NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of New Hampshire
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series leaves New Hampshire Motor Speedway after a race that had three cautions (which probably had Bruton Smith upset).
In spite of the lack of cautions, the end of the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 had plenty of excitement in the closing laps.
Kasey Kahne stayed in the top five all race long and took advantage of pit strategy to win, while Denny Hamlin's late-race pit strategy left him short of winning. It had to hurt after leading 151 laps.
Here are my top 20 for this week.
20. Jamie McMurray
Previous Week: 18th
Jamie McMurray's 2012 season is one to forget.
McMurray could not keep up at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after starting 28th. While McMurray's 20th-place finish is his seventh straight top-20 finish, it is just not good enough.
McMurray set the bar high in 2010 with his three wins, and it appears he can't get to that level. McMurray sits 20th in points and has basically no chance to make the Chase. Maybe changes have to be made at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing before the season ends to get a jump on the 2013 season.
I still give McMurray a chance to win a race before the 2012 season ends, and that could happen at Indy. He won at Indy back in 2010 and finished fourth in last year's race.
19. Marcos Ambrose
Previous Week: 20th
Marcos Ambrose was another driver who could have used a few cautions to have his team work on his car during the LENOX Industrial Tools 301. Ambrose started 20th and couldn't go anywhere.
Ambrose settled for 19th and sits 18th in points.
While the Tazmanian Devil has shown glimpses of promise in 2012, Ambrose has been disappointing. While Ambrose has Watkins Glen coming up, I still believe he'll get an oval win before the season ends.
It doesn't look like it will happen at Indy, where Ambrose has never finished in the top 20 in four career starts.
18. Jeff Burton
Previous Week: 17th
The writing is on the wall for Jeff Burton.
Burton could not build on his second-place finish at Daytona. He struggled once again and finished 21st. Sitting 19th in points driving for RCR is unacceptable. His days are numbered, especially with how well Austin Dillion and Elliott Sadler are running in the Nationwide Series.
Going into Indy, Burton has only five career top-10 finishes there and finished 35th in last year's race.
17. Kyle Busch
Previous Week: 19th
After leading early at New Hampshire, Busch's crew had a long pit stop, and Busch was caught speeding on pit road. Busch tried to recover, then slid through his pit box. Later in the race, he was caught a lap down after a late caution.
Busch could only get back up to 16th by the time the checkered flag came out. Busch is 13th in points and only nine points ahead of Ryan Newman for the second wild-card position.
Busch needs some good finishes to shake off his recent struggles. Indy could be the place where he can have a good run. He has five top 10s in seven career starts there.
16. Paul Menard
Previous Week: 14th
I'm still amazed that Paul Menard is 15th in points.
Menard has run in the top 20 for most of the races this season. While that could be good for his standards, he should be doing better driving RCR cars.
Menard finished 17th at Louden after being a non-factor once again.
Menard will be looking to get back-to-back victories at Indy. While Menard has run decently, I still think of him as a long shot for another chance to kiss the bricks.
15. Jeff Gordon
Previous Week: 16th
While a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire may be good enough for some drivers, it was not good enough for Jeff Gordon.
Gordon struggled with his car all race long, and never could catch up after a bad call by crew chief Alan Gustafson to not pit under caution early in the race.
Gordon should be happy he got his fourth top-10 in the last five races. While he sits 17th in points with no wins, Gordon can't be counted out of the Chase yet.
Gordon has four wins at Indy and finished second in last year's race.
14. Joey Logano
Previous Week: 13th
Once again, Joey Logano was a non-factor in a race.
Logano finished 14th in the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 and slipped back to 16th in points.
It appears that Matt Kenseth could be taking his ride at JGR next season, and, with his future up in the air, Logano needs strong finishes to finish out the 2012 season. He still has a chance to make the Chase, but he's fading.
Logano needs to audition for teams in case he's out at JGR, and he has to start now. Indy could be tough for Logano, especially after he finished 25th in last year's race.
13. Ryan Newman
Previous Week: 15th
Ryan Newman couldn't defend his win from last year's summer race at Louden.
Newman hung around the top 10 for most of the day and came home in 10th. This is Newman's fifth top-10 of the season and puts him 14th in points. He is just nine points behind Kyle Busch for the second wild-card position.
With how badly Kyle Busch has been running, Newman could easily get passed Busch for the final wild-card spot. He needs to make the Chase to impress sponsors, with the U.S. Army leaving after this season and his ride possibly up in the air.
Surprisingly, the Indiana native has only one career top-10 finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 11 career starts.
12. Carl Edwards
Previous Week: 10th
What happened to Carl Edwards?
He is just like Denny Hamlin after Hamlin collapsed in the Chase two years ago.
Edwards was never close to the front of the pack and rode around to a 18th place finish. Edwards is 46 points behind Brad Keselowski for 10th in points. With no wins in 2012, Edwards need to win badly before he misses the Chase.
Edwards does not seem like he recovered from losing to Tony Stewart in last season's Chase.
Edwards has had mixed results at Indy. He has no wins there, but three top-10 finishes in seven career starts.
11. Martin Truex Jr.
Previous Week: 9th
Martin Truex Jr. does not look like the same driver who ran strongly earlier this season.
While Truex finished 11th in the LENOX Industrial Tools 301, he never got close to cracking the top five, and he faded late in the race.
At times, Truex appeared to be blocking, especially when he battled Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch.
Truex is in eighth in points and has a 50-point cushion on Edwards, who is 11th.
While Truex should make the Chase, he has lost his way and needs to find it in a hurry. Indy would be a great place to start since he has never finished in the top 10 there.
10. Clint Bowyer
Previous Week: 11th
Clint Bowyer bounced back in New Hampshire after a rough night in Daytona.
Bowyer ran well all race long and used pit strategy to get a third-place finish. This was Bowyer's 10th top-10 finish of the season and leaves him ninth in points.
Bowyer is looking pretty good to make the Chase, especially with his win at Sonoma.
Indy has been alright to Bowyer. He has never finished outside the top 20 in six career starts, but he has only two top-10s there.
9. Kasey Kahne
Previous Week: 12th
Kasey Kahne is making one unbelievable comeback this season.
After falling as far as 32nd in points, Kahne has moved his way into 12th in points and has the first wild-card position.
That's thanks to getting his second win of the season at New Hampshire. Kahne ran in the top five all day long. He made a two-tire pit stop late in the race to get the lead and never let it go.
If Kahne is in the Chase, he should be a key player for the championship.
Going into Indy, Kahne has four top-10 finishes there, but has finished outside the top 10 in the last two races at the Brickyard.
8. Kevin Harvick
Previous Week: 7th
Kevin Harvick has not had any strong runs lately in the Sprint Cup Series.
He's doing what he has to do to keep himself in the Chase, but he needs a win badly.
After finishing eighth in Louden, Harvick sits sixth in points. With no wins, Harvick will be playing catch up once the Chase starts since race winners get bonus points.
Harvick had already lost a close race on Saturday in the Nationwide Series. He looked poised for victory until he got held up by lap traffic, which included Amber Cope, who was driving the No. 24 car.
I'm sure he was thrilled the No. 24 car stayed out of his way on Sunday.
The new father is going into Indy needing a win, and he does have a win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in 2003. With Harvick's track record at Indy (seven career top-10s), expect the No. 29 car to be toward the front of the pack.
7. Brad Keselowski
Previous Week: 8th
Brad Keselowski had the tough challenge of having to drive through the field to get to the front. He fought all race long and earned himself a fifth-place finish.
Keselowski stays 10th in points, but he has 46 points keeping him from falling out of the Chase. Even if he slip out of the top 10, his three wins basically makes him a lock for the Chase.
Keselowski needs to keep his good run of finishes going into the Chase to build momentum and make a run for the championship.
Indy was kind to Keselowski last season when he finished ninth, but he only has two career starts there.
6. Tony Stewart
Previous Week: 4th
After taking a trip on victory lane at Daytona, Tony Stewart was not even close to victory at New Hampshire.
Stewart struggled to stay on the lead lap at times, but was able to recover a bit and finish 12th. That is the theme to Tony Stewart's season.
Stewart with either be contending for wins or falling to the back of the pack. He's all over the place this season, but with three wins, the defending champion will be tough to beat in the Chase.
Stewart will be tough to beat at Indy. He has three wins at the Brickyard and has finished in the top 10 in seven of the last eight races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
5. Denny Hamlin
Previous Week: 6th
Apparently Denny Hamlin needs to be more specific on the radio when it comes to what he wants.
Miscommunication between Hamlin and his crew chief Darien Grubb led to lost track position after taking four tires under caution. Most of the other teams took two tires and left Hamlin outside the top 10 late in the race.
Hamlin showed he had the best car when he drove through the field and got back to second. Then the FedEx Toyota lost the handling as Hamlin over-drove the car to catch Kasey Kahne.
Hamlin handled the situation well, but these miscommunications could burn Hamlin during the Chase.
Hamlin moves up to fifth in points going into Indy, a place where he has not finished in the top 10 since 2008.
4. Greg Biffle
Previous Week: 3rd
After a pair of 21st-place finishes, Greg Biffle rebounded with a ninth-place finish in the LENOX Industrial Tools 301.
Biffle ran well all race long and hung around the top 10. It does look like Biffle's fast start has slowed up, and this isn't the time for slowing down.
Biffle is third in points, now 24 points behind RFR teammate Matt Kenseth for the points lead.
Biffle and his No. 16 team can certainly build momentum at Indy. He has four straight top-10 finishes at the Brickyard.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Week: 5th
After Jimmie Johnson took a hard hit in Daytona, he shook it off and ran in the top five for most of the race in Louden.
Johnson was on pace for a top-five finish when he pitted under green late in the race, and got caught by a ill-timed caution. Johnson was forced to take the free pass and start in the back of the pack.
The Lowe's Chevrolet fought his way back up to a solid, seventh-place finish. Johnson stays fourth in points with his two wins.
Johnson had a strong car and had to put it to the test, which is good to prepare for the Chase.
Going into Indy, Johnson has three wins from 2006 to 2009, but has finished 19th or worse in the last two races at the Brickyard.
2. Matt Kenseth
Previous Week: 1st
Matt Kenseth didn't not have a great day at New Hampshire.
Kenseth was not really a factor for the win and had a hard time keeping up with the top 10 at times. Kenseth wound up finishing 13th, which was great after he started 27th.
Kenseth's points lead has shrunk down to 16 points.
The main thing for Kenseth to do is prepare himself for the Chase, and be ready to battle for his second championship. While he's leaving Roush at the end of the season, he needs to keep he focus in order to go out with a bang.
Kenseth should do well at Indy. He has five career top-fives at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Week: 2nd
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking more and more like he's going to be the man to beat for the championship. Earnhardt had a pretty strong car for the LENOX Industrial Tools 301. Like the rest of the Hendrick cars, Junior ran in the top five all day long.
Earnhardt and his team kept the car toward the front and earned a fourth-place finish. It was Earnhardt's 14th top-10 finish of the season, and he is now only 16 points behind Matt Kenseth for the points lead.
Junior looks to be a force to reckon with going into the Chase, but he will be challenged in Indianapolis. Earnhardt has only two top-10 finishes in 12 career starts there.