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Smoke rises as Chase heats up
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Difficult to place him anywhere else. Smoke has two consecutive wins and an average finish of fourth over the last four weeks. Lean & mean after shedding the dead weight.
2. Jeff Gordon Probably had the best car in New Hampshire, but the fuel calculations were off. That most likely cost him six valuable championship points, which could come back to bite.
3. Jimmie Johnson Yes, he’s in a hole, but do you dare kick dirt on his grave yet? Johnson, Knaus and the boys are at their best when fighting for points at playoff time.
4. Brad Keselowski In case you needed any further convincing, Keselowski and the No. 2 team are for real. And they’re a dangerous third in the point standings.
5. Carl Edwards Edwards is riding a five race top-10 streak and sits fourth in the standings. This team has been able to post numerous wins in short order in the past. Can they do it again?
6. Kevin Harvick Will Harvick fall back into the seventh- to 14th-place swoon of mid-summer? Not likely, but worth keeping in mind as the Chase heats up.
7. Matt Kenseth Carl to Matt after race: “OK, go ahead, fake punch me. I deserved this one.”
8. Kyle Busch Still dangerous, but looking mortal following 22nd- and 11th-place showings to start the Chase. Is a “Come to Coach Gibbs” meeting in order?
9. Ryan Newman Led the first 62 laps after sitting on the pole in Loudon, but a flat tire with five laps to go was a killer. This team still has the potential to rebound, but how far is unclear.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Another victim of tire issues, Junior blew one out while running sixth with 71 laps remaining. Even when this bunch runs well, they can’t seem to catch a break.
11. Kurt Busch Busch’s day in Loudon started bad and stayed that way.
12. Clint Bowyer A near-win with Harvick’s cast-away’d pit crew had to feel like a moral victory.
13. Mark Martin Led 46 laps after gaining track position, but faded to 24th in a frustrating ending.
14. Denny Hamlin Three laps to go. Running sixth. Out of fuel. Such is the No. 11 team’s season.
15. David Ragan Has quietly pieced together three consecutive runs of 11th or better.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr.