NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of Daytona

Hugo Olguin@@RealHugoOlguinContributor IIIJuly 8, 2012

NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of Daytona

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    After the green flag fell at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, it looked like NASCAR had another situation where there wasn't enough "excitement."

    Then the halfway point came and the fans got what they wanted, with crashes and a close finish.  

    What we learned is that there is still work for NASCAR to do to tweak restrictor plate racing, but it is in the driver's hands to decide when to get aggressive. 

    Kurt Busch got aggressive and it burned him, while Tony Stewart used his aggression to get to victory lane.

    Any race at Daytona is a wild-card race and the goal is to survive.  We saw big names like Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle get collected in wrecks.  

    Let's take a look at my top 20 drivers after the Coke Zero 400.

20. Marcos Ambrose

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    Daytona was not too kind to Marcos Ambrose.

    Ambrose was caught up in the crash on Lap 154 and ruined his streak of good finishes.  Ambrose finished 30th and has slipped back into a tie for 18th in points. 

    He came into Daytona with five straight Top 15 finishes and holding on to some hope to make the Chase.  Since he didn't win at Sonoma and crashed in the Coke Zero 400, Ambrose's Chase hopes are slipping away.

    Ambrose needs to rebound at New Hampshire.  He finished ninth in last year's race but Ambrose has typically struggled to get good finishes in Louden.  

19. Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch's bad luck just does not want to go away.  

    Busch was involved in the crashes on Lap 154 and the last lap.  Busch looked very strong and appeared to be a contender for the win. 

    Instead, he had to settle for a 24th-place finish.

    Busch is losing sight of the Top 10 in points and the wild-card contenders are closing in on him.  Busch needs to do anything he can get more Top 10 finishes or at least another win, to try to secure a wild-card position.

    Going into New Hampshire, Busch has one win there but he did finish 36th in last year's race. 

18. Jamie McMurray

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    After starting 30th in the Coke Zero 400, Jamie McMurray fought his way into the Top 10 and ran up towards the front for a good portion of the race.

    Unfortunately, McMurray was caught up in the last-lap crash as well and finished 13th.  He sits 20th in points and is still looking for his first win since 2010.  

    McMurray has finished in the Top 20 in the last fives races, but Top 20 finishes are not good enough to be even considered to make the Chase.

    New Hampshire could be a long day for McMurray.  He has only four Top 10s in 18 career starts in Louden.  

17. Jeff Burton

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    Jeff Burton kept to his plan to stay in the back of the pack and wait to make his move.  It almost burned him when he had to make a great save during the G-W-C finish.  Somehow Burton got through the last-lap crash and finished 2nd.  

    It was a much-needed good finish for Burton.

    This was Burton's fourth Top 10 of the season and it moves him into a tie for 18th in points.  

    Burton needs more of these finishes in order to hold on to his ride at RCR.  His contract expires at the end of the season.

    Burton has had success at New Hampshire.  While he has four wins there, Burton has not finished in the Top 10 since 2008.

16. Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon can't get away from his bad luck.

    While running in third, Gordon was hit by Bill Elliott going down pit road, trying to slow down for a caution.  Before that, Ryan Newman made contact with Gordon in the pits that damaged Gordon's car.

    Gordon was banged around on the last-lap crash and still came home in 12th.

    Gordon has been fighting his way through a rough 2012 season.  In the last four races, Gordon has moved from 22nd to 17th in points. 

    While he is improving, Gordon needs wins to be considered to make the Chase.

    Gordon has three wins at New Hampshire, but his last win was back in 1998.  The good news for Gordon fans is that he has not finished outside the Top 15 at Louden since 2005.  

15. Ryan Newman

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    Ryan Newman was looking to rebound after a crash last weekend in Kentucky and it didn't look like he was going to have much luck at Daytona.

    Newman made contact with Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne on pit road, which sent him spinning into Brad Keselowski and his pit stall.  No crewmen were injured and Newman's luck turned around.

    He was one of the few drivers who survived on the last lap and finished fifth.  Even with Newman's good finish, he is now one point behind Joey Logano in points and for the final wild-card slot.

    Newman could get a very important win at New Hampshire, especially since he won last year's race. 

14. Paul Menard

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    Paul Menard left Daytona with 14th after being involved in two wrecks, including the one on the last lap. 

    Menard has not finished in the Top 10 in the last month, but he has earned decent finishes that have helped him stay 13th in points. 

    While Menard is 13th, he is 65 points behind 10th in points.  He is going to need wins to make the Chase and earn one of the wild-card slots. 

    It is going to be tough to do at New Hampshire.  Menard has never finished in the Top 10 in 10 career starts.  

13. Joey Logano

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    Joey Logano left Daytona with a fourth-place finish even after getting caught up in the crash on Lap 125.  Logano was the only Gibbs car to survive the late-race crashes and earn a good finish.

    Logano is now 14th in points and is holding one of the wild-card positions by one point over Ryan Newman.  

    Making the Chase would go a long way to secure Logano's future at JGR.  While Gibbs says he is committed to Logano, things could change between now and the offseason.

    Logano should be happy to be heading to New Hampshire.  It is the site where he won his first Sprint Cup Series race, and he finished fourth in last year's race. 

12. Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne was able to earn a seventh-place finish in the Coke Zero 400 after having a few issues.

    While Kahne had a strong car, he was involved in the pit road incident with Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon.  He was also involved in the last-lap crash while trying to get to the lead.

    Kahne is only three points away from getting to the second wild-card position in the Chase.  

    Kahne has made a great turnaround after a rough start to the 2012 season.  He looked to have no chance to make the Chase, and now he's right in the mix for the wild card.

    Kahne could use a second win to really make a push for the Chase, but it could be tough to do at New Hampshire since he has never won there.  

11. Clint Bowyer

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    Clint Bowyer's night at Daytona ended in a rough way.  He was caught up in the crash on Lap 154 and was not able to finish. 

    Bowyer had to settle for 29th but he still holds on to 10th in points.  

    What helps Bowyer right now is that he has a good amount of points still between him and Carl Edwards in 11th, and he has a win.

    Bowyer should be able to recover next weekend New Hampshire. He has two wins there but finished outside the Top 10 in both Louden races in 2011. 

10. Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards was the odd man out for drafting partners at Roush Fenway Racing.  

    Trying to keep up with his teammates, Edwards was able to finish sixth even after being a part of the last-lap wreck.  

    Edwards needed a good finish, after finishing outside the Top 20 in back-to-back weeks.  Edwards sits 11th in points but he is still 31 points behind Clint Bowyer for 10th in points.  

    Edwards is still winless this season and he is playing catchup to the Top 10 in points.  Edwards' time is running out to get into victory lane or make the Chase.

    Going to Louden, Edwards has no wins at the track and he has only one Top 10 since 2008.

9. Martin Truex Jr.

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    Martin Truex Jr.'s momentum from the start of the 2012 season is gone.

    Truex was in both the Lap 125 crash and the Lap 154 crash.  Truex was able to limp home with a 17th-place finish.

    Truex is tied for seventh in points but still has a decent grip on making the Chase.  Truex needs to get a few more Top 10 finishes in order to feel comfortable making the Chase.

    Going into New Hampshire, Truex finished eighth in last season's race and has five career Top 10s in 12 starts at Louden. 

8. Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski had to recover from a spin and survive some late-race wrecks in order to finish eighth.  

    After Keselowski earned his third victory of the season at Kentucky, he became a lock to make the Chase.  

    He sits ninth in points and many of the drivers outside the Top 10 are hoping Keselowski doesn't slip back and take a wild-card slot.

    Keselowski struggled in last year's summer race at Louden with a 35th-place finish, but recovered in the fall with a second-place finish. 

7. Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick was in the Top Five going into Turn 3 on the final lap of the Coke Zero 400.  By the time the race was over, he was all the way in 23rd.  

    Harvick slipped back to sixth in points, but he is 45 points ahead of Clint Bowyer, who is 10th in points. 

    Harvick looks to be safe to make the Chase but it is not a lock yet, especially since he is winless so far in 2012. 

    While Harvick has to be real happy after becoming a father this past weekend (h/t, he'll need to focus on New Hampshire in order to get a good finish.  

    He finished 21st in last year's race. 

6. Denny Hamlin

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    Denny Hamlin's struggles as of late continued at Daytona.

    Hamlin was involved in the accidents on Lap 92 and Lap 154, which led him to finish 25th.

    This is Hamlin's third finish outside the Top 25 in the last four races. He has fallen back into a tie for seventh in points. 

    Hamlin's two wins put him in great shape to make the Chase, but he needs to get some consistent good finishes.  

    It will be interesting to see how his back injury affects him for the rest of the season.  Hamlin has had some good runs as of late in New Hampshire.  

    Hamlin finished third in last year's race and has three Top Five finishes in the last five New Hampshire races.

5. Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson's hot streak of finishes came to a crashing halt.  

    Johnson went spinning and crashed hard into the wall on Lap 125.  Johnson was hit from behind while trying to pit and couldn't save the car.

    Johnson finished 36th and earned his third DNF of the season.  He now has more DNFs so far this season than he had all of last season.

    Johnson fell back to fourth in points, but is just about a lock for making the Chase. 

    Going into Louden, Johnson has three wins there and finished fifth in last year's race.

4. Greg Biffle

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    Greg Biffle was Matt Kenseth's wing-man for the entire Coke Zero 400.  While he looked strong for most of the race and recovered from a penalty on pit road, the last turn was where everything fell apart.  

    Biffle was bumped from behind while trying to keep up with Kenseth and spun, causing a big wreck coming out of Turn 4.

    Biffle had to settle for a 21st-place finish, which is where he finished last weekend in Kentucky.

    Even with the tough finish, Biffle moves back into third in points going into New Hampshire.

    While Biffle has a win at Louden back in 2008, he has only two Top 10s in the last five races there. 

3. Tony Stewart

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    On the last lap of the Coke Zero 400, Tony Stewart was able to power his way past the Roush duo of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, who dominated the race, and cruise to victory.

    Stewart hung in the back for the first part of the race to stay out of trouble, and almost got stuck a lap down.  A caution caught Stewart back up and he never look back.

    This is Stewart's third victory of the season and basically locks him into the Chase.  He sits fifth in points, but his three wins will be hard to match even if he somehow slipped out of the Top 10 in points.

    Stewart could keep the momentum going next weekend in Louden.  He finished second in last year's summer race and won the fall Louden race as well. 

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. never really showed that he could challenge for the win during the Coke Zero 400.  He tried to get the high line working and could not make a run for the lead.

    Ultimately, he was caught up in the crash on the last lap which cost him a Top 10 finish.  Junior was able to get 15th, but it was not the night he was hoping for.

    Junior still remains second in points, 25 points behind Matt Kenseth for the points lead.

    Louden could be a challenge for Earnhardt.  He didn't finish in the Top 10 in either New Hampshire race last season and he has only three Top 10s in the last nine races there. 

1. Matt Kenseth

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    Matt Kenseth dominated the Coke Zero 400 by leading 89 laps and looked untouchable while he was in the lead.  

    Kenseth could not hold off Tony Stewart on the last lap and had to settle for third after the wild finish that ensued.

    This was Kenseth's ninth Top Five of the season and gives him a 25-point cushion from the rest of the competition.  

    Kenseth has looked very strong this season, but I don't think one win will be enough to win the championship. 

    New Hampshire could be a place where Kenseth has a rough day.  He has never won a race there and has one Top 10 there since 2007.