NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 15 Drivers Coming out of Loudon
Only two weeks into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it's already becoming clear which drivers are the front-runners for the championship and which ones are pretenders.
On Sunday at New Hampshire, each of the top seven drivers was a Chase competitor, with Denny Hamlin leading the way by scoring his fifth win of the season.
With eight weeks left in the season, every driver on this list will make a push to finish strong. Most have a title shot, but some are trying to earn sponsorships for next year, and one more is still looking for a ride (hint, hint).
We'll count them down from No. 15 to the top dog, starting now:
15. Brian Vickers
In seven starts, Vickers has three top-five finishes and four top-10 finishes, with an average finish of 14.0 (or 9.2 if you avoid his first-lap engine failure at Watkins Glen).
His ninth-place finish at Loudon was the latest in a line of strong performances this year. Now, speculation runs rampant that he'll have an expanded role in Michael Waltrip Racing's Sprint Cup plans next year and a full-time Nationwide Series ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. (via Seth Livingston, special contributor to NASCAR.com)
14. Ryan Newman
Newman's 10th-place finish at Loudon was his 11th top-10 of the year and third in a row after an eighth-place run at Richmond and a fifth last week at Chicago.
Hopefully for Newman, a series of strong performances at the end of the year will help him attract sponsorship, as Stewart-Haas Racing is still struggling to fill his slate for 2013.
13. Joey Logano
Logano was the best finishing driver outside of the Chase at New Hampshire, coming home in eighth place for his third top-10 in the past five races.
He hasn't qualified outside of the top 20 since Darlington in May, posting a 12.2 average start over the course of the year.
12. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex has been solid but not spectacular, thus far, in the Chase, scoring finishes of ninth and 17th, but that won't be enough to put him in title contention.
He's now 10th in points, his lowest rank of the season since he came out of the Daytona 500 ranked 11th in points.
11. Greg Biffle
The lowest-finishing Chase driver at Loudon was also this year's regular-season champion, proving that the middle of the year is not the right time to peak.
Since his win at Michigan, Biffle has only cracked the top 10 once, finishing ninth at Richmond.
10. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has finished 18th and 14th in the two Chase races, thus far, leading laps in both events but falling outside of the top 10 in points.
Roush Fenway Racing is entering his future replacement, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., in three Chase races, so don't be shocked if Kenseth's final eight weeks with his only Cup team will be somewhat muted.
9. Kevin Harvick
From Loudon to Loudon, Harvick has been on a run of decent, but unspectacular, finishes, never placing worse than 16th but only scoring one top-five finish at Atlanta.
Since crew chief Gil Martin rejoined the team, Harvick has been moving from consistent top 15s to the edge of the top 10, climbing to eighth in points in the process.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Though Earnhardt Jr. has fallen to seventh in points, thanks to the Chase reset and two so-so runs, the fact remains that this is still his best season with Hendrick Motorsports since joining the team in 2008.
He now has 18 top-10s in 28 starts, as well as a career-high average finish of 10.0.
7. Jeff Gordon
Gordon's stuck throttle-related DNF at Chicago has removed him from immediate points contention, relegating him to the final spot in the Chase right now.
But a third-place finish from pole at Loudon proves that the No. 24 team still has the momentum from its miracle drive at Richmond and should move up the standings very soon.
6. Kasey Kahne
Kahne couldn't sweep both Loudon races this year, coming home fifth and leading a single lap. It's his second consecutive top-five finish, and although he actually lost a spot in points in the process, the fact remains that the first wild-card driver is fast, in a bad way, right now.
5. Tony Stewart
Stewart led 38 laps in his attempted defense of last year's Sylvania 300 victory, eventually coming home seventh after starting third.
He's fallen from second to fourth in points, despite two top-10 finishes, but after leading at least one lap in each of the past five races, there's no doubt Stewart can run up front.
4. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer's average finish from the first Loudon race in July to the second on Sunday has been a torrid 8.6, with his fourth-place finish at Loudon the fourth top-five in that 10-race span.
He's got a legitimate shot at returning to the top five in points for the first time since 2008.
3. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski backed up his win at Chicago with a respectable sixth-place finish at Loudon, continuing a run of 11 top-10s since Kentucky and maintaining second place in points.
He's also led laps in eight of those 12 events, establishing himself as a clear-cut championship favorite in the process.
2. Jimmie Johnson
If you had "Loudon" in the "when will Jimmie Johnson take the Chase points lead" pool, you can pick up your prize after finishing this article.
We all knew Five-Time would take the helm of the championship eventually, but it remains to be seen if he'll hold onto it with such strong competition.
1. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin scored his fifth win of the season at Loudon after crew chief Darian Grubb made the right pit call this time around.
After leading 193-of-300 laps, he climbed back from fourth in points to third, seven points within Jimmie Johnson's lead, and re-established himself as the favorite to win it all eight weeks from now.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.