Posted: Tuesday September 13, 2011 3:38PM ; Updated: Tuesday September 13, 2011 3:38PM
Brant James
Brant James>NASCAR POWER RANKINGS

Jimmie Johnson tops Power Rankings as Chase kicks off

Richmond Power Rankings
Kyle Busch swept into NASCAR's national touring series in 2001, a teenaged prodigy reputed to be everything his older brother Kurt was and more. Talented enough to earn five Nationwide Series wins at age 19 in 2004 -- the same year his brother won the Sprint Cup title -- and impetuous enough (so was the reputation) to upstage both of his older brother's most overt characteristics, Busch was branded from the start. Various missteps on and off the track only perpetuated that reputation.

But even amid his own mistakes, Kyle has admittedly benefitted from the more tumultuous route taken by his older brother. Kurt Busch has at times felt misunderstood, miscast or underappreciated, but he's also committed enough of his own mistakes to make his constant struggle for respect a labor. His younger sibling saw it all. And just as both begin what could be an epic struggle among brothers for the Sprint Cup championship, the younger Busch might have again learned from watching Kurt come undone at an inopportune moment.

Weekend Top Five: Richmond
Source:SI
From riveting finishes to raging tempers, watch the best moments from the weekend in Richmond.


Kyle Busch, who enters the Chase for the Championship as the points leader, was wedged with other drivers in the breach between his brother and combatant Jimmie Johnson in a tense postrace press conference on Saturday at Richmond as both protagonists commented on their latest on-track confrontation and postrace word play. Kurt Busch, meanwhile, denied comments made before a national television audience about whether he was bothering Johnson mentally and shredded a transcript sheet bearing the remarks when they were presented to him by a reporter.

Certainly, both Buschs have found ways to perform at high levels even as their emotions betray them. Whether Kurt Busch allows this latest incident to become a distraction and possibly derail a season that has been held together despite slumps and team turmoil remains to be seen. Either way, his younger brother will be taking notes.

 
1
Jimmie Johnson
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 17
His system perhaps purged of all the bile toward recent adversary Kurt Busch, his pulse seemingly primed by the challenge and his mental calendar alert to the fact that the final 10 races of the season have arrived, Johnson appears ready to win a sixth consecutive title. Every driver has some weakness, and Johnson's is the inability to hit Victory Lane this year. He has one win this year, his lowest total in 10 seasons as a full-time Sprint Cup driver, and enters the Chase as the No. 6 seed. He's overcome greater than six-point deficits in the Chase before -- granted under a different scoring system -- but the first lap at Chicago on Sunday and the final at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November represent an eternity of racing.
 
2
Jeff Gordon
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 14
A Chase chocked with storylines may come to be defined by a conflict between Johnson and Gordon, the 40-year-old veteran, four-time series champion and Johnson's friend, mentor and car owner. That would be compelling. Gordon seems ready for the challenge.
 
3
Kyle Busch
Wins: 4
Top-10s: 16
Yet again, the ultra-talented 26-year-old reaches the end of the regular season with an opportunity to accomplish the one undone thing in a brief but luminescent Sprint Cup career: win a championship. As usual, the results will lie somewhere at the nexus of his unquestionable talent, maturity and experience, the lagging variables that have curtailed past championship efforts. And then there are those mechanical issues. They have dogged him in the Chase before.
 
4
Kevin Harvick
Wins: 4
Top-10s: 13
As usual, Harvick recycled potential negative energy -- following the announcement his Truck Series team would fold and his Nationwide team would merge with that of Cup boss Richard Childress -- into positive results, winning the regular-season finale at Richmond. Harvick, who won three of the first 12 races, produced his second top-five in the last 14 races in the process, and, he hopes, established a beachhead for a deep incursion into the playoffs. His four wins position him atop the standings as he attempts to grab a first Cup title.
 
5
Carl Edwards
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 17
He led the points standings for 16 of 26 regular season weeks but seemed to lose his way just before the playoffs began. The former Nationwide Series champion has asserted that he and crew chief Bob Osborne have been tinkering in preparation for the Chase and will be ready at its commencement, but sometimes that proverbial switch never gets flicked.
 
6
Matt Kenseth
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 14
He provided the comic relief on Saturday night during the postrace press conference and may add an interesting storyline to the Chase as he attempts to win his first Chase-era title.
 
7
Ryan Newman
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 13
A Sprint Cup title seemed like an inevitability at the beginning of his career -- especially when he beat out some guy named Jimmie Johnson for Rookie of the Year -- but he has yet to burnish that part of his legacy. He has quietly set himself up for what should be a legitimate attempt this year.
 
8
Kurt Busch
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 14
The winner of the first Chase for the Championship title in 2004 has displayed glimpses of the form that helped win him that first title. He has also slumped badly twice during the season, which unleashed his ill humors for all of the sport to hear over team radio. With redemption a goal and rival Johnson as a weekly motivation -- not to mention younger brother, Kyle -- he could be a focused and fearsome factor in the Chase. Mitigating hardship will be crucial.
 
9
Brad Keselowski
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 10
The late-bloomer of the Chase field enters his first Sprint Cup playoffs with two wins and four top-fives in his last six races but without some of the fruits of those efforts. Because he qualified as a wild card, he was stripped of the nine bonus points he accrued as a three-race winner. Momentum cannot be quantified with numbers and Keselowski still seems awash in it. A competitive, talkative Keselowski could be a boon to the Chase.
 
10
Denny Hamlin
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 10
The would-be champion of 2010 has been biding time for this moment since that fateful afternoon at Phoenix last fall, when his dominant car was forced to pit late in the race for fuel, ceding most of his points lead and all of his momentum to defending series champion Jimmie Johnson. Now he has a chance to make things right. But as a wild card in 12th position, he has much room to cover and a lot of time to consider how close he was to a first title last season.
 
 

 
SI.com
Hot Topics: NBA Draft Yasiel Puig NHL Playoffs NBA Playoffs Mark Cuban Jabari Parker
TM & © 2014 Time Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you. Read our privacy guidelines, your California privacy rights, and ad choices.
SI CoverRead All ArticlesBuy Cover Reprint