Brant James
Tuesday April 20th, 2010

NASCAR Power Rankings
1Dale Earnhardt Jr
Last Week: N/A
Dale Earnhardt Jr
It's time. NASCAR's most popular driver, its symbol of salvation whose been lost in the wilderness of the past four seasons is ready to put the funk back into restrictor plate racing -- and in Talladega itself with a win on Sunday. Talladega and venues all across the country were once awash in impressive patches of Budweiser red, and the faithful rose to their sandaled feet when that one they loved the most took the lead and, eventually, the checkered flag at Talladega. They rose angrily to those feet and tossed beer cans on the track -- twice -- when they were displeased. Recently, they've walked sunburnt and sullen back to their cars for a long wait in traffic after a disappointing finish. The wait has been agonizing -- 10 races since his last win at Talladega -- but the faithful, now clad in their less menacing green-blue-white-and-whatever are about to be rewarded. Earnhardt Jr. avoided the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski fight to finish second last spring and was 11th in the fall. He was second in the Daytona 500 and, at seventh in the point standings, is displaying signs of finally getting his feet under him at Hendrick. Other, fresher storylines will reduce the restrictor plate master to a side note through the weekend, but he'll be in the papers come Monday.
 
2Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski
Last Week: N/A
Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski
Distracting storyline: Another round in the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski saga. The pair is returning to the scene of last spring's infamous Edwards-gets-launched-into-the-catch-fence collision, but there is drama anew since No. 60 punted Keselowski halfway to Gwinnett this March at Atlanta. Yes, Edwards is on a mega-"don't-ever-do-that-again" probation and would seemingly feel completely vented of any bile toward the young upstart, but the whole thing is going to come up again. These two may end up remembering how much they don't like the cut of each other's jib, and Talladega has a funny way of bringing antagonists together.
 
3Jimmie Johnson
Last Week: 1
Jimmie Johnson
Talladega's 2.66-mile, high-banked expanse has not been a fertile field for the four-time defending series champion. He has one win and six DNFs there in 16 starts and an average finish of 17th. Earnhardt Jr. once called him an "idiot" for cueing a 25-car melee there in 2005, but he's been markedly better the last four years, finishing second twice and sixth last fall. A successful trip through the obstacle course on Sunday could set the points leader up for a smooth sail to the Chase for the Championship.
 
4Jeff Gordon
Last Week: 3
Jeff Gordon
The other four-time series champion at Hendrick Motorsports looks more like Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull every week. He was in contention to win at Las Vegas, Martinsville and Phoenix, but could not finish. He led 124 of the 317 laps he completed on Monday at Texas but was caught in a late accident - which Tony Stewart apologized for starting - and watched a sleek No. 24 Chevrolet reduced to scrap. A six-time Talladega-winner, he hasn't finished better than 19th since sweeping both races in 2007.
 
5
Last Week: N/A
Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon
Another distracting storyline: Competitive teammates angering each other on occasion. Gordon said in a post-accident interview on Monday that he was "disappointed" in Johnson for a side-swipe while battling for position. It would be difficult to characterize a four-time series champion and one of the greatest drivers in the sport's history as resentful, especially when he has so much invested in Johnson's career, but Gordon is clearly tired of being outdone by his protégé-turned-antagonist. Johnson gets it. But Johnson isn't going to apologize for winning, either. These little battles are waged inside teams constantly. But this one takes on a titan versus titan feel because of the particulars. And in truth, it's not a bad thing for either driver or their team owner, Rick Hendrick. As Johnson said earlier this year, Hendrick drivers strive to be "best in class" within the organization, and in doing so push each other to greater heights. Don't expect this little kerfuffle to do anything but make Gordon and Johnson better.
 
6pothole
Last Week: 2
Kurt Busch
The 2004 series champion probably doesn't so much care to be the best restrictor plate driver in Sprint Cup without a restrictor plate win. He has as many restrictor-plate top-5s (15) as Earnhardt Jr., but seven less wins. That figure is tied for fourth among active drivers and he is just nine behind leader Jeff Gordon in half the starts. His average finish of 15.4 is second only to Earnhardt Jr. among drivers with at least 35 plate starts, but he's never found the right partner or right situation to exploit when it mattered most, finishing third four times at Talladega.
 
7Michael Waltrip
Last Week: 8
Michael Waltrip
Bobby Isaac heard voices that told him to get out of the car at Talladega. Michael Waltrip heard voices telling him to get back in and eagerly retake the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota in hopes of revisiting his past success. All four of Waltrip's Sprint Cup victories came in restrictor plate races, his last being in the fall of 2003 at Talladega with then-teammate Earnhardt Jr. right behind him.
 
8Nondescript Driver X
Last Week: N/A
Nondescript Driver X
The maddening nature of restrictor plate racing, with so much dependent on situation, opportunism and damage control than a dominating car, breeds odd winners. Brian Vickers' 48-8 bank shot of Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. made him a surprise winner in 2006. Waltrip seemingly always knew where to be, usually, near his teammate. Brad Keselowski? Unexpected. Somewhere in the field will be a driver who missed wreck 1, wreck 2, offered a push, gets one back and then has a shot.
 
9Mayhem
Last Week: N/A
Mayhem
The spoiler goes to Talladega after a test produced speeds in excess of 210 mph. Ford will roll out the new FR09 engine to all its entrants for the first time. Somebody's going to make somebody mad, make a deal, break a deal, and it's on.
 
10General Weirdness
Last Week: NA
General Weirdness
Anyone whose ever been to Talladega has felt the weird vibe there. Buy into the Indian burial ground stuff -- track operators had a Creek medicine man exorcise the place last fall and a lot of good that did -- if you want, but something's afoot out there in those hills.
>

Follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/brantjames

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.