NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of Darlington

Hugo Olguin@@RealHugoOlguinContributor IIIMay 14, 2012

NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of Darlington

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    The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series leaves Darlington with history made and tempers boiling.

    Jimmie Johnson finally broke through with a win to give Rick Hendrick his 200th career Sprint Cup Series victory.  We saw what appears to be a Kurt Busch meltdown involving Ryan Newman and his crew.

    The Bojangles' Southern 500 did not have a caution until Lap 173, which was a record for Darlington. Once the caution flew once, it kept flying for the rest of the event and created exciting restarts to end the race. 

    Let's take a look at this week's power rankings to see how much it shook up after leaving "The Lady in Black."

20. Aric Almirola

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    Previous Week: Not Ranked

    Aric Almirola breaks back into the power rankings this week after earning a 19th-place finish at Darlington.  Almirola kept out of trouble except for the "Darlington Stripe" he got during the race.  

    This team has shown flashes that they can have decent runs, but either pit stops or setup issues ruin any chance they have at good finishes. Since Mike Ford became Almirola's crew chief, Almirola has finished in the Top 20 in the last two races.  

    I would not be surprised to see this team improve over the next few races with Mike Ford leading the team.  He has experience at winning and making the Chase from his time with Denny Hamlin.

    Almirola currently sits 21st in points and with the drivers from 17th or worse in points struggling to stay consistent, Almirola can sneak his way into the Top 20 in points and build a decent season.  

19. Jeff Burton

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    Previous Week: 20th

    Jeff Burton has earned back-to-back Top 20 finishes with a 10th at Talladega and an 18th on Saturday night in the Bojangles' Southern 500.

    Burton and the rest of the RCR cars struggled throughout the night.  Burton needed a good finish to turn his season around and after a Top 10 at Talladega, it looked like he could build momentum.  

    He currently sits 17th in points but I would not be surprised to see Burton slip out of the Top 20.

    Burton and his team were unable to be competitive and these kinds of finishes are going to cost Burton a good ride at the end of the season unless he can turn it around.  

18. Jamie McMurray

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    Previous Week: 16th

    Jamie McMurray's streak of five-straight Top 20 finishes came to an end after hitting the wall on Lap 316. McMurray finished 34th and dropped from 16th to 20th in points.

    A tough break for McMurray and his team after running a good race and hanging near the Top 10 for a good portion of the race. 

    Now McMurray will have to focus on Charlotte for the All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600. McMurray will have to race his way into the All-Star race, but don't be surprised if McMurray can get one of the spots to get into the All-Star race. He has two career wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

17. Marcos Ambrose

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    Previous Week: Not Ranked

    Marcos Ambrose fought long and hard during the Bojangles' Southern 500. He came back from being a lap down all the way to a ninth-place finish.  

    Ambrose has not had the season he probably expected. While he has had some good runs, the finishes don't match his runs.  

    Ambrose and his RPM team have not given up even after so many good runs were ruined. Since Texas, Ambrose has moved from 24th in points to 18th.

    Ambrose is one of the few drivers I believe can still make the Chase. I still believe that he can get an oval win as well as sweep the road course races. Don't count out Marcos Ambrose yet.

16. Ryan Newman

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    Previous Week: 15th

    Ryan Newman's woes continue.  Newman was spun out on Lap 361 while trying to avoid Kurt Busch's spinning car.  That was not all.  After the race, Newman's car was run into on pit road and a fight broke out between Newman's crew and Busch.  

    Newman finished 23rd and he just keeps falling down the points standings. Since his win at Bristol, Newman has slipped from eighth to 14th in points. 

    Even with Newman's win, he should not feel safe about getting a wild card slot. He needs to rebound, and fast. There are a lot of drivers outside the Top 10 in points that can get a win or two.  

    Newman could be on his way out of the Chase if he doesn't turn it around.

15. Joey Logano

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    Previous Week: 18th

    Joey Logano finally had a good run. Logano qualified 21st and worked well with crew chief Jason Ratcliff to get the car better.  Logano worked his way up to the Top Five and was in line for a big night. Then, late in the race, Logano got into the wall and the handling on his car went away.  He was able to hold on for a 10th-place finish.

    I have been on Logano's case for weeks about his mediocre runs and he finally showed that his team can have a great run.  As I say this, I can't get past the fact that he hit the wall hard enough to ruin his chance at a top-five finish.  

    For Logano's sake, he'd better hope that this is the beginning of good runs to come. He is still 15th in points and needs more good finishes to even think about making the Chase.

14. Paul Menard

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    Previous Week: 13th

    Paul Menard survived the track "Too Tough to Tame" with a 13th-place finish. While Menard got a decent finish at Darlington, he is still searching for Top 10 finishes. He has not finished in the Top 10 since Bristol, eight races ago.

    Menard does move up a spot to 13th in points. He is still hanging onto his hopes to make the Chase.  Menard is 29 points out of the Top 10 in points.  

    While Menard has time to make up points, he needs Top 10 finishes and he needs them fast.

13. Kasey Kahne

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    Previous Week: 14th

    Kasey Kahne is keeping up his momentum with an eighth-place finish in the Bojangles' Southern 500.  It was Kahne's fifth-straight Top 10 finish after a dismal start to the 2012 season. 

    At times, Kahne looked like he could be a contender to win, especially after leading 33 laps.  Then Kahne had a bad pit stop that cost him valuable track position and possibly a victory.  

    Kahne's astounding climb through the points standings continues.  Kahne moved up three positions from 19th to 16th in points.  

    At the pace Kahne is going, he still has a chance to make the Chase.

12. Brad Keselowski

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    Previous Week: 8th

    I was amazed at the fact that Brad Keselowski finished 15th on Saturday night at Darlington. Watching Keselowski out there, he looked like he was going to finish outside of the Top 20.  It was apparent that Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe missed on the setup, but were able to recover thanks to late race cautions.

    Keselowski remains 12th in points and just nine points out of the Top 10.  

    It was good for Keselowski and his team to show that they could recover from a bad start to the race. However, if he wants a chance to win the championship, he needs to be running up front and not put himself so far behind that he's always forced to fight his way back up through the field.

11. Kevin Harvick

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    Previous Week: 9th

    Kevin Harvick has been struggling for the last few weeks.  His struggles continued when he had to fight an ill-handling race car to get a 16th-place finish at Darlington.  

    After starting 23rd, Harvick had to deal with the lack of cautions preventing his team from adjusting the car, and his car didn't seem to do well on the restarts either.

    Harvick slips from fifth to eighth in points.  He is starting to get close to falling out of the Top 10 in points.  Without a win so far this season, that could be deadly for his championship hopes.  

10. Clint Bowyer

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    Previous Week: 11th

    Clint Bowyer's 11th place finish in the Bojangles' Southern 500 was not enough to keep him in the Chase.  Bowyer had to fight all race long to get up toward the front. He started 26th and his team was able to get his car running better.  

    Bowyer is only two points behind Carl Edwards for 10th in points.  Bowyer seems to have recovered after a 36th at Kansas with two Top 10s in the last three races and a 11th on Saturday night. 

    Bowyer is right in the middle of the fight to make the Chase.  With how strong MWR cars are running this season, Bowyer has a great chance to make the Chase. 

9. Carl Edwards

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    Previous Week: 12th

    After getting caught up in a crash at Talladega, Carl Edwards rebounded at Darlington with a solid seventh-place finish.  Edwards ran a good race and stayed out of trouble, which is hard to do at Darlington. 

    Edwards needed a good finish after slipping out of the Top 10 in points after his Talladega crash.  He moves up to 10th in points, but he is just two points ahead of 11th place driver, Clint Bowyer.

    It is clear that Edwards has taken a step backward this season, compared to 2011.  It has been over a year since his last win.  I'm not sure what is wrong with Edwards and his team.  His teammates are running phenomenally this season, and if Edwards wants to catch up he needs a win, and badly.

8. Jimmie Johnson

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    Previous Week: 10th

    Jimmie Johnson finally broke his 16-race losing streak with a pretty dominant victory in the Bojangles' Southern 500.  It was a historic night for Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports.  The pressure is off Hendrick Motorsports now that they have their 200th Sprint Cup Series victory.  

    This was Johnson's third victory at Darlington and it moves Johnson up to fifth in points. Johnson rebounded in a big way after his engine went bad last week at Talladega.

    Johnson has had some strong runs this season, but was never able to get wins from them until now. With the pressure off, let's see if he can get a few more wins before the Chase.

7. Tony Stewart

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    Previous Week: 7th

    After his comical comments at Talladega, Tony Stewart was all business at Darlington.  

    Stewart fought his way from a 17th starting position all the way to a third-place finish. Stewart made some great moves to get up toward the front. He looked like he could challenge for the victory but he could not keep up with the leaders.

    Stewart remains seventh in points, 42 points behind points leader Greg Biffle. 

    Darlington was a reminder of how strong of a driver Tony Stewart is and why he is a championship contender. It may not be a win, but it was a strong run.  

6. Kyle Busch

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    Previous Week: 6th

    Kyle Busch had a great night at Darlington.  He had a strong car, which led 44 laps and came home in fourth.

    Busch's struggles from the start of the season have appeared to have gone away.  In five races since finishing 36th at Martinsville, Busch has four Top 10s, including a win at Richmond.

    In those same five races, Busch has moved from 16th to ninth in points.  Busch is in the middle of a tight battle to stay in the Chase, but he has momentum on his side. He has shown consistency and strength.  

    We are all used to seeing Busch have a strong start then fading, but maybe he is changing his ways after dealing with a rough start to the 2012 season. 

5. Martin Truex Jr.

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    Previous Week: 5th

    After two straight finishes of 25th or worse, Martin Truex Jr. was able to leave "The Lady in Black" with a fifth-place finish. A fifth-place finish may sound good to most drivers, but I'm sure Truex was not too happy with it.  

    He led 25 laps and his car looked fast enough to win, but late in the race, crew chief Chad Johnston had Truex pit and lose track position. It was a costly move as the leaders stretched out their fuel. Truex expressed his frustration on the radio about the decision to pit.  

    It didn't help Truex that his car was strong on long runs and the end of the race had a bunch of short runs.  

    Truex is tied with Jimmie Johnson for fifth in points, but Johnson has the tie-breaker because of his win.  

    What has been troubling lately is the frustration that Truex is experiencing.  After losing a race like he did a few weeks ago, a couple of bad finishes and hitting the wall trying to catch the leaders, you have to wonder if the frustration will cost Truex later this season.  

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Previous Week: 1st

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his worst finish of the 2012 season with a 17th in the Bojangles' Southern 500.  After starting 24th, Junior never could make up any ground on the leaders. Even with late race cautions, crew chief Steve Letarte was not able to get that car any better for Earnhardt Jr. 

    Junior remains third in points, now 14 points behind points leader Greg Biffle. He has not fallen outside of the Top 5 in points all season long, but finishes like 17th will get him to slip in points real fast.

    Earnhardt Jr.'s streak of six-straight Top 10 finishes was snapped at Darlington and while one rough race isn't going to hurt Junior too badly, he can't have many more. Charlotte is probably not the best place for Earnhardt Jr. to go to next. He has finished 19th or worse in six of the last seven races there.  

3. Denny Hamlin

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    Previous Week: 4th

    Denny Hamlin and his team regrouped after a rough day at Talladega with a second-place finish at Darlington.  Hamlin started eighth driving a car painted like Cale Yarborough's car and worked his way up to the front, leading 56 laps. Hamlin did everything he could to catch Jimmie Johnson, but he was no match for him.

    Hamlin is fourth in points, only 17 points behind Greg Biffle for first in points.  

    With Hamlin showing strength, it looks like he's a contender to catch the Roush Fenway Racing drivers in front of him in points.

2. Matt Kenseth

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    Previous Week: 3rd

    Matt Kenseth made some great moves and had a great night at Darlington. Kenseth started 19th and fought his way up to a sixth-place finish.  Kenseth earned his seventh Top 10 of the season and is closing in on teammate Greg Biffle for first in points.

    The former Sprint Cup Series champion is only two points behind Biffle, and has been one of the strongest drivers in the last few weeks.

    Kenseth set the tone for his season with his Daytona 500 victory and through the first 11 races, he's looking like he is in championship form.

1. Greg Biffle

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    Previous Week: 2nd

    After starting on the pole in the Bojangles' Southern 500, Greg Biffle had to settle for a 12th-place finish.  Biffle led 74 laps early, but his car seemed to have faded as the race went on until the sun went down.  

    Biffle remains the points leader but his lead is shrinking, and fast. Biffle's RFR teammate Matt Kenseth is right on his heels and is running strong.

    While Biffle has finished outside of the Top 10 in two of the last three races, he has shown enough power to be a championship contender.  The No. 16 team needs to be at the top of their game with how tough the competition is, especially in their own shop.