, where he finished runner-up to Hamlin.
8. Tony Stewart (Last Week: 8) – To say that Smoke salvaged a 13th-place finish at Charlotte is certainly an understatement. Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy was covered in bond tape before the first 20 laps were completed, making it a long day for the defending series champ. Kansas should provide some relief for Stewart’s muscle memory. In 13 starts at the 1.5-miler, Stewart has eight top-10s, including five top-fives and two wins.
9. Greg Biffle (Last Week: N/A) – The Biff is certainly making a little run. A top-15 car all night at Charlotte, Biffle finished fourth, better than his sixth-place finish at Talladega. Biffle got off to a slow start in the playoff, but could be an exciting driver to watch over the next five races, especially if he’s able to return to the form that saw him sit atop the standings for a good majority of the season. Biffle has two wins and nine total top-fives in 12 career starts at Kansas, so expect another productive day from the 16.
10. Matt Kenseth (Last Week: 10) – Kenseth followed up his win at Talladega with a 14th at Charlotte. It was hardly the finish he wanted, especially given his ability to fall back in the pack early on and race toward the front for much of the race. Kenseth has never won at Kansas, but with four straight top-10s, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him running near the leaders when the white flag drops on Sunday afternoon.
Off the pace: Kevin Harvick – Chase finishes so far: 12th, 11th, 13th, 11th, 16th. Not sure which is more strange – the fact that he only has one top-five in the last 12 races or that he hasn’t finished worse than 16th (twice) in that same stretch.
Top Non-Chaser: Kyle Busch – He now has four top-10s – three of those top-fives – in the first five Chase races. Where was this during the first 26 races?