Brant James
Tuesday August 30th, 2011

Bristol Power Rankings
Brad Keselowski's sense of momentum should be all-consuming by now, especially given his change in perspective. Six weeks ago he was 23rd in driver points, looking as if his win at Kansas would be wasted, insufficient to push him inside the top 20 and therefore eligible for a first-ever Sprint Cup wild-card spot. Race-winners Denny Hamlin and David Ragan seemed laps ahead in the points standings.

Four weeks ago Keselowski languished inside a race car with a freshly fractured ankle after a test crash at Road Atlanta. His inertia has increased dramatically since that point of sudden deceleration into a barrier. There was an unlikely win at Pocono in the days after the wreck, and then subsequent second-, third-, and fourth-place finishes. Then there was another victory on Saturday at Bristol, which vaulted him to 11th place in the standings. Considering his momentum, the 21 points between him and 10th-place Tony Stewart seem trifling.

But a driver accustomed to rapid acceleration and abrupt stops discounted that thinking on Saturday.

Victory Lane: Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski celebrates his first Bristol win and third of 2011 under the lights in Victory Lane.

"Tony is pretty good," he said of the two-time Sprint Cup champion. "He's pretty good at Atlanta and Richmond. Richmond we really struggled at in the spring, so I'm really not sure what to expect going back. Twenty-one points is still a lot of points. That means you've got to beat the guy by over 10 positions over the course of two races. Beating Tony Stewart by an average of 10 positions over two races, that's going to be pretty tough to be honest."

Tough, but lucrative. Only drivers inside the top 10 earn three bonus points per win when the Chase reseeds, and even with a new scoring system being utilized during the Chase for the first time, the history of the NASCAR playoffs suggests that each point will be precious.

"Maybe this one will be different and maybe we'll be kicking ourselves if we don't get in the top 10 and it comes down to Homestead and we lose whatever points those are," he said, "but there's no point in sitting and pouting about it. We've got to look forward and continue to do the best we can."

That's been good enough, so far, for a mad dash up the weekly power rankings.

Jimmie Johnson
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 16
He led 76 early laps and finished fourth on Saturday at Bristol, clinching his record-extending eighth berth in the Chase for the Championship. Johnson, who has adapted to and exploited the 10-race Sprint Cup playoff format like no other, despite tweaks and different incarnations, is the only driver to have qualified for all eight Chases.
Kyle Busch
Wins: 4
Top-10s: 15
He fought the law and the law won (he lost his license for a 45 days as a result of a speeding ticket), fought Kevin Harvick Inc. and Elliott Sadler won (he was spun by the KHI employee in Truck Series race) and fought traffic and traffic lost (he brushed the wall in the Cup race after trying to squeeze through a rolling roadblock) but Busch remains poised for the clash that most matters, a presumed battle with Johnson in the Chase for the Championship. Busch, when he is thinking and performing at a high level, is a potent force. He has two weeks to synchronize himself.
Brad Keselowski
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 9
A two-time winner with a runner-up and third-place finish in his last four races, Keselowski has evolved from aspiring wild card, to solid wild card, to aspiring top-10 driver. With three victories, he is a virtual lock to qualify for NASCAR's first-ever wild card and could be far more.
Jeff Gordon
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 12
The four-time series champion's joy ride into the postseason continued with a third-place finish at Bristol on Saturday. A two-time winner this season and fifth in driver points, he appears ready for his first legitimate foray into the title fray since 2007, when his bid for a fifth title was squashed by four Johnson wins in the last five races.
Ryan Newman
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 12
The stealth contender continues to steam toward the Chase after finishing eight from the pole at Bristol. The maladies affecting teammate/boss Tony Stewart do not appear to be hampering Newman's No. 39 Chevrolet program, which is solidly in the Chase fold. Stewart, meanwhile, continues to gaze out over the purgatory of wild cardom.
Carl Edwards
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 15
Fourth in points and biding his time until the Chase begins, Edwards is in position for a run at a first Sprint Cup title.
Matt Kenseth
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 13
A race-long displeasure with the quality of his breaks correlated into a fatal view of his championship hopes on Saturday at Bristol, but the 2003 series champion still finished sixth and ascended two spots to third in points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Wins: 0
Top-10s: 9
A 16th-place finish at Bristol and the utter futility of the drivers above and below him in points has NASCAR's most popular driver in a seemingly solid situation at ninth in the standings. Though winless, he's 39 points ahead of 11th place -- even if that place is held by the hard-charging Keselowski -- and has the struggling, frustrated Tony Stewart as a buffer in 10th position.
Kevin Harvick
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 11
His three victories will push him back toward the top of the Sprint Cup standings to begin the Chase, but Harvick, judging by his mood and critique of his team on Saturday night, wouldn't expect to stay there for long. Harvick has been pedestrian in the last 12 races after winning three times in the first dozen.
Kurt Busch
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 12
A funk redux has Busch also looking like a vulnerable Chase participant. Fourth in points after finishing third at Pocono, Busch has dropped to eighth after two crashes (and subsequent finishes of 38th and 34th) and a 17th-place finish at Bristol.

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