NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Drivers Coming out of Martinsville
Well, Brad Keselowski, it was a good run.
Keselowski's four-week run at the top of the Sprint Cup standings ended on Sunday, when Jimmie Johnson took the TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway for his fourth win of the season. The victory allowed Johnson to steal the points lead from Keselowski by only two points with three races to go.
Those final three races—at Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead—will feature an intense head-to-head battle between the five-time champion and the brash young challenger. But with Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne waiting in the wings for any mistake, and plenty of other drivers still out there looking to finish their season on a high note, we can't ignore the rest of the field quite yet.
Here are the top-20 drivers in the Sprint Cup class right now, ranked by their momentum coming off of the Martinsville race weekend.
1. Jimmie Johnson
The entire complexion of this year's championship changes here with Johnson's victory on Sunday.
Now that he has the lead—a lead of two points, but still a lead—the entire rest of the championship is contingent on where he finishes these next three weeks. Chances are it's going to be up front every time.
2. Brad Keselowski
The good news for Keselowski is that his late-race management managed to score the team a sixth place finish and bonus point for leading a lap.
The bad news is that he's now going to have to go toe-to-toe with Johnson for three weeks and outperform him every single time. Keselowski's confident enough to do it, but let's see how it goes.
3. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer led 154 of 500 laps on Sunday, eventually coming home with a respectable fifth place finish for his efforts. He's moved up to third in points, 26 back of the lead, with three races to go.
It would require some failures on the part of Johnson and Keselowski, but Bowyer is strong enough to win this championship.
4. Kasey Kahne
If you honestly had Kahne making it up to fourth in points right now after where he was after Bristol in March, you should probably look into becoming a fortune teller. After his fourth top-five finish of the Chase, that's exactly where Kahne finds himself. He jumped a position by virtue of Sunday's third place finish.
5. Jeff Gordon
When Gordon and Clint Bowyer traded paint on Sunday, the four-time Cup champion had every right to be angry after the race. After all, it was Bowyer's aggressive move at Martinsville in the spring that led to both drivers wrecking on a late-race restart.
Here they were at it again.
Instead, Gordon chose to chalk it up to good, hard short track racing—probably because this time, he still came home seventh.
6. Kyle Busch
Racing with a heavy heart after the loss of friend and former employee, Raine Angelley, Busch scored a strong second place finish at Martinsville, although he admitted disappointment in failing to take the victory.
If Busch had made it into this year's Chase over Jeff Gordon, he would have 2232 points, slotting him sixth in the championship.
7. Denny Hamlin
For the second time in three years, Hamlin's late-season title hopes have evaporated in cataclysmic fashion. At least this time the team wasn't simply playing head games with itself.
Though Hamlin overcame his first two pit road speeding penalties of the season, electrical issues crippled his race hopes by leaving him 34 laps down in 33rd place at the checkers.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Sunday was a pretty mediocre day for Truex, who started 12th and finished 23rd, the second car one lap down.
Though he's in the Chase and the No. 55 ride-sharing operation is not, it seems like Truex is becoming the third car at Michael Waltrip Racing with both Mark Martin and Brian Vickers having contended for victories and Clint Bowyer in position to make a move in the title race.
9. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth started sixth, finished 14th, and led a lap on Sunday. That was about it for the Talladega and Kansas race winner.
He's eighth in points but only needs to make up two on Martin Truex Jr. to steal away seventh place.
10. Tony Stewart
Finishing two laps down in 27th place surely isn't what Stewart had in mind for Sunday as he attempted to defend his race victory here last fall.
To be honest, falling to 10th in points probably isn't what he had in mind, either, but here he is.
On the bright side, Stewart's Eldora Speedway, now one of the premier dirt tracks in the country, hosted a Camping World Truck Series test last week, suggesting that there could be an even bigger event than the Prelude to the Dream there someday.
11. Greg Biffle
In an up-and-down Chase that has seen Biffle go from regular season points champion to outside of the top 10 at more than one point, Martinsville represented a step in the right direction. Biffle finished 10th, scoring only his third top 10 of the Chase, and rebounding strongly from his disappointing 27th place run at Kansas last week.
12. Brian Vickers
Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 55 team has scored the ninth most points of any team in the Chase, and Vickers has been a part of that in his two appearances.
On Sunday, he started from the outside pole, led 27 laps and finished a respectable eighth. His cup season now done, he'll focus on returning to MWR for nine races next season, plus securing a strong Nationwide ride to run for that championship.
13. Joey Logano
Despite finishes of 19th and 16th in the past two weeks that have represented a small step backward, Logano has still scored more points than Chaser Kevin Harvick in the seven Chase races this season. He's building plenty of momentum as a driver to suggest a major step forward when he joins Penske Racing for next season.
14. Aric Almirola
For the second week in a row, Almirola's performance in the No. 43 car was outstanding.
This time, he even got to finish the deal, tying a career best finish by coming home fourth at Martinsville.
Richard Petty Motorsports is still working on finalizing Almirola's contract for 2013, but the past couple of weeks should provide enough of an impetus to get a deal done.
15. Kevin Harvick
Harvick's run of Chase mediocrity continued on Sunday when a blown engine left him a disappointing 32nd and knocked him out of the top 10 for the first time all season.
The good news is that's still Harvick's first finish outside of the top 20 since Daytona in July.
The bad news is he still only has one top-five and three top-10s in the past 15 races.
16. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
What had been a strong return from concussion symptoms for Earnhardt Jr. was spoiled by a spin with Carl Edwards with less than 10 laps to go. That set back the sport's most popular driver to a disappointing 21st place with the last car on the lead lap.
He's stuck at 12th in the Chase, but as a testament to how strong the No. 88 team was before his sabbatical, he'd still be eighth in points under the old system.
17. Ryan Newman
Sunday represented a big day for Newman: it was the first time he drove with Matt Borland atop his pit box since the end of the 2006 season. That combination scored 12 wins and 37 poles together at Penske Racing. Newman has only four wins and 12 poles in the six seasons since. In the reunion, the spring Martinsville winner came home in a respectable 11th place.
18. Carl Edwards
Edwards spoiled Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to racing when the two tangled with less than 10 laps to go, knocking both to the back of the lead lap. Last year's championship runner-up came home 18th.
He currently finds himself in a three-way battle with Ryan Newman and Paul Menard for 14th in points.
19. Paul Menard
After scoring his best finish of the season with a third place run at Kansas last week, Menard came home a decent 12th at Martinsville.
He's been a bit invisible this season, but at 16th in points, he's actually on track for the greatest full-season run of his six-year Sprint Cup career.
20. Jeff Burton
Burton has admitted to a little insecurity about keeping his ride at Richard Childress Racing beyond next season, when his contract runs out and Austin Dillon is likely ready to move up to Sprint Cup. In response, Burton laid down an intense fourth place run in qualifying, but consistent with his past two seasons, scored a mediocre 22nd place finish, the first car off of the lead lap.
Sadly, the well-respected and popular driver seems headed for Bobby Labonte status within the next few years.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.