Posted: Tuesday June 28, 2011 2:42PM ; Updated: Tuesday June 28, 2011 2:43PM
Brant James
Brant James>NASCAR POWER RANKINGS

Four Chase spots up for grabs; Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick move up

Sonoma Power Rankings
Ten races remain until the real Sprint Cup season begins. Ten races until the 12-driver Chase for the Championship field -- comprised of the top-10 drivers in points and two wild-cards with the most wins in positions 11-through 20 -- is set after the regular season concludes at Richmond on Sept. 10.

Much of the field appears to already be set. The top six drivers -- Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Kurt and Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth -- seem secure considering either their levels of consistency or ability to balance inconsistency with performance spikes. All have won a race, with Harvick victorious three times and Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth two-time winners.

The final four spots have been more fluid and would figure to remain nebulous, except for the fact that ninth-place Jeff Gordon appears to be solidifying his footing with two wins and a series of results strong both in performance and finishing position. His recovery from running as low as 28th on Sunday at Sonoma to finish second has been indicative of renaissance this season. None of the other drivers currently groping the final conventional playoff berths -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7th), Clint Bowyer (8th), Ryan Newman (10th) have won and all but Gordon and Bowyer are struggling recently.

Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are currently in an interesting situation, while Regan Smith might be more in a predicament. Though none are currently in the top-10 in driver points, all three have won races this season, which makes them wild-card viable. But only Hamlin (11th) is currently in the 11th-through-20th position and eligible for a wild-card. Keselowski is currently in 22nd position, 12 points out of 20th place. Smith is 28th, a sizeable 59 points from 20th-place David Ragan. With no other winners currently eligible to take the second wild card, 12th-place Tony Stewart holds tenuously onto the other transfer spot.

Among the interesting wild cards within the scores of drivers who could wrest away the wild card in Juan Pablo Montoya, currently in 16th position. Montoya has won previously at Watkins Glen, site of the Aug. 14 event, and led 202 of the last 320 Brickyard 400 laps run. That race is scheduled for July 31.
 
1
Carl Edwards
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 12
The points leader produced his first top-5 performance at Sonoma in finishing third. He ceded second place in the waning laps, but that's no embarrassment considering he was passed by five-time Infineon Raceway-winner Jeff Gordon. Edwards' decision to remain in Sonoma and work on his Cup car rather than undertake the Nationwide race on Saturday at Road America will be seen as new sign of seriousness about winning a first Cup title. One would assume he has always been serious about such things, but remaining to hone the No. 99 Ford and gain maximum standings points could be important in pre-Chase for the Championship seeding.
 
2
Kurt Busch
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 9
A winner of three straight poles, Busch finally secured his first victory of the season after failing to finish off wins early in the spring. And he just didn't win. He was oppressive. Crew chief Steve Addington was clinical in his dissection of the race and successfully navigating the 110 laps on just two stops. A contented Kurt Busch can be a highly efficient, highly successful Kurt Busch. The key, as always, is maintaining that contentment.
 
3
Kevin Harvick
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 9
He said his ninth-place finish felt more like a victory, especially after being in a multi-car incident on Lap 37 that required a complete change of sway bar. Still second in driver standings, Harvick could be set for a major points payday on Saturday at the annual swelterfest night race at Daytona International Speedway, where he won from the pole last year.
 
4
Jimmie Johnson
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 10
There would be no gift victory this season -- see, Ambrose, Marcos -- but the five-time defending series champion improved a car that started 12th into one that finished seventh. He jumped two spots to third in driver points, 33 behind Edwards.
 
5
Jeff Gordon
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 6
The No. 24 Chevrolet was, judging by Gordon's complaints early in the race, an unwieldy beast for much of Sunday, but nimble and faster than Kurt Busch in the final laps. Mired in 28th place with 60 laps remaining -- a serious predicament on a road course -- Gordon recovered to claim a second-place finish and ascended three spots to ninth in the standings.
 
6
Clint Bowyer
Wins: 0
Top-10s: 8
He finished a career-best of fourth at Sonoma for the third time and produced his best result of the season since finishing as a runner-up at Texas and Talladega. All this after his heavily rumored secret deal to leave Richard Childress Racing and join Red Bull next season vaporized with the energy drink giant announced it was seeking new investors and possibly vacating the sport at the end of the season. Bowyer says RCR is where he wants to be. There's no place like home. Get it? He's from Kansas. Moving on.
 
7
Kyle Busch
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 9
He flitted through the top-10 most of the race but settled for 11th after being caught in other drivers' tiffs. It could have been better, but could have been worse, too, after he was spun in the late-race aftermath of Brad Keselowski's hooking of Juan Pablo Montoya.
 
8
Matt Kenseth
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 8
Kenseth was working through the field and reached sixth place by Lap 50, but found himself in the uncomfortable position of pointing the wrong way through contentious Turn 11. He finished 14th.
 
9
Ryan Newman
Wins: 0
Top-10s: 7
One of several cars involved in a Lap 39 melee in Turn 11, Newman recovered to finish 25th.
 
10
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Wins: 0
Top-10s: 8
An early race incident punctured a hole in his radiator and relegated him to a 41st-place finish, dropping him to seventh in points after consecutive woeful finishes. After a 21st-place result at Michigan, Earnhardt needs a solid finish to prevent the tailspins that had marked his recent underperforming campaigns.
 
 

 
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