By Brant James
September 07, 2010
NASCAR Power Rankings

Tony Stewart finally broke through with a win after an uncharacteristically long drought. Jimmie Johnson started looking like late-summer Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards is feeling better about things. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin? No need to fret over Richmond's season finale this weekend, but Sunday night's race at Atlanta left them uneasy. Good thing the entire top 10 is going to the playoffs. Have a comment? Send to You can also follow me on Twitter at

1 Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson
One of the oddly worrisome aspects of the four-time defending series champion's uneven season was his unusual woes on 1.5-mile race tracks in 2010. Johnson, who leads NASCAR with 12 wins on the staple track of the Sprint Cup circuit since 2002, has a win at Las Vegas and runner-up finish at Texas this season, but was also 37th at Charlotte and 25th at Chicago. He looked fine on Sunday night, finishing third. And with four 1.5-mile tracks upcoming in the Chase (Kansas, Charlotte, Texas, Homestead), Johnson's season is suddenly looking a lot more promising. "The setup we ran tonight will work on other tracks," Johnson said. "The thought process that goes with it will work. The thing that I'm encouraged about is we can adjust on the car and make positive gains where many of the stuff we have been running, we adjust on it and all we do is hurt the car and slow it down as the race goes on. There's that aspect, and as I mentioned before, the fact that we are in there racing with everyone, pit stops counted, strategy counted, juices as a driver, frothing at the mouth and chewing on the wheel, racing as hard as you can; it was good to go back through all of that, for crew chief, driver, all of us, to get ready for the Chase."
2 Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart
The two-time series champion has made a habit of mid-summer runs through the schedule. Although he amassed five top-5s (including two runner-up finishes) and nine top-10s since Memorial Day, Stewart needed until Labor Day to claim his first win of the season. A notorious spree winner, he seems exponentially more of a threat now than in the weeks he was racking up top-5 after top-5. Stewart with a clear mind and steady focus is a potent force.
3 Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards
He hasn't won since the final race of the 2008 season -- capping a nine-win, second-place points campaign --, has been at times lost and couldn't push through at a track where he won his first career race and twice subsequently. But Edwards left Atlanta with a much better feeling than in the spring, and not because he'd traded paint with anyone. He led 32 laps after leading six in the previous 24 points races. With five of his six top-5s this season coming in the last seven races and Roush Fenway showing team-wide signs of late-season improvement, Edwards declared himself after the race a legitimate title contender. And at this point it's believable.
4 Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick
He will carry the meaningless distinction of regular season points leader through next Saturday night. Harvick will shuffle into the second pack of chasers behind Johnson and Denny Hamlin and take with him a bunch of concerns over his recent performance. Sure, there were wins at Daytona and Michigan and a runner-up finish at Indianapolis. But Harvick's worst two finishes recently -- 34th at Chicago and 33rd on Sunday at Atlanta -- came at 1.5-mile tracks where the team neither started nor finished well.
5 Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch
Though a fifth-place finish was hardly as spectacular as his Bristol sweep of the Trucks, Nationwide and Cup events, Busch's performance was remarkable. Busch was in 36th position, nearly two laps down, in his fickle No. 18 Toyota early in the race. "It was a hard-fought battle and that's what it's going to take (in the Chase), to come back like this," he said.
6 Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon
His race car had pink on it.
7 Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton
The veteran manhandled a loose race car Busch said had "more horsepower than the Lord allows" the last several laps to finish fourth, for his first top-5 in eight weeks. The result was a welcome momentum-changer after finishing 24th (Michigan) and 16th (Bristol).
8 Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin
He had won a third of the Sprint Cup races by the 15th event of the year at Michigan. Crew chief Mike Ford was supposed to have even greater tricks waiting in the Chase. The playoffs couldn't start fast enough. The sentiment is much the same for Hamlin now, but for different reasons. His campaign has bogged down in the heat of summer amid reliability issues and mechanical issues plagued his last two races. Hamlin will start the Chase atop the standings with Johnson because of his five wins, but he seems far less confident of using the perch as a springboard. "Reliability: it's taken us out of the last three Chases, not being reliable," he said on Friday. "You have to have it to be the champion."
9 Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch
The 2004 series champion said during an in-car interview before restarting on the lead with 46 laps left that his hope was to simply "fade gracefully," given the fact that he'd just skipped a pit stop for a No. 2 Dodge that had bedeviled him all night. It was one of the more eloquent quotes ever from a driver whose penchant for the malapropism has often been a source of jest. And it was also completely predictive of the remainder of the race. Busch faded, but only six spots, salvaging a race and a positive trend for Busch heading into the Chase. With three top-10s -- including a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen -- in his last four and a blown engine the culprit in the aberration race, Busch and crew chief Steve Addington are displaying a title-chasing mettle.
10 Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth
After finishing fifth at Michigan three weeks ago -- for just his fifth top-5 of the season -- he's back in the fringe. His average finish this season is 12.5.

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