Grading out the field following Tony Stewart's victory in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire on Sunday.
Tony Stewart: The two-time series champion continues to make himself look like a horrible prognosticator, having now won both Chase for the Championship races six weeks after saying his regular-season performance didn't merit a playoff berth, and a week after judging himself a non-contender entering the playoffs. Stewart's victory on Sunday at New Hampshire would have been bad drama if scripted, as he passed leader Clint Bowyer with three laps remaining as Bowyer ran out of fuel. Stewart had ceded the lead to Clint Bowyer in the waning moments last year at Loudon in the same fashion.
Stewart resists the notion he has momentum despite his Chase victories (his only wins in 2011) and insists he has much to prove to himself and the other nine Chasers. Perhaps. But two victories in two playoff races could help soothe any mistakes in the final eight races.
Brad Keselowski: There is a certain unyielding power in the young and athletically successful. It's a blind certainty that talent and youthful persistence will continue to yield desired results, and a naive confidence that many more of these seasons lie ahead, which relieves anxiety even in new, high-pressure situations. That formula nearly won the Tampa Bay Rays a World Series in 2008 and it is making 27-year-old Brad Keselowski a pesky player in his first Chase. With a second-place finish on Sunday and a three-spot jump to third in points, the guy who raced like mad with a broken ankle just to qualify for the Chase as a wild card is far more than a variable now.
Jeff Gordon: A fuel mileage miscalculation might have cost the four-time series champion a chance to win on Sunday after leading a race-high 78 laps. He still finished fourth, which moved him up to fifth in points, and has retained his contender vibe. But there is the sense that Gordon has been undone by the vagaries of fuel mileage racing the past two weeks. Unfortunately that sometimes-maddening scenario could play out in several more races.
Matt Kenseth: The 2003 series champion recovered from a midrace spin induced by Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards to finish sixth and leap three spots to seventh in points. He and Edwards said and did all the right things during and after the race to quell public perception that team dissension could ensue, and otherwise appear to have moved on. Still, at 26 points behind Stewart he will need more than top-10s to make a bid for a second Sprint Cup championship.
Carl Edwards: Among the few fairy tale rules of racing, written in quick-disappearing ink, is that teammate don't wreck teammates. Edwards accidentally turned Roush Fenway partner Matt Kenseth midrace, but apologized profusely and both drivers went on to strong finishes. Edwards finished eight -- better than he deserved, he said -- falling one spot to fourth in points.
Kyle Busch: It was an otherwise mundane afternoon for Busch until his late-race tussle with Jimmie Johnson. Still, the former points leader was able to benefit from the misfortune of others to improve three spots to sixth in points with an 11th-place finish. Nothing spectacular, nothing devastating, but progress.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR's most popular driver was vying for a potential top-10 finish when a flat tire relegated him to a costly 17th-place finish. Certainly, he deserved better, but he fell three spots to eighth in the standings, and his 121-race winless streak does not portend points-mining advances back up the standings. Grinding above-average is a must for Earnhardt Jr. in the Chase, and no matter the fault or fairness, such misfortune is costly.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick was among many drivers who had intense exchanges with crew chiefs on the radio, at one point calling a team meeting for Monday. Harvick finished 12th, lost the points lead and is seven points out.
Jimmie Johnson: The scope of Johnson's five consecutive championships naturally impacts the standard by which he is graded. His performance on Sunday, therefore, was supremely subpar. He qualified 10th and finished 18th, dropping two slots to 10th in points. Even though he's just 29 points off the lead, he has never been so far off the pace this deep into any of the eight Chases he has contended. He banged doors with Kyle Busch late in the race, and even in a race in which scores of drivers squabbled with their crew chiefs, his exchanges with Chad Knaus, one in which he deemed Knaus' attempts at positive reinforcement "annoying," seemed uncharacteristic and panicked. Certainly, the tandem has clashed before, notably during its frantic last few races of 2010, but the dialogue on Sunday hinted at strain. High-level performance could fix everything, however.
Kurt Busch: The No. 22 Dodge was hustled to the starting grid like a bobsled minutes before the green flag after requiring extended time to pass a pre-race inspection, and Busch's afternoon was on a slippery slope thereafter as he finished 22nd. He fell five spots to ninth (the biggest drop of any Chase driver), and he now sits 28 points out of first place. His Chase has reached a critical juncture in need of a stabilizing performance just as Penske Racing teammate Keselowski continues to progress.
Ryan Newman: He started on the pole and led 62 laps, but pit road mistakes and a late flat tire sent him to a 25th-place result, second-lowest among the 12 Chase drivers. Consistency had powered Newman into the Chase. Inconsistency was brutally damaging on Sunday, as he dropped four spots in 11th in the points.
Denny Hamlin: In running out of fuel late in the race and finishing 29th, the 2010 runner-up may be resigned to the fate of the previous five drivers who finished second to Johnson. Kenseth went from second in 2006 to fourth in 2007. Gordon went from second in 2007 to seventh in 2008. Edwards went from second in 2008 to 11th in 2009. Mark Martin went from second in 2009 to 13th in 2010. Mired at 12th in points, Hamlin is 66 points behind Stewart, with 48 points the maximum yield in one race.