It's hard to believe that the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship has already rolled into the Granite State's Magic Mile and rolled off to the concrete mile at Dover International Speedway. But what a race it was with Matt Kenseth winning his seventh race of the season and his second straight to begin the 10th anniversary of the Chase.
Kenseth has proved to be a frustrating teammate for Kyle Busch, who has achieved just about everything you can in NASCAR sans the heavyweight championship belt that is the Sprint Cup title. Busch has finished second to Kenseth in each of the first two races, thus watching his slim three-point deficit jump to 14 points despite back-to-back runner-up finishes.
Here's a look at the Magic Mile Power Rankings* heading into Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway:
1. Matt Kenseth - The most impressive thing about his win on Sunday had little to do with him becoming just the second driver in Sprint Cup history to win a race in his 500th start (the only other was Richard Petty in 1970). It had little to do with it being his seventh win of the season or his second straight Chase win. No, the most impressive thing about Kenseth's Magic Mile victory was that he had led only 122 laps in his previous 27 Cup starts at NHMS. He led 106 on Sunday en route to his first-career win in Loudon.
Previous ranking: First, --
2. Kyle Busch - The Chase for the championship has been an elusive one for Rowdy, whose best end-of-season standing was fifth (2007). In his ninth season racing in NASCAR premier division, Busch is as poised and prepared - mentally and physically - as ever to grab the brass ring. He just needs his teammate to get out of the way first.
Previous ranking: Second, --
3. Jimmie Johnson - He has as much a right to be frustrated as the No. 18 does through the first two weeks. Usually a pair of top-fives (fifth and third, respectively) through the first two Chase races is good enough to make a move to the top. But after two weeks, Johnson has watched his three-point deficit increase to 18. That's likely going to take more than one race to make up, but if there's a driver in the field that can do it, it's the Five-Time champion.
Previous ranking: Third, --
4. Kurt Busch - It was an uneventful day for Busch, who was one of the fastest cars in practice, but failed to lead a lap for the second straight week. That said, Busch hasn't driven himself out of the Chase quite yet and still has a lot to be proud of when it comes to driving for the only one-car team to ever make the Chase.
Previous ranking: Sixth, +2
5. Greg Biffle - Talk about out of nowhere. Biffle didn't have a top-five to his name since winning at Michigan back in the middle of June. But somehow the No. 16 made the Chase and is not only one of the 13 drivers, but is making a stand at the title. Still some work to do, but his podium finish on Sunday at the Magic Mile has made him a contender.
Previous ranking: 12th, +7
6. Jeff Gordon - A strong day for the 24 was ruined by a gaffe on pit road. But for a guy that was added to the playoffs just days before it began, it's not likely a mistake that will totally throw this team into a slide. Playing with house money, expect Gordon to make one more stand before this is finished.
Previous ranking: Fourth, -2
7. Carl Edwards - A top-10 in New Hampshire isn't unheard of for Edwards, but the 99 team doesn't exactly brood with confidence when they come to the 1.058-mile oval. Cousin Carl even went so far as to say they might have had a chance to challenge for the win had it not been for one bad run that send the Aflac Ford shuffling back.
Previous ranking: Ninth, +2
8. Kevin Harvick - It was a bad day for the 29 team. New Hampshire has been a decent track for the Budweiser Chevrolet over the years, but it wasn't on Sunday. And with Kenseth running as well as he is right now, Harvick's going to have to pull off a Tony Stewart circa 2011 type performance to secure his first title.
Previous ranking: Fifth, -3
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. - A horrendous first week in the Chase set the bar pretty high for Junior to make a serious run at his first championship. But a sixth-place finish at the Magic Mile has gone a long way in making his Chase hopes still a possibility. After all, what's 62 points, right?
Previous ranking: 13th, +4
10. Clint Bowyer - The truth of the matter is that this has been a very difficult time for Michael Waltrip Racing. Between the issues at Richmond two weeks ago and the decision for NAPA to end its contract with teammate Martin Truex Jr., it would be easy for Bowyer to fade in the Chase. But he's hanging around, and that has to be something positive MWR can hang its hat on.
Previous ranking: Seventh, -3
11. Joey Logano - He's started first and sixth, respectively, in the first two Chase races. That's resulted in 37th- and 14th-place finishes. Not exactly a strong start for the first-time Chaser. But there's still plenty of playoff left.
Previous ranking: 11th, --
12. Ryan Newman - The No. 39 sat on the pole, setting a new qualifying record on Friday. That was about all Newman had to be happy about.
Previous ranking: Eighth, -4
13. Kasey Kahne - The frustration was obvious in Kahne's post-accident interview. But given the way the No. 5 finished the season, the carry-over struggles into the Chase aren't completely a surprise.
Previous ranking: 10th, -3
Top Non-Chaser. Jamie McMurray - Big Mac got in an early wreck and was still able to rally for a fifth-place finish. Not too shabby.