By Brant James
August 23, 2011
Michigan Power Rankings
Minutes after finishing ninth at Michigan and holding onto the 10th and final automatic transfer spot in the Chase for the Championship, Tony Stewart declared himself, in essence, a waste of a spot in the upcoming Sprint Cup playoffs.

His Stewart-Haas teammate/employee was a different matter. With a fifth-place finish on Sunday at Michigan, Ryan Newman has a victory and four top-five finishes in his last six races and has stealthily gained momentum heading into the playoffs, where business-like finishes and the mitigation of catastrophic finishes is crucial. Winning in the Chase is a benefit -- though Stewart won his second title in 2005 without a victory in the last 10 races -- and Newman showed the ability to hit Victory Lane this season by winning at New Hampshire, site of the second playoff race. His proverbial checklist would seemingly have a lot of proverbial checks.

"We're as far into the Chase right now as we were out of it last year and we only have a few races left," said Newman, who advanced one spot to seventh in driver points. "That's what we have to do every week. We'll try to have a good next few races and then we'll have a better shot at the championship."

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Newman said his team has needs to address before it can consider itself a title contender.

"We have three more races and every lap is different," he said. "So, I don't know that I can sit here and tell you the strategy on each lap, each restart, each racetrack or, for instance, the weather that we get at them. To me, it's just going and attacking them as we need to attack them and putting ourselves in a position to keep gaining points. We've done a good job up to this point. By no means do we feel like we're -- I shouldn't say -- a championship-caliber team, but I think we have some room that we need to grow to be more successful and have ourselves a better opportunity at winning the championship."

Kyle Busch
Wins: 4
Top-10s: 15
The points leader became the first to four wins in Sprint Cup this season and the first to statistically secure a Chase for the Championship berth. He would begin the Chase atop the 12-driver field because of the bonus points gleaned from those four wins. Pieces are coming together for his first legitimate bid for a first Cup championship.
Jimmie Johnson
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 15
A runner-up finish at Michigan kept the five-time defending series champion second in the points standings and gave every appearance that he is prepared for another 10-race push toward history. Johnson has one win this season and three more races to improve his seeding heading into the Chase. He has top-five finishes in four of his last six races.
Kevin Harvick
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 11
A winner of three races (with five top-fives) in the first 12 events of the year, Harvick bemoaned his stagnating performance in July and worried his team had begun to stray from its successful tack. Nothing has improved since he expressed those concerns, as he has just one top-five -- 10 races ago -- which is a worrisome notion for a driver who finished a hard-charging third in the points standings last season.
Carl Edwards
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 14
He has led the points standings for 15 of 23 weeks this season and has a win and 10 top-fives, but he has developed a penchant for the occasional disaster finish since midseason, finishing 36th or worse three times in that span. He did just that on Sunday, finishing 36th with a mechanical issue.
Jeff Gordon
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 11
Methodically working toward the Chase, Gordon has been anonymous at times the past few weeks, but productively so. A food wrapper on his grille might have cost him a chance at a third victory this season, as he was forced to address overheating issues while running inside the top five instead of trying to chase down the leaders. With a sixth-place finish and 50 laps up front on Sunday, he still radiates confidence heading into the playoffs.
Ryan Newman
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 11
Steady as she goes. Except for that hat on Sunday. Wow.
Matt Kenseth
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 12
Momentum is difficult to assess for the 2003 series champion. He started second at Michigan -- where his Roush Fenway team holds a record 11 wins -- but finished 10th despite leading 10 laps. The finish was his best since Indianapolis (where he finished fifth), but Kenseth has cooled recently.
Kurt Busch
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 12
Crashes at Watkins Glen and Michigan -- and resulting finishes of 38th and 34th -- have completely stunted the 2004 series champion's momentum and leaves him groping for consistency entering the Chase. He has just two top-10 finishes since winning at Sonoma eight weeks ago and appears -- distressingly -- to be mired in his second funk of the season.
Brad Keselowski
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 8
He's finished first, second and third in consecutive weeks since breaking his left ankle in a testing accident at Road Atlanta, and at 12th in points, he's become a well-positioned wild-card holder. At this pace, he could breach the top 10 in points, freeing the wild card for someone else.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Wins: 0
Top-10s: 9
NASCAR's most popular driver appears safely nestled inside the top 10 in points (he's currently ninth) and therefore he should make the Chase for the first time since 2008. With three races remaining, management of his 30-point margin over 11th-place, which is currently occupied by Clint Bowyer, is crucial.

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