The Chase for the Sprint Cup is officially halfway done, and to the surprise of no one, the two drivers who dominated the regular season have continued to flex their superiority. So while something could dramatically shake things up --especially this Sunday at Talladega -- for now it's Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson's world and everyone else is just driving in it.
1. Jimmie Johnson (Last week: 1)
With a better restart Johnson would have likely won and subsequently seized the points lead from Kenseth. And it's easy to think those final few laps will be the turning point in what has been, and looks to continue to be, a decidedly close championship battle.
2. Matt Kenseth (LW: 2)
After lagging in practice and then posting his worst starting position since mid-August, Kenseth grinded out a third-place finish and exhibited a textbook example of how to win a championship.
3. Kevin Harvick (LW: 3)
At 29 points out of the lead, Harvick continues to lurk, waiting for the guys above him in the standings to bobble. That chance could come this weekend at Talladega, where it seems a given the "Big One" will wreak havoc on the championship order, and clearly define who is a legitimate contender and who is not.
4. Kyle Busch (LW: 4)
Despite finishing fifth, Busch again lost ground in the championship. Thus this explains his frustration post-race when he offered a blunt assessment of himself and his team and their inability to win in the Chase. After all, there has to be a reason why Busch has never won a playoff race in his six seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing.
5. Jeff Gordon (LW: 5)
Gordon has been outstanding in recent weeks and is well overdue to snag that first win of the season. As for the championship, he finds himself in the same spot as Harvick and needs trouble to befall Kenseth and Johnson if he is to claw back into title contention.
6. Carl Edwards (LW: 7)
Back-to-back top-10s are nice, but the reality is that it's not enough to get Edwards out of the hole he put himself in at Dover by finishing 35th. At the halfway mark of the Chase, the driver who accrued more points during the regular season is 10th overall, 67 points behind.
7. Kurt Busch (LW: 6)
With as strong as he was during the All-Star Race and then again in the Coca-Cola 600, it was expected Busch would be a player this past weekend. And this was reinforced when the No. 78 car was among the fastest in every practice. Yet in the race itself, Busch pulled a Houdini and struggled just to finish 14th.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 8)
Earnhardt was formidable early then, with a dramatically shaky car, backslid to finish 15th. As always, the expectation is that Earnhardt will be on the short list of favorites at Talladega, but it's worth mentioning that he hasn't won a points-paying plate race in nine years.
9. Clint Bowyer (LW: 11)
He was in position to capitalize on fuel if the race had gone green until the end but, alas, that didn't happen and Bowyer is still winless on the year. He will have a good chance to find Victory Lane at Talladega, where he owns two career wins and is among the best at navigating the draft.
10. Brad Keselowski (LW: 13)
No one said defending a championship was easy, but the trials and tribulations Keselowski has encountered this season are almost unfair. He's had to deal with multiple penalties from NASCAR, the suspension of his crew chief, crippling engine failures and just general underperformance. Finally, though, Keselowski was back in the winner's circle after more than a year's absence.
11. Joey Logano (LW: 9)
As his teammate sped to his first win of the year, Logano dealt with issues on pit road and a severely ill-handling car. Add everything together and he finished a disappointing two laps down in 18th.
12. Kasey Kahne (LW: 15)
It may have taken until Round 5 of the Chase, but Kahne finally posted a result better than 12th. And he did so emphatically, finishing runner-up and leading a race-high 138 laps in the process.
13. Ryan Newman (LW: 12)
As he has all year, Newman again produced another quiet top-10 effort, this time an eighth-place finish at Charlotte.
14. Greg Biffle (LW: 10)
A 16th at Charlotte was nothing special, but in a testament to his consistency -- along with his inability to avoid ghastly finishes -- Biffle still finds himself sixth in points.
15. Jamie McMurray (LW: 15)
Although he probably isn't worthy to be ranked, who else is really deserving of this spot? In McMurray's defense, he hasn't finished worse than 19th in the previous eight races, which has to count for something, no?