Tony Stewart flipped. Jimmie Johnson straddled Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car to the garage. And Junior himself got knocked out of the Chase, literally. Given the finish to Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway it’s certainly hard to reorder the power rankings in relation to how drivers finished … or in most cases, didn’t finish. After all, does anyone actually think Matt Kenseth deserves a huge bump up in the rankings simply because he was in the right place at the right time? How about dropping Clint Bowyer out of the top five simply because he got caught up in “The Big One?” No, it’s going to be a much more modest approach to this week’s grades.
Here’s a look at the power rankings through Week 4 of the Chase:
1. Brad Keselowski (Last Week: 1) – He was one of only three Chase drivers not to lead a lap last week at Talladega, yet when all the dust settled and the smoke was cleared, there he was with another top-10 finish – seventh to be exact. Keselowski nearly made it through the crazy crash on Sunday, but in the end it did little to derail Bad Brad’s chances in the Chase. With only one career top-five in six career starts at Charlotte, Keselowski will need to fend off history (16.5 average finish at CMS) and the pressure of being the points leader.
2. Jimmie Johnson (Last Week: 2) – Mr. Five-Time led 11 laps but got caught up in the middle of the chaos on Sunday. He finished 17th and even hitched a ride with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to pit road afterwards. Luckily, Charlotte is next on the docket and no one has been better at CMS over the course of their career than Johnson. With six career wins at the 1.5-mile cookie cutter, he has to be the favorite to leave the Tar Heel state with the checkers.
3. Jeff Gordon (Last Week: 9) – It’s a huge jump up the ranks for Gordon, but the top-three is nothing new to the four-time NASCAR champion. It was probably an undersell to place him in ninth last week, anyway, as the guy has been stupid-good over the last two months, placing third or better in six of the last seven races, including a runner-up finish last week at Talladega. Gordon has won five times at Charlotte (his last coming in 2007) and should be a serious threat at every track from here on out – or at least until he proves otherwise.
4. Denny Hamlin (Last Week: 4) – Hamlin didn’t lead a lap and got caught up in it, but a 14th-place finish is respectable given the circumstances. More importantly, Hamlin didn’t do anything to hurt his championship aspirations, sitting 23 points behind Keselowski for the points lead. Charlotte should be a good place for Hamlin to make up some ground with seven top-10s in 14 career starts.
5. Kasey Kahne (Last Week: 5) – “Special K” took a couple hard licks at the end of the Talladega race, but he still found himself with an acceptable 12th. He now sits fourth in points and has to be considered in the championship discussions, especially if he stays hot at Charlotte, a track he has won at four times and has an average finish of 12.7.
6. Clint Bowyer (Last Week: 3) – “The Big One” certainly hindered Bowyer’s Chase hopes. A top-10 car all day, Bowyer was involved with the backstretch demolition derby and finished 23rd, the worst finish of any Chase driver. Twenty-five points back entering Talladega, Bowyer is now 40 points out of first with one of his worst tracks up next. Bowyer has three top-10s in 13 career starts at CMS and an average finishing position of 17.5 – he’s only worse at Kentucky (25.5), Darlington (22.6) and Atlanta (18.2).
7. Martin Truex Jr. (Last Week: 6) – It was a very lucky 13th-place finish for Truex, who, like Keselowski and Hamlin, failed to lead a lap at Talladega. It’s likely that Truex, who has just one win in his career, isn’t going to make a run at the title this season – given his 48-point deficit – but he’s hardly looked as if he doesn’t belong during the playoffs. Charlotte could prove to be a big steppingstone for Truex, though, as he has just two top-10s in 14 starts.
8. Tony Stewart (Last Week: 7) – Although he finished 22nd, there has to be some leniency given to a guy that finished the race on his roof. While Junior might be paying the biggest price for “The Big One,” Stewart was the most optically traumatized car in the field. The 14 was airborne and riding upside down on several cars before gravity finally kicked in. Stewart was no worse for the wear, but boy was that a scary few seconds. Likely not a serious contender at this points, Stewart can still make a move if he’s able to improve upon his 14.0 average finishing position, fifth worst of any track currently on the schedule.
9. Kevin Harvick (Last Week: 10) – Mr. Happy actually had a pretty strong car for most of the day last week, even running on point for 12 laps. But in the end, Harvick finished in a very familiar spot – just outside the top-10 in 11th. Through 30 races this season, Harvick has finished between 11th and 15th a total of 13 times. Ah, mediocrity. And it should be more of the same this week at Charlotte, where Harvick has just seven top-10s (one win) in 23 career starts.
10. Matt Kenseth (Last Week: 8) – While he was lucky to avoid a Talladega’s turbulent ending, Kenseth went from 12th to … well, 12th in the standings. Seventy-two points back entering Talladega, Kenseth is now 62 points back with six races to go. That means, all things being equal and he makes up the same ground each week, he’ll finish two points shy of the title. While fortunate at Talladega, a win this week at Charlotte isn’t out of the question. Kenseth has two wins at the 1.5-mile oval.
Off the pace – Dale Earnhardt Jr. … While not mathematically eliminated, Junior will spend the next two weeks on the shelf. My guess is that we’ve seen the last of Earnhardt this season.
Top Non-Chaser – Kyle Busch … Rowdy probably should have made last week’s list, too, but nevertheless he survived the carnage and found a spot on the podium behind Keselowski and Gordon. Only 1,267 points behind first.