Brant James
Tuesday November 9th, 2010

NASCAR Power Rankings

Ten storylines likely to reverberate from the high theater that was the Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday. Have a comment? Send to You can also follow me on Twitter at

1Jimmie Johnson's dynasty
Jimmie Johnson's dynasty
Johnson's mastery of the series will likely not be fully absorbed until it's over. If he can win a fifth consecutive Sprint Cup title, becoming the first since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to advance from second in points with two races left, there will certainly be a lot more to absorb.
2Denny Hamlin's dynasty
Denny Hamlin's dynasty
Johnson was supposedly in the way of Carl Edwards beginning the 2009 season. But a downtick in Ford's performance and an unexpected career blip cast Edwards as another speed bump along the route of history. Hamlin, 30 in nine days, entered this season with the same momentum and has made much more of it. It will be interesting to watch the performance of a driver who expresses much more comfort in the pursuit than the chase. "This is our fifth year now, and I've learned something during the course of each one that's gotten us to the point where we're at right now," Hamlin said. "Obviously our performance now is better than what it's been in the other Chases, but I feel like we've prepared for this moment for a long time."
3Chad Knaus' mantel
Chad Knaus' mantel
The micromanaging workaholic has thrived under the designation as the sport's brightest crew chief for more than half a decade. His attention to detail is meticulous, taking note of team appearance and morale, while tweaking small, sometimes minuscule details on the No. 48 Chevrolet for the race. The car is his; Jimmie Johnson just drives it. Though Knaus has always had a temper, he has generally been able to channel his agitation and focus on task. Those qualities seemed to erode somewhat the past few weeks, though it is easy to overscrutinize with Johnson losing the points lead this late in the season. But Knaus carped on the radio about an intrusive cameraman late in the race, and seemed flustered when Johnson asked for another change to the car near the end. Knaus' decision to swap pit crews with Jeff Gordon was immediately fruitful, but will be seen as an impulsive reaction that could have detrimental effects. Maybe Knaus has run this scenario back in the lab. Maybe everything is under control. Either way, this is one of the more compelling tests of his skills.
4Mike Ford's ascension
Mike Ford's ascension
Hamlin's crew chief had been saying since January that his team was ready to challenge Johnson and Knaus, but his willingness to stoke what some viewed as the smoldering embers of the No. 48 team's season was bold. Granted, the even-spoken Ford's comments always read more incendiary than they are heard, but his willingness to prod, or at least speak truth as he sees it, is fascinating and refreshing. He even chose a pit stall in front of Johnson on Sunday to make a point. He did so, Ford said, because Knaus opted to break from convention and pit near Hamlin at Kansas. Chase qualifiers have traditionally given clear berth to each other.

Commenting that his team is better than Knaus' right now and that the crew chief swap was made out of desperation -- however true those statements might ultimately be -- is powerful stuff. It also deflects pressure from his driver. "Guys have tiptoed around them," Ford after the race on Sunday "You've watched them play mind games with people in the past, and I'm completely immune to that. I'll be right in their face saying, 'It doesn't matter. I think our race team is better than their race team, and I'm not going to tiptoe around them because of where they're at. I'm going to do what it's going to require for us to win a championship. Not that I'm playing dirty by any means, but I'm not afraid to go toe-to-toe with them." Brilliant? Perhaps.

5Having at it
Having at it
NASCAR deemed no penalties were warranted for the Gordon-Burton quasi fracas, but hammered Kyle Busch for making an obscene gesture at an official. NASCAR officials tell anyone who will listen that their job requires "thick skin," yet they demonstrate perpetually sensitive constitutions. The series, in keeping with the independent contractor relationship it has long exploited, allows labor to abuse each other but does not tolerate insubordination toward the sanctioning body.
6Kevin Harvick's grit
Kevin Harvick's grit
The nose of his No. 29 Chevrolet was taped together at the end of the Talladega race and he finished second. The car felt like it was coming apart beneath him and he finished sixth. He again chastised crew chief Gil Martin over the radio for a four-tire call on a pit stop -- and was supported by owner Richard Childress -- but overcame the feeling in his seat and the thoughts in his head to remain third in points, just 26 behind Johnson and 59 behind Hamlin. The focus has become Hamlin and Johnson, but Harvick remains a diligent threat.
7Tinkering with the Chase
Tinkering with the Chase
Changing the seven-year-old system for determining the Sprint Cup champion was a popular topic when Johnson appeared ready to stroll off with another championship trophy. The epic three-way battle for this title may quell that for awhile.
8Hendrick Motorsports' ruthlessness
Hendrick Motorsports' ruthlessness
The now-permanent swapping of the Johnson and Gordon pit crews will be viewed as a landmark moment equal to the much-documented "Milk and Cookies Summit" of 2005 if Johnson recovers to win another title. If not, it will be seen as the death throe of a dynasty or a valiant counter attack, depending on what Johnson accomplishes in later seasons. For now, as supported by Knaus and Gordon crew Chief Steve Letarte's statements in a news conference at Hendrick headquarters on Tuesday, it was simply the best move for an organization that has become the hallmark of NASCAR success.

Owner Rick Hendrick built his organization on relationships, but grew it with success. High-level success. Hendrick could not have won nine of the last 15 Sprint Cup titles without fostering a certain level of internal competition and accountability among his underlings. A high-level performer, whether a driver or tire changer, knows when they're hurting the collective and is likely never surprised by being replaced. That's life in the bags, and should be especially so within Hendrick's hybrid concept of the Gordon and Johnson programs. "It's bigger than seven guys," Knaus said. Certainly one extremely cognizant of its expectations right now.

9Kyle Busch's mental matrix
Kyle Busch's mental matrix
Unquestionably one of the most talented drivers in the series, he is slogging through another lost Chase as his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate bids for a first title for both himself, and Toyota. Penalized a lap for attempting to beat the pace car off pit road after pitting following a spin, he made an obscene gesture toward an official and was held for two more laps as a penalty. He spewed vitriol over team radio, prompting crew Chief Dave Rodgers to scream back, chastising him for hurting the team. This was supposed to be the year the "new," mature Kyle Busch began controlling the final variable -- his mental game -- preventing him from winning a Sprint Cup title after winning a Nationwide crown last year. He appears no closer.
10Jeff Gordon's image
Jeff Gordon's image
The four-time series champion couldn't very well walk that far toward Jeff Burton on live television and just do nothing. Well, in actuality he didn't do that much. Their altercation was more like an overly aggressive dance move than a fight, but the intent was there and the act was out of character for Gordon. (Matt Kenseth, who was pushed by Gordon at Bristol in 2006 quipped that at least Gordon took his helmet off this time) But the whole display may be analogous to the end phase of Gordon's 19-year career. He's going down fighting.

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