NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship Contenders: Ranking Drivers Post-Daytona
A disclaimer: The Daytona 500 is not an end-all, be-all predictor of who's going to contend for the Sprint Cup championship.
For example, perennial Chase contenders Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne were eliminated from winning contention just 33 laps into Sunday's race, while Toyota engine failures crippled the competitive teams of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. In fact, only once in the Chase for the Sprint Cup era has the eventual championship winner been the same person who won the Daytona 500 itself.
But that guy, Jimmie Johnson, is the guy who won it this year. And only twice in the Chase era has the winner failed to make the 12-driver playoff. Plus, with a host of races in Daytona Speedweeks to determine the strength of a team, there's a lot more to this than looking at a driver's finishing position in an unpredictable race.
With that being said, these 20 drivers should comprise the top half of the Sprint Cup standings for most of the season (with apologies to Mark Martin, whose competitiveness is unquestioned despite running only a 25-race schedule).
20. Kurt Busch
Daytona 500 Finish: 28th
Stock Watch: Stagnant, after not having much of a chance to show anything on Sunday.
Upcoming Focus: The 2004 champion couldn't do much on race day after damage in the lap 33 accident crippled his car; he rode around to finish 28th, five laps down. But Kurt Busch finished fifth in his Budweiser Duel, the only race he was able to complete all Speedweeks, and that's comparable to the efforts of his former employers at Phoenix Racing.
He just has to trust that the No. 78 car is going to be a better ride at the non-superspeedways that make up 32 of the sport's 36 races.
19. Joey Logano
Daytona 500 Finish: 19th
Stock Watch: Falling, after a post-race disagreement on Twitter.
Upcoming Focus: In two of the past three Sprint Cup races, Joey Logano's post-race tweets have drawn attention: criticizing Jeff Gordon after Phoenix last November, and responding to Denny Hamlin's criticism after Sunday's race.
But Logano is a new driver at a team whose owner generally likes his drivers to be buttoned up (with the exception of one defending Cup champion). Until he starts delivering comparable results to the drivers he's disagreeing with, Logano might be well-advised to keep it to himself.
18. Carl Edwards
Daytona 500 Finish: 33th
Stock Watch: Falling, after one more totaled car.
Upcoming Focus: The No. 99 team simply needs to get their heads back in the game after five wrecks over the course of Speedweeks. That amount of damaged machinery can be incredibly discouraging, but Carl Edwards and Jimmy Fennig have to maintain focus and put the past month or so behind them.
17. Danica Patrick
Daytona 500 Finish: Eighth
Stock Watch: Rising, after living up to an incredible amount of hype.
Upcoming Focus: Danica Patrick has plenty of lessons to take from Sunday's race on how to maintain competitiveness. Her only mistakes were exiting pit road, where she struggled, and falling five spots on the race's final lap.
But now that she's leaving Daytona, she has to learn to be just as competitive on the smaller and tighter tracks, where she struggled last year.
16. Marcos Ambrose
Daytona 500 Finish: 18th
Stock Watch: Stagnant, because Marcos Ambrose finished just about where he's expected to.
Upcoming Focus: As long as he's paired with Aric Almirola and Almirola doesn't break out, it's Ambrose's job to lead Richard Petty Motorsports on race weekends. But the Australian, running as high as seventh in the race's late stages, faded all the way back to 18th at the checkered flag.
Ambrose and new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer need to show that they've developed chemistry from Texas last November up through Sunday, and lead Almirola's team up the running order by example.
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Daytona 500 Finish: 12th
Stock Watch: Rising, after holding his own.
Upcoming Focus: Everybody knows that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. isn't going to be Matt Kenseth this year, but he brought home last year's Daytona 500-winning car in one piece despite being involved in the wreck that took out teammate Carl Edwards.
The next goal for the two-time defending Nationwide champion should be scoring top-15s at Phoenix, Las Vegas and Bristol, where he finished third, first and sixth in the second-tier series last year.
14. Ryan Newman
Daytona 500 Finish: Fifth
Stock Watch: Rising (or is that because we get free Bloomin' Onions at Outback on Monday?).
Upcoming Focus: Despite missing last year's Chase after a midseason slump, Ryan Newman finished 12th or better in seven of last year's final 10 races and carried the momentum into this year. Now that he's reunited with Matt Borland, with whom he won eight races in 2003 alone, the highly intelligent pair can figure out the Gen-Six car early and help put all three Stewart-Haas cars up front.
13. Martin Truex Jr.
Daytona 500 Finish: 24th
Stock Watch: Stagnant, after a disappointing finish.
Upcoming Focus: Martin Truex Jr. had led laps in five of the past six Daytona events, but starting in the back and running down a cylinder for the last few laps prevented him from running up front once again.
One of a handful of Toyota drivers affected by engine issues in the race's final stages, he needs to focus on driving confidently and replicating previous results at Phoenix next week, a track where he led 29 laps last March and qualified second last November.
12. Kasey Kahne
Daytona 500 Finish: 36th
Stock Watch: Falling, after another season-opening wreck.
Upcoming Focus: This is the second year in a row that Kasey Kahne's Daytona 500 has been ruined by an accident, this time on the 33rd lap. His early-season luck was notoriously bad last season, so the focus in the coming weeks has to be avoiding a repeat of that and running clean races with solid finishes.
Another slow-starting season isn't likely to replicate the same results.
11. Denny Hamlin
Daytona 500 Finish: 14th
Stock Watch: Falling, after fading late in the race.
Upcoming Focus: Denny Hamlin worked his way through the pack and led 33 laps despite a 35th-place starting spot, but he blamed ex-teammate Joey Logano for keeping him from working with Brad Keselowski at the race's finish and fell to 14th. It doesn't matter, though—Hamlin didn't nearly win the 2010 title by blaming other drivers or making excuses, and he'd be wise to keep those emotions inside for the rest of the season.
10. Jeff Gordon
Daytona 500 Finish: 20th
Stock Watch: Stagnant, compared to last year's points finish.
Upcoming Focus: It would be nice if Jeff Gordon could get through next weekend's event at Phoenix quickly and quietly, without getting distracted by a flare-up of last November's story. As for the Daytona 500, Gordon started strong, leading the race's first 31 laps before fading to 20th at race's end—a massive disappointment after qualifying second.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Daytona 500 Finish: Second
Stock Watch: Stagnant, after failing to show a race-winning spark.
Upcoming Focus: Sunday was a typical Dale Earnhardt Jr. effort—a strong finish, but no real competitiveness at the front of the pack. Whatever extra drive Jimmie Johnson has is still missing from the No. 88 squad, and the sport's most popular driver needs to find it fast unless he wants another season of great promise to go nowhere.
8. Kyle Busch
Daytona 500 Finish: 34th
Stock Watch: Falling, thanks to more of the same bad luck as last year.
Upcoming Focus: An engine failure late in Sunday's race robbed Kyle Busch of starting his planned march back to the front of the Sprint Cup pack on a high note. In fact, it was reminiscent of a disappointing 2012, and that's not acceptable; in the meantime, however, Busch needs to be patient while the folks preparing the cars get their act together.
7. Tony Stewart
Daytona 500 Finish: 41st
Stock Watch: Falling, but it can only go up from here after the Lap 33 accident that ended his day.
Upcoming Focus: How can Tony Stewart be ranked this high after finishing 41st in the season opener? Simply put, when the No. 14 was on track at Daytona, he was as comfortable as could be, finishing fourth in the Sprint Unlimited and sixth in his Budweiser Duel.
The three-time champion just has to forget about Sunday's patch of bad luck and focus on rebounding at Phoenix, where he hasn't won since his rookie season.
6. Clint Bowyer
Daytona 500 Finish: 11th
Stock Watch: Stagnant, after neither impressing nor disappointing.
Upcoming Focus: After finishing second overall in points, Clint Bowyer may have overachieved just a little last season. But an 11th-place finish wasn't out of character for the Kansas native, who is surely becoming a superstar. Right now, he just needs to remain consistent and bide time while feeling out the new car.
5. Greg Biffle
Daytona 500 Finish: Sixth
Stock Watch: Rising, now that we know where he ranks on the Roush Fenway Racing totem pole.
Upcoming Focus: Greg Biffle looks like he's going to be much the same driver he was last season, consistent and competitive, especially now that he's clearly the top driver at Roush Fenway. But with that being his clear-cut role for the first time in his career, he needs to figure out what to do with it—and notching off good finishes when wins are within reach isn't where it stops.
4. Kevin Harvick
Daytona 500 Finish: 42nd
Stock Watch: Rising, if you ignore Sunday's finish and focus on the rest of Speedweeks.
Upcoming Focus: Whatever Kevin Harvick has been doing, he needs to keep up—race wins in the Sprint Unlimited and the first Budweiser Duel are a testament to that.
The wreck in the Daytona 500 was disappointing, but those two victories are proof that even though Harvick will be leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of the year, he's as committed as ever to running up front.
3. Matt Kenseth
Daytona 500 Finish: 37th
Stock Watch: Stagnant, after mixed signals coming out of Daytona.
Upcoming Focus: Before his engine let go, Matt Kenseth led 86 laps in a bid to become only the fourth driver to ever lead consecutive Daytona 500s. Now that Joe Gibbs Racing knows that its new driver will bring the No. 20 car back to the front, the team needs to get back to work addressing the quality control issues that dogged them last year.
2. Brad Keselowski
Daytona 500 Finish: Fourth
Stock Watch: Rising, after running at the finish in his 36th consecutive race.
Upcoming Focus: Despite being involved in the Lap 33 melee and running with a damaged car for the rest of the race, Brad Keselowski still led 13 laps and maintained a shot at the win all the way until the end.
But knowing that Jimmie Johnson took the victory at race's end, the defending champion has to find ways to match the five-time Sprint Cup winner without focusing on him too much and overthinking.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Daytona 500 Finish: First
Stock Watch: Rising, thanks to redemption after years of restrictor-plate struggles.
Upcoming Focus: The only Chase-era driver to parlay a Daytona 500 win into a Sprint Cup title, Johnson, Chad Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports are back in control and atop the standings. Now that control is in their hands once again, they just need to stay consistent and run their own races in the coming weeks. With five championships under their belt, that's not too much to ask.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.