NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of Michigan

Hugo Olguin@@RealHugoOlguinContributor IIIJune 19, 2012

NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of Michigan

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    The NASCAR world can rejoice and breathe a sigh of relief.

    With Dale Earnhardt Jr. earning his first win in four years, the weight has come off his shoulders, and he can now focus on a championship.

    We saw a few wild-card drivers struggle and all of Joe Gibbs Racing have a bad day. The points standings is only tightening up as the Sprint Cup Series gets closer and closer to the Chase.

    Let's take a look at my top 20 drivers for this week.

20. Jeff Gordon

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    Previous Week: Not Ranked

    After a season full of bad luck and struggles, Jeff Gordon earned his second Top 10 finish in the last eight races. Gordon started 28th in the Quicken Loans 400, and he fought his way up to a sixth place finish.

    While Gordon has had strong runs during races, he has typically not been able to come up with the finishes to match the good effort.

    It is only a matter of time before Gordon gets into victory lane this season. The strength of his team keeps Gordon's Chase hopes alive with their ability to get multiple wins before the Chase.

    The key is that Gordon is now 20th in points and eligible for the wild-card positions.

    This weekend in Sonoma could be where Gordon gets a much needed win. Gordon has five wins at the track and 15 Top 10 finishes in 19 career starts.

19. Juan Pablo Montoya

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    Previous Week: Not Ranked

    Juan Pablo Montoya's season is one to forget so far. Montoya and his EGR team have struggled throughout the season. The last couple of races have had Montoya run well but not get the type of finishes to reflect on those good runs.

    That changed at Michigan. Montoya ran very well in the Quicken Loans 400 and raced his way to an eighth place finish. Sadly, that is only Montoya's second Top 10 of the season.

    Montoya's good run at Michigan moves him into 19th in the points standings, up three positions from the previous week.

    Going into Sonoma, Montoya has to be considered a factor for the win. He won his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Sonoma back in 2007.; although, he did finish 22nd in last year's race.

18. Kyle Busch

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    Previous Week: 15th

    Kyle Busch just can't catch a break lately or even Joe Gibbs Racing after this past weekend at Michigan.

    Busch suffered his third straight blown motor at Michigan, a rare event to see in NASCAR considering how careful and detailed teams get with their equipment. Busch finished 32nd in the Quicken Loans 400, and his Chase hopes are fading at a rapid pace.

    The three straight DNF finishes have dropped Busch from eighth to 12th in points. While Busch does have one win and a wild card slot so far, he could easily be caught by some of the drivers behind him. Or even have drivers start earning multiple wins.

    I fully expect Busch to recover in some way; although, Sonoma could be a challenge for him. While Busch has a win back in 2008, he has not finished in the Top 10 at Sonoma since.

17. Jamie McMurray

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    Previous Week: 18th

    Like EGR driver Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray is not having the 2012 season he was hoping for. 

    McMurray's season has been filled with mediocre runs and bad finishes. He left Michigan with a 14th place finish and moved up to 18th in points.  

    McMurray needs stronger finishes to keep his ride and to prove to his sponsors that he can battle for wins on a regular basis.  

    I doubt he'll prove anything this weekend at Sonoma. McMurray has not finished in the Top 10 at Sonoma since 2004.

16. Marcos Ambrose

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    Previous Week: 17th

    For the first half of the Quicken Loans 400, it looked like Marcos Ambrose was going to be one of the drivers battling for the win. Then Ambrose faded after a bad set of tires and couldn't recover. Ambrose still finished ninth and should be proud of his day at Michigan.

    After starting on the pole and holding his own with the leaders, it is only a matter of time before Ambrose wins on an oval track. He has been running better lately with three Top 10s in the last five races. He also has moved up to 17th in points.

    Ambrose's Chase hopes come down to this weekend at Sonoma. He is always the favorite to win the road courses lately, and he got his first career win last year at Watkins Glen.  

    Ambrose is my pick to win this weekend at Sonoma.

15. Kasey Kahne

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    Previous Week: 14th

    Since Kasey Kahne earned his first win of the season in the Coca-Cola 600, Kahne has finished 29th or worse in two of his last three races—that includes a 33rd place finish at Michigan after getting caught up in a crash on Lap 127.  

    Kahne's hard charge for the Chase has be halted after getting caught up in crashes for two straight races. He sits 16th in points, pretty far behind some of the other wild-card drivers. Unless Kahne gets on another hot streak, he's going to need another win to make the Chase.

    Kahne could have a good run this weekend at Sonoma. He won this race back in 2009, but he finished 20th in last year's race while driving for Red Bull Racing.

14. Joey Logano

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    Previous Week: 13th

    Joey Logano could not keep up his winning ways in the Quicken Loans 400. While trying to avoid David Gilliland, Logano lost control and crashed on Lap 127. Logano wound up finishing 35th and fell back to 15th in points.

    That's where Logano has been most of the season. It seems the pressure is off about his future (via ESPN), but the pressure to make the Chase is growing. Logano is 20 points behind Ryan Newman for the last wild-card slot.  

    Don't be surprised to see Logano rebound with a good run this weekend at Sonoma. He was on the pole in last year's race and finished sixth. 

13. Ryan Newman

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    Previous Week: 16th

    Ryan Newman's 15th place finish at Michigan was good enough to move him up to 13th in points. 

    Newman is taking advantage of drivers around him in points struggling. He has four straight Top 15 finishes which allow him to hold onto one of the wild-card slots for the moment.  

    Newman is still searching for a Top 10 finish since his win back at Martinsville. If he wants to make the Chase, he's going to need to earn some Top 10 finishes and fast. There are plenty of drivers outside the Top 10 in points that can catch him or earn multiple wins. 

    Unfortunately for Newman, Sonoma is this weekend, and he has not had a Top 10 finish there since 2008.

12. Paul Menard

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    Previous Week: 12th

    Like Ryan Newman, Paul Menard is taking advantage of drivers struggling around him in points.

    While Menard has not had great runs, he is 14th in points—that's even after finishing 22nd at Michigan. 

    Menard has shown, at times, that he can run with the elite drivers, but he typically fades by the end of races. I still give Menard a chance to make the Chase because he's pretty high up in the points and being in a RCR car gives him a chance to win almost any given race.

    That does not include Sonoma, where Menard has never finished in the Top 10 in four career Sprint Cup Series races.

11. Brad Keselowski

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    Previous Week: 11th

    Brad Keselowski has not run as strong as we are used to seeing lately. He was not much of a factor at Michigan, finishing 13th.  

    That's three straight races where Keselowski has not finished in the Top 10. He still holds onto 10th in points, but he is only two points ahead of Carl Edwards.

    What helps Keselowski is his two wins, but he should be concerned with his lack of consistency.

    Going into Sonoma, Keselowski will be challenged to get a good finish to hold his spot in the Chase. He did finish 10th in last year's race.

10. Carl Edwards

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    Previous Week: 10th

    Carl Edwards earned his second straight 11th place finish in the Quicken Loans 400. Edwards struggled, for most part, to move up from his 41st starting position.

    Edwards sits two points behind Brad Keselowski for 10th in points. Without a win so far in 2012, he needs to fight his way back into the Top 10.  It would help if Edwards earned a Top 10 finish; he hasn't finished in the Top 10 since the Coca-Cola 600.

    Sonoma has had mixed results for Edwards. He finished third in last year's race ,but he finished 29th in 2010.

9. Martin Truex Jr.

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    Previous Week: 8th

    Martin Truex Jr. has looked a little shaky at times recently. It was expected that Truex would not be able to keep up his fast start to the season, but he is fading down the points. 

    After finishing 12th at Michigan, Truex stills holds onto seventh in points. The problem for Truex is that Tony Stewart and his MWR teammate Clint Bowyer are right on his heels in the points standings.  

    With only two Top 10s in the last seven races, Truex needs to regroup and make a run to secure his spot for the Chase.

    He could start that run in Sonoma where he finished eighth in last year's race. The problem is that last year was the first time Truex earned a Top 10 finish at Sonoma in six career races.

8. Clint Bowyer

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    Previous Week: 9th

    Clint Bowyer earned his third straight Top 10 finish with a seventh in the Quicken Loans 400. Bowyer has been building momentum in the last few weeks, moving his way into the Top 10 in points.

    Bowyer may be ninth in points, but he is within striking distance of Martin Truex Jr., who is seventh in points. It is starting to look like the momentum at Michael Waltrip Racing is shifting from Truex to Bowyer.

    Bowyer's momentum could make him a dark horse at Sonoma this weekend. He finished fourth in last year's race and has four Top 10 finishes in six career races at Sonoma.

7. Denny Hamlin

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    Previous Week: 5th

    Denny Hamlin's car catching on fire was one of the more exciting moments of the Quicken Loans 400. Hamlin bounced around and spun on Lap 134. When he returned to the pits, his car caught on fire and ended his day.

    Hamlin finished 34th and slipped to fifth in points. With the exception of Dover, Hamlin was running well lately, but after JGR having such a rough day, all three teams need to rebound and fast.

    Sonoma will be a challenge for Hamlin. He has finished 25th or worse in three of last four races at Sonoma.

6. Tony Stewart

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    Previous Week: 7th

    Tony Stewart was runner up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan. Stewart led 18 laps and ran very well, but he could not keep up with the No. 88 car. 

    While Stewart made some interesting comments after the race, they were just out of sheer frustration for not winning. Stewart has to be happy about earning his sixth Top Five of the season. He stayed eighth in points, but he still looks relatively safe to make the Chase with his two wins.

    While Stewart has three Top fives in the last five races, he also has two 25th place finishes in the mix. This raises questions about how his championship team still needs some work to be better.

    Stewart does have two wins at Sonoma (2001 and 2005), but he finished 39th in last year's race. 

5. Kevin Harvick

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    Previous Week: 6th

    Kevin Harvick and his team struggled at times during the Quicken Loans 400 after starting second and falling to 19th by the halfway point in the race. Crew chief Shane Wilson made the right adjustments to fix Harvick's car, which was able to get the No. 29 car a 10th place finish.

    With Harvick's third Top 10 in the last four races, he holds onto sixth in points. What is concerning is that after a four-wins season in 2011, Harvick has not made the trip to victory lane so far in 2012.  

    Going into Sonoma, Harvick finished ninth in last year's race and has three Top 10s in the last five races. The problem is he has finishes of 24th or worse in four of the last seven races at Sonoma.

4. Jimmie Johnson

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    Previous Week: 4th

    It is hard to argue against the fact that Jimmie Johnson has been one of the strongest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series this season. Johnson finished fifth at Michigan, giving him four Top fives in the last five races. That includes two wins.

    Even with this amazing run he is on, Johnson still sits fourth in points, 33 points out of first. Fans need to remember that while Johnson was one of the top drivers for most of the season, the guys in front of him in points have been doing it all season long. That just shows how a bad race or two can really hurt a driver's points.

    Johnson should keep his fast pace going into Sonoma. He finished seventh in last year's race but won it back in 2010. 

3. Greg Biffle

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    Previous Week: 3rd

    After starting third and leading 38 laps, Greg Biffle came up a little bit short and finished fourth at Michigan. After a rough day at Pocono, Biffle rebounded in a big way at Michigan. 

    Biffle holds onto third in points, but he is now 17 points behind RFR teammate Matt Kenseth for first in points. After Biffle led the points for the first 13 races, a few mediocre runs have made him slip back to the rest of the pack. The question will be, "can Biffle regain the points lead?" I think he can, but it will be very tough.

    Biffle will be facing a challenge going into Sonoma where he has finished outside the Top 20 in two of the last three races. 

2. Matt Kenseth

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    Previous Week: 1st

    After leading 17 laps in the Quicken Loans 400, Matt Kenseth held onto his points lead with a third place finish. That was Kenseth's ninth Top 10 in the last 10 races.  

    While Kenseth holds onto the points lead, it did shrink down to four points over Dale Earnhardt Jr. This season has been a battle over who can stay the most consistent, and Matt Kenseth has been one of the most consistent drivers in the Sprint Cup Series.

    Kenseth might be in trouble this weekend at Sonoma.  He finished 14th in last year's race and has only one Top 10 in 12 career races at Sonoma.

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Previous Week: 2nd

    "The Dark Knight" rose to the occasion at Michigan. Four years after his last Sprint Cup Series win at Michigan, Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to victory lane. It was Earnhardt's first win in 143 races.  

    The pressure is off Junior now. He won; that's what the racing world wanted. I doubt that is all for "The Dark Knight" this season as has been one of the best drivers in 2012 with 12 Top 10s.

    He is four points away from becoming the points leader.

    It will be tough for Earnhardt to rise up and have a good run this weekend at Sonoma. He has never finished in the Top 10 in 12 career races there.

    If he gets a Top 10 this weekend, it should get everyone's attention that Junior can run well anywhere and that he's hungry for a championship.