By Brant James
October 12, 2010
NASCAR Power Rankings

Spinning, smoking and slowing objects in Jimmie Johnson's rear-view mirror may actually be smaller than they appear. Almost to the mid-point of the Chase for the Championship, the champion is apparently getting limber for a long run. Most of his challengers, however, are developing mental or mechanical charley horses. (Have a comment? Send to You can also follow me on Twitter at

1 Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson
The four-time defending series champion benefited from addition by addition and subtraction on Sunday at Fontana. Racing about 100 miles from his boyhood home of El Cajon, at a track where he had won five times and twice consecutively entering Sunday, Johnson overcame an early scare -- a wayward plastic bag partially covered the grille of the No. 48 Chevrolet -- and a pit road mishap to produce an ultimately positive third-place finish. Not a win, but not a loss considering the tribulations suffered by the entirety of the Chase field. Oh, and he more than quadrupled his points lead over Denny Hamlin to 36 with the halfway point in the playoffs coming Saturday, at a track where he's won six times and is the defending winner.
2 Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin
If Hamlin eventually surpasses Johnson between Saturday and the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he'll likely remember Sunday with satisfaction. He qualified the No. 11 Toyota only 34th, but had to start at the rear after his team was forced to change a transmission before the race. Having never finished better than 24th in his Cup car in such situations, Hamlin bore down on the front from the initial green flag, eventually finishing eighth. The finish is made even more precious considering the catastrophic engine failure sustained by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch.
3 Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart
A win makes for a great week. Announcing a new sponsor makes a great year. Stewart crammed both into three days, capturing his first win ever at Auto Club Speedway, then officially bringing Mobil 1 aboard his No. 14 Chevrolet as a major sponsor for 2011. The two-time Cup champion remains fifth in points, 107 behind Johnson, but he wins in staccato bursts -- though he flattened after winning at Atlanta six weeks ago -- and was fourth at Kansas last week. He might be a larger factor yet.
4 Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick
A scrapping seventh-place finish kept Harvick third in points, and within a self-described "striking distance" of a first Cup championship. He's there because of consistency. Harvick has 20 top-10s this season, three more than any other driver.
5 Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon
The No. 24 Chevrolet was better than a ninth-place car much of the race, leading 11 laps and running with the leaders several times. A pit road speeding penalty sunk Gordon back into the field, but a late two-tire stop helped him recoup valuable points. He's fourth in points, 85 back, but admitted, "we've got to get better."
6 Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton
Finished 23rd on Sunday after struggling with both transmission and handling maladies and is now in eighth place, a fading 177 points off the pace. Need a positive? Though he fell 76 points further back, he gained one position in the standings.
7 Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch
A late collision with Roush Fenway Racing's David Ragan ruined what Busch felt could have been a top-10 day and sent the No. 2 Dodge to a 21st-place finish. Despite finishing 13th in Kansas last week, Busch remains sixth in points, a tenuous, but manageable 140 back. "That shows just how fast things can change out there," Busch said.
8 Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards
An apparent ignition problem relegated the No. 99 Ford to a 34th-place finish in an overall brutal day for Roush Fenway Racing. "There are so many moving parts in a race car. You've got to run well enough to absorb these kind of days," said Edwards, who is seventh in driver points. "We've run really well. We've got six races left and we're 162 points back, so over six races that's not a lot of points per race, so I think we can do it. We just have to keep digging."
9 Greg Biffle
Greg Biffle
Euphoria and hope following a win at Dover vaporized with his engine on Sunday. "This was our opportunity to get back in the Chase and it doesn't look like it's gonna happen," said Biffle, who finished 41st.
10 Clint Bowyer
Clint Bowyer
Penalized 150 points by NASCAR for illegal modifications found on his No. 33 Chevrolet after winning at the Chase-opener in Loudon, N.H., Bowyer is 12th in points, 247 behind Johnson, and, essentially, riding out the season with six races left. But in reality he is not. Clearly out to prove he doesn't require rules-bending to race well, he finished second at Fontana. "After the last two weeks we had. I'm frustrated. I want to redeem myself. We're a race winning team and we need to go out and prove that that last one wasn't a hoax. You know, that mystery caution came out. That piece of debris was out there the whole run. It's a shame, but I guess it made a better race out of it."

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