NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of Watkins Glen
The boys of NASCAR took a right turn and ended up at Watkins Glen International in the beautiful rolling hills of upstate New York.
The trip to the 2.45-mile road course marked the second, and final, time in 2012 that the circuit will head to such a venue.
Kyle Busch dominated the race, but a late twist of fate saw his No. 18 Toyota in the fence and Marcos Ambrose out-dueled Brad Keselowski in a finish that was one for the ages.
The race to the Chase took a turn crazier than the horseshoe that is Turn 5. Busch, along with fellow Wild Card-contender Jeff Gordon, each took a hit on the final lap, while Ambrose and Ryan Newman took full advantage.
I'll be taking you the rest of the way this Sprint Cup season with the weekly Power Rankings, so let's get on with it already!
Here are the Top 20 drivers coming out of Watkins Glen:
20. Sam Hornish Jr.
Hornish has been solid since taking over for the suspended A.J. Allmendinger in Penske Racing's No. 22 car.
On Sunday, he was spectacular and helped his cause in retaining that top-tier Sprint Cup ride for 2013.
After finishing third in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series event, Hornish started 17th and picked his way through the field, working his way up into the top 10 and hanging out there for most of the race.
Hornish would keep his nose clean and dodged some late trouble, bringing his Dodge home in fifth.
It was just the No. 22 team's second top-five finish in 2012, and one that certainly turned a few heads inside the Penske Racing camp.
19. Regan Smith
Regan Smith may have had the quietest day out of anybody at Watkins Glen.
Like Hornish, Smith managed to stay out of trouble most of the day, with the exception of some minor splitter damage early in the race.
When all was said and done, Smith had emerged from the calamity that was the final lap and wound up with a solid ninth-place effort.
With that finish, Smith now has back-to-back top-10 efforts after earning a ninth-place finish in the rain-shortened event at Pocono.
Smith moves up a spot to 23rd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings with his performance.
18. Joey Logano
Joey Logano's Sunday drive got shaky very quickly.
After starting 14th, Logano dropped like a rock through the field before eventually taking his No. 20 Toyota to the garage with mechanical issues.
Logano would return to the track and finished 19 laps down in 32nd.
At one point in the thick of the Chase race, Logano has fallen off the pace rapidly in recent weeks with a disappointing 13th-place effort at Pocono sandwiched by a pair of sub-30th-place finishes.
Logano still has an outside chance of making the Chase, but it will prove difficult after another rough week.
17. Paul Menard
There wasn't much to report on Paul Menard at Watkins Glen.
Perhaps that's a good thing.
After all, besides Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski, anybody who was shown on camera seemed to be in race fans' television pictures for all the wrong reasons.
But Menard did manage a decent day. He kept it on the track, didn't hit anybody and wound up with a 12th-place finish.
It's not the most impressive stat in the world, but Menard has now strung together seven consecutive top-20 finishes.
Menard may not be Chase material in 2012, but the consistency is something for the team to hang its hat on.
16. Marcos Ambrose
The Chase for the Sprint Cup just earned a new Wild-Card contender.
That comes in the form of one Marcos Ambrose, who took the checkered flag Sunday at Watkins Glen for the second year in a row, this time in thrilling fashion.
Ambrose has had a good year to this point, with an additional five top-10 finishes to go along with his shiny new trophy.
But more than anything, the man from Down Under has proven that he can stay near the top on ovals as well, demonstrating some muscle at Phoenix and Charlotte before being plagued by mechanical issues and setting a track record at Michigan.
He may fall just shy of the Chase in 2012, but should he earn another win in the next four races, Ambrose could make things very interesting.
15. Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards continues to come up shy of expectations.
After taking the checkered flag in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, Edwards looked poised to carry his performance over into Sunday's event.
For awhile, Edwards was near the front and ran second to Kyle Busch prior to pit stops under caution.
Edwards lost several spots on the ensuing stop and never recovered, finishing a disappointing 14th.
Edwards is not out of Chase contention yet, but with four tracks coming up where he's had some success, he'll need to score big very soon.
14. Kyle Busch
If it wasn't for bad luck...
Kyle Busch was running away with Marcos Ambrose's trophy before Bobby Labonte's No. 47 car left oil all over the 2.45-mile road course with just two laps to go.
Busch began losing control of his car, and the two-second lead he held over Brad Keselowski and Ambrose disappeared in a heartbeat.
Moments later, Keselowski turned Busch around on the final lap, relegating the No. 18 car to a seventh-place finish.
Busch now sits six points behind Ryan Newman for the final Wild Card spot and may need another win to make the Chase cut.
13. Jeff Gordon
One week after lady luck helped Jeff Gordon slip into a Chase Wild Card spot, she took it right back from him.
Gordon was one of the victims of Bobby Labonte's late-race engine failure that left oil all over the track.
Gordon, who was destined for a top-10 finish on the final lap of the race, spun in the last turn and fell from ninth all the way back to 21st.
Driver No. 24 fell from 13th to 15th in the standings and now sits 10 points out of the final Wild Card spot.
Gordon could earn another win before Chase time, and depending upon what the guys in front of him do over the next four races, he may need it.
12. Ryan Newman
After Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman may have been the biggest benefactor of the late-race madness at Watkins Glen.
Newman was cruising towards a mediocre effort and was in line to lose lots of ground in the Wild Card standings to Kyle Busch, who was certain to win, and Jeff Gordon, who was a few positions ahead of him in the closing laps.
But when both Busch and Gordon spun, it was Newman who jumped into the second, and final, Wild Card slot for the time being, with Busch and Gordon hot on his heels.
Had the events of the last lap not occurred, Newman would be fourth in the Wild Card standings and may be little more than a Chase long shot.
Newman probably still needs another win to make the Chase, but for now he lives to fight another day.
11. Kevin Harvick
In terms of performance, Kevin Harvick may be the most blasé driver in the top 10 in points.
That didn't change much at Watkins Glen, where Harvick earned a decent, but uninspired, 15th-place finish after being under the radar all day.
Harvick's latest result gives him just one top 10 in the last seven races, far from championship-contending material.
However, Harvick still has a nice gap over 11th-place Kasey Kahne as he holds a 57-point lead, and it's not like Harvick's recent performance has been terrible with just one finish outside the top 20 during those seven events.
Harvick should hold steady in that Chase spot, but he'll need to pick it up if he wants to threaten for the title.
10. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin's day at Watkins Glen went up in smoke...literally.
For the second week in a row, Hamlin's car was left aflame, this time due to a blown engine with 33 laps remaining.
His recent run of bad luck has dropped Hamlin from fifth to 10th in the standings, marking the first time this season that he has been on the Chase bubble.
But Hamlin has little reason to worry. He still holds a 40-point lead over Kasey Kahne for the Chase cutoff spot and has two wins to fall back on should he need a Wild Card berth.
As for the results? They'll turn around once Hamlin's luck does the same.
9. Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne suffered his worst finish in his last six starts Sunday at Watkins Glen.
That sounds bad until you consider that Kahne was a respectable 13th, and that his finish on Sunday was just the third time in the last six races he has finished outside the top two.
Kahne has been on a roll lately, and now the circuit heads to Michigan, where Kahne won back in 2006.
Kahne also remains the only driver outside the top 10 in points with multiple wins.
With just four races to go, Kahne is probably only two solid finishes away from securing his third career Chase berth.
8. Clint Bowyer
Clint Bowyer did what he had to do on Sunday.
As Bowyer and teammate Martin Truex Jr. try to secure the first Chase berths ever for Michael Waltrip Racing, the Kansas native just needs to put together solid runs to ensure they have a spot in the playoffs come September.
Bowyer's fourth-place finish on Sunday goes a long way.
In his last four races, Bowyer has three top 10s, including a third at New Hampshire, and no finish worse than 15th.
Bowyer should make the Chase, but a few more races like this one can't hurt.
7. Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart would rank higher this week, save for the fact that he spun out by himself on Sunday.
Stewart came back from a pit road penalty to challenge for the lead late in the race. But while running second to Brad Keselowski, he spun out on his own and hit the barrier just outside of pit road.
Stewart would continue on but could only muster a 19th-place finish.
Stewart dropped two spots in the standings to eighth. However, a bad run on Sunday shouldn't take away from the fact that Smoke has finished outside the top 10 just three times in the last nine races.
Come Chase time, Stewart will almost certainly be a factor.
6. Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth hadn't finished in the top 10 since Daytona on July 7.
That changed Sunday at Watkins Glen.
Kenseth quietly stayed out of trouble all afternoon and earned an eighth-place finish, his best result at the road course since 2003.
Kenseth needed to break through at The Glen. Since Daytona, Kenseth has dropped to third in the points and has been, at best, mediocre.
Known best for his performance on intermediate tracks, Kenseth should net a good result next week at Michigan.
5. Greg Biffle
After a summer swoon of sorts, Greg Biffle has picked it up in recent weeks.
The Biff earned a sixth-place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen, marking his third top 10 in the last four races.
Biffle also moved up a spot in the standings and sits just one point behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
He hasn't offered much in the way of excitement, but Biffle has quietly worked his way back into the consistent mode that made him so good at the beginning of 2012.
Like Kenseth, he'll be a factor next weekend at Michigan.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
Like his teammate Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. continues to get it done.
Truex earned a 10th-place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen, marking his third consecutive top-10 finish.
Truex has not been this hot since a spring run that saw him move from eighth to second in the standings after earning five-straight top 10s.
If there's such a thing as a bad time to heat up, perhaps it's now, as Truex hit a swoon of sorts after his first hot streak and dropped back to ninth in the standings during that time.
However, if this is merely a sign of things to come in the Chase, the rest of the field had better watch out for No. 56.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earlier, we mentioned Kyle Busch's bad luck. Right now, this guy has a bit of that, himself.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 28th on Sunday, marking back-to-back weeks of finishes outside the top 25 for Junior.
The results should not be startling.
After all, his latest result can be attributed entirely to road course racing, something in which Earnhardt Jr. is not an expert, and the other was simply an isolated mechanical failure.
Earnhardt Jr. is also far from being in trouble. At fourth in the standings, he is in no danger of falling out of the Chase.
With that said, I'm sure he wouldn't mind sweeping the 2012 races at Michigan. Just to be safe.
2. Brad Keselowski
It's impressive that Brad Keselowski went wheel-to-wheel with arguably the best road racer in the world and nearly won.
What's simply stunning, however, is that there doesn't appear to be a track type on the circuit where B.K. isn't a threat to win this season.
Sunday's runner-up finish marked the second in a row for him at Watkins Glen, as well as his sixth consecutive top-10 finish in a run that includes four top fives.
Keselowski has virtually become a safety pick in fantasy racing leagues with his recent Jimmie Johnson-esque numbers, and his meteoric rise into the Sprint Cup elite should continue for the rest of the season.
We'll see if he can continue his white-hot streak at his home track next weekend.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Even before the green flag waved at Watkins Glen, Jimmie was likely to be the No. 1 man in this week's power rankings.
He's simply been that good.
Since the calendar flipped over to May, Johnson has been the most dominant driver on the track, netting eight top fives, nine top 10s and three victories over the last 12 races.
Even when he's been bad, he's been good. In the three races Johnson finished outside the top 10: he led the most laps at Pocono a week ago, had a top five car at Charlotte and the other was Daytona.
Oh, and he finished third at Watkins Glen on Sunday.
Johnson has been the best driver on the track lately, and the two-mile oval in Michigan is unlikely to slow him down much.
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