The Dynamic Duo Returns
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Haven’t we seen this movie before? Summer turns to fall and the 48 team shifts into another gear that no one else has, and that it seemed to be hiding all along.
2. Carl Edwards Edwards’ tough-it-out third- and fifth-place finishes the last two weeks are the type of performances that championships are made of. Dare we call them “Johnson-esque?”
3. Brad Keselowski Keep doubting. Yes, this ranking may seem high, but Keselowski has averaged a 5.8-place finish since the Brickyard 400 in late July. Pressure just doesn’t seem to affect the kid.
4. Kevin Harvick It’s hard to proclaim that the driver sitting second in the point standings (by one point, no less) is flying under the radar, but that argument could be made for Harvick. And that makes him all the more dangerous.
5. Matt Kenseth Consecutive runs of sixth, fifth and fourth find Kenseth right in the middle of this fight. However, he’s already used his mulligan in a 21st-place, fuel-mileage run gone bad in Chicago, so staying on point is important from here on.
6. Tony Stewart Smoke somehow salvaged a Chase-saving 15th-place run in Kansas, but his 25th the week prior will be the one that bites him. Not out yet, but like Kenseth, out of mulligans.
7. Kyle Busch Despite reasonable finishes of 11th, sixth and 11th (offset by a 22nd) in the Chase, it feels like Kyle and the boys have quietly made their playoff disappearing act already.
8. Kurt Busch All the guys on this list have Kurt to thank for poking the sleeping dog, as Jimmie Johnson is once again proving that he’s the one getting in others’ heads — not vice versa.
9. Jeff Gordon Gordon and the 24 team could still post a win and some nice numbers going forward, but at 47 points out, it’s likely they’ll go into R&D mode in preparation for 2012.
10. Clint Bowyer It seems Bowyer’s performance has improved since it became clear to him where he’ll be driving next year, as evidenced by three runs of eighth or better in the last four races.
11. Kasey Kahne Probably should be ranked higher after four straight top 15s, but it’s hard to trust the organization.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. The hard fact is, on a day when fuel mileage stays out of the equation, the 88 is a 12th- to 16-place car.
13. Greg Biffle It’s hard to pin this team down. They’re as capable — and likely — of running third as they are 27th.
14. Marcos Ambrose Consecutive ninth-place runs here. Credit him for continuing to run hard when others may not be.
15. Ryan Newman His supposed drop in performance during the Chase may speak to others dogging it late in the regular season.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro