NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of Talladega
The good news coming out of Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway is that everybody came out of it in one piece. The bad news is that their cars... well... didn't.
A 25-car crash triggered by Tony Stewart's chopping block on Michael Waltrip brought an immediate end to the race on its final lap. Only Matt Kenseth snuck by completely unscathed, while a handful of other drivers managed to weave through the carnage or limp back to the start finish line.
Of course, where a driver was when the wreck occurred is completely arbitrary, meaning the points shakeup that occurred among Chase drivers may not truly be reflective of performance. But you run with the hand you're dealt, and after yesterday's finish, here's how the field is shaking out:
1. Brad Keselowski
It really doesn't matter that NASCAR didn't consider the photos that Penske Racing produced of Keselowski running fourth while the caution lights came on during yesterday's wreck. By placing seventh, he still gained enough points on his top championship rivals to hold a double-digit advantage heading into next week's race at Charlotte.
2. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin ran at the back of the pack for the majority of the day on Sunday, although he ran so far back that he flirted with losing a lap for a while. When the accident came on the final lap, however, the strategy somewhat paid off: He placed 14th and, unlike many of his Chase competitors, didn't end up with a completely mangled car.
3. Jeff Gordon
Perhaps drivers should actually be given a mulligan in the Chase, because Gordon is probably one stuck throttle away from leading the thing. This is the third weekend in a row that Gordon has scored a finish of third or better (and, actually, the sixth in the past seven).
4. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson took a hell of a hit during the big one on Sunday, and his mangled car got plenty of air time on ESPN as the safety workers attended to it. Luckily for the five-time Sprint Cup champion, his 17th-place finish could have been a whole lot worse, and seeing him get a ride back to the garage area on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s window ledge was one of the finer images of the season.
5. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer couldn't tame Talladega for the third year in a row, finding himself caught up in the last-lap wreck along with almost everybody else and placing 23rd in the final rundown. He tweeted after the race that he thought eventual winner Matt Kenseth should've been penalized for blocking.
6. Kasey Kahne
It's still kind of incredible that Kahne, who nearly fell out of the top 35 in owners' points earlier this season, is not only in the Chase, but ranked fourth in points. Sunday's pole-sitter minimized the championship damage at Talladega by coming home 12th and earning a bonus point for leading nine of the race's initial 10 laps, although he never ran at the front again.
7. Tony Stewart
Kudos to Stewart for taking the blame for causing yesterday's melee with his late swoop in front of the Michael Waltrip/Casey Mears freight train. But for a driver whose criticism of Talladega's repair bill in the past has been nothing short of scathing, there's no excuse for a move like that, which sent half the field home with significant damage.
8. Matt Kenseth
At 62 points out, there's really no realistic shot for Kenseth to win this year's championship. But ending his lengthy tenure at Roush Fenway Racing with a win like this is at least a nice going-away present before Kenseth heads to a new environment at Joe Gibbs Racing.
9. Kyle Busch
Busch responded to his detractors after his radio meltdown at Dover by keeping his nose clean at Talladega and sneaking by the wreck to score a third-place finish. He's the clear-cut favorite to score a "best of the rest" finish in the points this year.
10. Greg Biffle
The bad news for Biffle is that he's tied for ninth in points and 49 out of the lead, even after his sixth-place finish on Sunday. The good news is that fourth place is within 13 points of him, and if he can do well at Charlotte while other Chasers struggle, who knows where that could lead?
11. Martin Truex Jr.
You know those Chase drivers who make it into the 10-race playoff but are very clearly not going to have anything to challenge for the championship? That's been Truex, whose finishes have been solid but by no means spectacular—a philosophy that used to net you a table at the banquet pre-Chase, but may make it much more difficult now.
12. Ryan Newman
With his sponsorship situation for 2013 nearly settled, Newman can get back to focusing on this year's performance, which has been consistent but not front-running throughout the second half of the year. Talladega marked Newman's 10th finish of between fifth and 11th place in the past 13 races, a decently consistent clip and something to build upon for next year.
13. Kevin Harvick
It doesn't look like Harvick is going to do anything significant anytime soon in this championship battle, although his finish could have been a lot worse than Sunday's 11th place. Tied for ninth in points, Harvick is like Martin Truex Jr.—he's been good enough to get into the Chase but not good enough to do anything with it.
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Stick a fork in the championship hopes of Junior Nation, because their driver appears to be done. It's not just the negative mindset and visibly apparent headaches Earnhardt Jr. suffered after his Talladega wreck, it's also the fact that he's fallen to 11th in points, 51 back of leader Brad Keselowski.
15. Jamie McMurray
For the first 184 laps of Sunday's event, McMurray did exactly what a driver who's about to lose his primary sponsor should do: Run at the front of the pack and lead more laps than anybody else in the field. Only when he spun in the tri-oval in the race's final laps did one of his best runs of the season end.
16. Jeff Burton
Burton hasn't been a front-runner for the past few years, but he is quietly establishing himself as one of the best restrictor-plate racers in Sprint Cup as of late. He's backed up finishes of fifth and second in the two Daytona races this year with a pair of 10th-place runs at Talladega.
17. Regan Smith
Smith scored his best finish of the season for Furniture Row Racing in his last race behind the wheel of their lone car. Ranking fifth in the final results, he'll attempt to take that momentum to Phoenix Racing for next weekend's event at Charlotte.
18. Aric Almirola
Starting 19th and finishing 18th isn't usually the way for a driver to find his way onto a power rankings list. Doing it with a car sponsored by bacon and hot dogs is. The paint scheme's not half bad either.
19. David Ragan
Most cars that come home fourth in a Sprint Cup race don't do so with serious damage to their left rear wheel and quarter panel, but most Sprint Cup races aren't at Talladega. Damage aside, Ragan and Front Row Motorsports will take the strong finish.
20. Kurt Busch
Well... Sunday's race was something, alright. Let's hope, for everybody's sake, that Busch's tenure with Furniture Row Racing is a little more successful than his time spent at Phoenix Racing—otherwise we're going to start seeing "Kurt Busch Gone Wild" bootleg DVDs popping up at every track on the circuit.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.