Sorry about last week. Call it a “Magic Mile” hangover. Nevertheless, we’re three races into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and Brad Keselowski has won twice and is atop the standings, while Jeff Gordon has two top-three finishes and still sits 48 points behind “Bad Brad” with seven races to go. The top three in the standings – Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin – have begun to create some separation from the rest of the field, but this thing is far from over as the focus shifts to arguably the most unpredictable track on the circuit – Talladega.
Here’s a look at the power rankings through Week 3 of the Chase:
1. Brad Keselowski (Last Week: 2) – “Bad Brad” won the fuel mileage game at Dover, leading just 14 laps, but they certainly were the right 14 laps. With two wins in the first three Chase races, Keselowski is now five points clear of Johnson for the top spot in the standings. And while that doesn’t provide a lot of breathing room, Keselowski has been running too well to assume he’ll be anything but a top-10 car every week from here on out. Of course, the wild card just might be this week at Talladega, where the proverbial anything-can-happen drum will surely be beaten by the drivers all week. Keselowski did win the May race at the superspeedway and has a 13.0 average finishing position in seven starts.
2. Jimmie Johnson (Last Week: 1) – Second. Second. Fourth. That’s how Mr. Five-Time has started his quest for a sixth title. And his reward? A five-point deficit in the standings. But unless Keselowski pulls a Tony Stewart 2012-like performance over the next seven weeks, Johnson is in a very good position to become the third driver with a half-dozen titles. But first, Talladega, where anything can happen. The superspeedway is one of Johnson’s worst tracks at a 17.7 average finish, but he does have two wins there, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Johnson will leave Alabama with his 21st career Chase victory and the points lead.
3. Clint Bowyer (Last Week: 5) – It’s time to start taking Mr. Bowyer more seriously. The dark horse label has been peeled off and has revealed a legitimate contender for this year’s championship. With three straight top-10s to begin the Chase, Bowyer sits in fourth place – 25 points behind Keselowski. That’s certainly not an insurmountable gap to make up, especially when you consider this week’s race at Talladega, a 2.66-mile circuit where Bowyer has two career wins and seven top-10s, including four top-fives.
4. Denny Hamlin (Last Week: 4) – Coming off a brilliant performance here at “The Magic Mile,” last weekend’s eighth at Dover was ho-hum at best. That being said, Hamlin remains in third – 16 points behind “Bad Brad” – and is still one of the hottest drivers with three wins in his last six races. Making it four for seven will be a test, as Hamlin has just three top-fives in 13 career starts at Talladega, including eight finishes outside the top-20.
5. Kasey Kahne (Last Week: 3) – It was a respectable 15th given his pit-road blunders at Dover last weekend, but after registering a third and fifth at Chicagoland and NHMS, respectively, it was certainly a step backwards for one of the two wild-card entries. Kahne needs a strong finish this weekend to get back on track. And while history shows that Talladega (20.8 average finish) has been anything but kind to him, Kahne does have a sixth- and fourth-place finish in his last two starts at the superspeedway.
6. Martin Truex Jr. (Last Week: 8) – He needed a big weekend at Dover to right the ship, and he got just that with a sixth-place finish that vaulted him up two spots to eighth in the standings. Truex had a disappointing 17th at New Hampshire two weeks ago after getting off to a strong start with a ninth at Chicagoland. An above-average finish will be necessary again this week if he has any hopes of chasing down his first title. Talladega has been an abysmal track for Truex with only two top-10s in 15 career starts. But, then again, this has been anything but a characteristic season for the native of Mayetta, N.J.
7. Tony Stewart (Last Week: 6) – The defending Cup champ did finish 25th at last year’s Chase race at Dover. Of course, he also started NASCAR’s playoff with back-to-back wins. It certainly isn’t time to count Tony out just yet, but he’s going to need to find his way into victory lane – and fast. That just might be this week, too. Stewart has one of the top average finishing positions at Talladega on tour, including a win at this time back in 2008.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Last Week: 7) – Here’s a little fact to get Junior fans’ blood boiling: under the old scoring system, Earnhardt would be six points behind Jimmie Johnson for the points lead. Instead, Earnhardt sits 39 points behind Keselowski, a challenging yet not impossible deficit to overcome. For a guy that’s won just one race in his last 159 starts, those 39 points might as well be 390. If he’s going to take the checkers, though, Talladega is likely the best bet to see that happen. Despite being an unpredictable 2.66-mile circuit, Earnhardt has found his way to victory lane there in 20 percent (5 of 25) of his career starts.
9. Jeff Gordon (Last Week: N/A) – Another finish like the last two weeks and Gordon will be looking down on a lot of drivers, not only in these power rankings but in the points standings, too. Take away Gordon’s 35th at Chicagoland and he has an average finish of 2.4 over his last five starts. That’s down right ridiculous. And if he can continue that this week at Talladega, he should start to make a more significant gain to the front of the standings. Gordon is no stranger to victory lane at the superspeedway, either, registering six career wins, including 18 top-10s in 39 starts.
10. Kevin Harvick (Last Week: 9) – A fresh start (Harvick trailed by 73 points entering the Chase) has done little to change Mr. Happy’s driving style. Harvick hasn’t finished worse than 16th in his last nine Cup starts, but outside of a fifth at Atlanta, he also hasn’t finished better than 10th in eight of those nine races. With a 12th, 11th and 13th to begin the Chase, Harvick is cruising along – 46 points behind Keselowski. He’ll need a miracle to get back in the hunt, and while he has a decent history at Talladega (15.5 average finish), it’s going to take more than an average finish to become a serious title threat.
Off the pace – Greg Biffle … This is by far the worst three-race stretch (13th, 18th and 16th) of the season for the man they call “Biff.”
Top Non-Chaser – Carl Edwards … “Cousin Carl’s” last top-five finish before last week? March 25.