Brant James
Thursday September 8th, 2011

Atlanta Power Rankings
Jeremy Mayfield did it in 2004.

Ryan Newman did it in 2005.

Kasey Kahne did it in 2006 (making Kenny Francis the only crew chief to do it twice).

Brian Vickers did it in 2009.

Final Laps: Gordon battles Johnson for 85th win
Jeff Gordon passes teammate Jimmie Johnson with 50 laps to go and the two battle tooth-and-nail for the win in the closing laps.

Since then, no Sprint Cup driver has raced his way into the Chase for the Championship at the final regular season race at Richmond. Even with the addition of the two wild cards, vaulting into the postseason while negotiating the perils of the .75-mile confines of Richmond International Raceway will be daunting.

Brad Keselowski, 11th in points and 23 points from 10th, could leap into an automatic transfer spot, but he's already assured of at least a wild-card spot because of his three wins. Denny Hamlin, in 12th, holds the second wild card because of a victory this season, but several drivers could threaten his position by winning their first race of the season at Richmond.

Those are all worries for drivers with things left to do in the regular season. For the rest of them, there's cavorting in the Power Rankings.

Jeff Gordon
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 13
At a preseason Fan Fest in February, the four-time series champion, then six months from turning 40, grinned and absorbed the abuse from his peers about his new sponsor relationship with AARP. (He even chuckled when I suggested a perpetually blinking left turn signal decal on his rear bumper.) Now, he's not only amused but borderline jovial with three wins, his most since winning six in 2007. By holding off teammate and five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta, he moved out of a tie with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip and into sole possession of third on NASCAR's all-time Sprint Cup wins list. Gordon is trending well at the right time of the season.
Jimmie Johnson
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 17
Gordon's historic accomplishment slightly tempered the wringing hands and furrowing of brows. With a second-place finish at Atlanta, Johnson assumed the points lead. Granted, he will surrender that lead once points are reseeded to 2,000 and three points are distributed to the top-10 drivers for each win (Jimmie has just one win). But Jimmie is entering title mode, as he reminded everyone when he distributed the 2010 championship rings at the Hendrick Motorsports campus on Thursday.
Kyle Busch
Wins: 4
Top-10s: 15
A visit to the White House with several other drivers left him hopeful he could return, he said on Twitter, "as a champion one day." At second in points, with four wins and a series-best average finish of 4.9 at Richmond in the last six races, he may be in position to make his tweet a reality. Or at least get off to a good start.
Matt Kenseth
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 14
Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig weren't particularly pleased with how the No. 17 Ford ran on Tuesday, but following the pattern of a sneakily competitive campaign, it finished ninth. Though Kenseth fell a spot to fourth in points, he remains an undercover threat to win the title.
Carl Edwards
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 16
Third in points and locked into the Chase, Edwards faces a track in Richmond on which his average finishing position is just 16.1. He was fifth in the spring, when mechanical issues that were hard to address with lengthy green-flag runs bogged him down. He's biding his time until he and his team return to the 1.5-mile portion of the schedule, which is more his strength.
Ryan Newman
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 12
A 20th-place finish at Atlanta was sufficient to clinch his fourth Chase berth, the second in three years. Consistency has earned Newman his playoff berth -- and a win didn't hurt -- and he could be a key dark horse in the upcoming postseason.
Kurt Busch
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 13
After finishing fourth at Atlanta, the 2004 series champion decreed that he had officially reached "go time," hoped to replace the images of his foul-mouthed radio rant at Richmond this spring with a solid finish there on Saturday and then burst into the Chase at Chicago, one of his self-declared favorite tracks.
Kevin Harvick
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 12
Now locked into the Chase but suffering through a serious productivity plunge since winning three of the first 12 races, Harvick might have buoyed himself by finishing seventh at Atlanta. Perhaps the newly announced 2012 merger of his Kevin Harvick Inc. Nationwide Series team with that of Cup owner Richard Childress will alleviate some outside distractions. Perhaps he was just in a funk. Perhaps he's ready to break out of it.
Tony Stewart
Wins: 0
Top-10s: 10
The two-time series champion seemed enlivened on Tuesday by a third-place finish at Atlanta as he is in position to join teammate Newman in the Chase.
Brad Keselowski
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 10
His three victories -- two in the last five races -- are enough to place him higher in the echelon of the Sprint Cup power elite, but he is resigned to the borderlands because of the 23 points he must overcome to crack the top 10 in driver points. Bridge that gap and Keselowski not only passes the wild card to another driver -- 20th-place Paul Menard is hopeful -- but he would transfer his nine bonus points earned for the three wins and have them applied to his reseed value. Every point matters.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.