NASCAR Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Week 24 Edition
The NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff looms just ahead.
When the post-season party consisting of the final 10 races begins, who will be in and who will be out? Furthermore, who will carry the most momentum into the segment of the season that will determine the 2013 Cup champion?
Taking into account all factors—including who has the most race wins and therefore is poised to enter the Chase with the most bonus points, but also variables such as which drivers and crew chiefs are flashing the best chemistry and the most consistent speed—let's take a peek at whose title hopes are peaking at the right time and whose aren't.
Keep in mind, however, that there are three races left in the regular season that could alter the order of power before the Chase for the Sprint Cup commences.
12. Joey Logano
Previous Rank: NR
Why He's Here: Logano picked a great time to pick up his first win of the season, capturing the Pure Michigan 400 on the track that his car owner, Roger Penske, used to own and operate. Not only was it a feather in the race helmet for Logano, coming in Ford Racing's backyard, but it also moved Logano into serious contention for the second of two Chase wild-card berths.
Key 2013 Moments: Logano actually was building positive momentum even before he took his No. 22 Penske Racing Ford to Victory Lane on Sunday. He has now finished eighth or better in four consecutive races, and 11th or better in 10 of the last 12 heading into this Saturday night's short-track test at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Chase Outlook: Heading to Bristol, Logano was 13th in the point standings, but he was only seven points behind Martin Truex Jr. in 12th. Each driver owns one victory this season, so they'll be racing each other hard the next three weekends to determine who gets in and who's left out.
11. Brad Keselowski
Previous Rank: 10
Why He's Here: The defending Sprint Cup champion does not appear to be in any real danger of missing the Chase, as he sits eighth in points after Michigan. But he has yet to win a race this season and needs to show he can get back to Victory Lane before anyone will believe he's got much of a chance to successfully defend his title.
Key 2013 Moments: Like Logano, his Penske Racing teammate, Keselowski appears to be building some positive momentum at just the right time. But a risky pit call by crew chief Paul Wolfe that failed to work out at Michigan was a microcosm of the No. 2 Ford team's up-and-down, frustrating season. Keselowski had a car that he thought could win and ended up having to drive his tail off just to finish 12th.
Chase Outlook: As previously noted, he's solidly in unless something crazy happens over the final three races. He won the pole and finished fourth in the July race at New Hampshire, a venue that will be visited again in the second race of the Chase. That could help him get off to a fast Chase start.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Rank: 12
Why He's Here: Although Earnhardt Jr. is seventh in the point standings and No. 1 in the hearts of the vast Junior Nation legion of fans, the fact is that he's having another nice, solid—but hardly spectacular—type of season. And nothing more. There is no indication that he's a true championship threat and won't be unless he wins a race.
Key 2013 Moments: He won the pole at Kentucky and got everyone all riled up, but then finished 12th in the race. He briefly led the latest Michigan race before a right front tire went down and sent him into the outside wall, ending his day early. In fact, he led a season-high 34 laps in the first Michigan race before his engine blew per racing-reference.info. But the bottom line is that he ended up with finishes of 37th and 36th in the two races at Michigan this year -- and that's the only track where he's been able to win in the last seven years.
Chase Outlook: Fear not, Junior Nation. Your hero will make the Chase cutoff for the third consecutive year, something he's never previously accomplished. That should help NASCAR's TV ratings, but Nation dwellers shouldn't get their hopes up for much more than that.
9. Greg Biffle
Previous Rank: 6
Why He's Here: The Biff hasn't exactly built the kind of momentum he would like since winning his only race of the season at Michigan in mid June. In fact, in the eight races since then, his best finish is eighth and he's finished 15th or worse five times per racing-reference.info.
Key 2013 Moments: Biffle had hoped he and crew chief Matt Puccia would be more consistent this year. But after rising as high as third in the point standings after the first seven races, they've embarked on a roller coaster ride that now has them in danger of missing the Chase cutoff. The season seemed to take a turn for the worse when the No. 16 Ford finished 36th in back-to-back races at Richmond and Talladega—two tracks Biffle will see again in the Chase.
Chase Outlook: Biffle has never won at Bristol, Atlanta or Richmond—the three tracks left on the schedule before the Chase field is set. That makes The Biff's mere four-point lead over Kasey Kahne entering this stretch seem very thin indeed. The one win at Michigan might not even be enough to guarantee Biffle a wild-card spot, depending on what a couple others behind him are able to accomplish over the next three weeks.
8. Kurt Busch
Previous Rank: NR
Why He's Here: Love him or hate him—and there seems to be more of the latter in and around NASCAR—no one can deny the pure talent that is Kurt Busch the driver. And this year his behavior has mostly matched his nearly flawless performances on the track.
Key 2013 Moments: No moment was more key for Busch than the day he decided to take a new, determined, less-complaining and more team-oriented outlook with him to Furniture Row Racing, the single-car team he ended up with two years after wearing out his welcome with literally none of that approach at Penske Racing. The team and the driver have achieved beyond all expectations this season, with six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 23 starts. In the eight seasons prior to this one, over a total of 199 starts, the Furniture Row Racing team had the combined total of one win, three top-five and the same number of 11 top-10 finishes per furniturerowracing.com
Chase Outlook: What may have seemed ludicrous earlier, now is a very real possibility, with Busch entering the final three races ninth in the point standings. Plus those last three races are at three of Kurt's favorite tracks, where he's won the combined total of nine times (five at Bristol, three at Atlanta and once at Richmond).
7. Kasey Kahne
Previous Rank: 11
Why He's Here: Kasey Kahne is 11th in the point standings, but deserves to be higher. He's been wrecked three times by Kyle Busch and was punted once more by Busch's usually clean-driving Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth at Watkins Glen.
Key 2013 Moments: Kahne's frustration boiled over to Twitter according to foxsports.com when he tweeted after the Watkins Glen incident that he was "Headed over to Joe Gibbs racing (sic) to talk to whoever will come out front." Who can blame him? The wreck at WGI stalled some positive momentum the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team had built the previous two weeks with its second win of the season at Pocono and a solid third at Indianapolis.
Chase Outlook: The last three regular-season races are extremely important for Kahne. With two wins, he's virtually guaranteed a Chase berth no matter what happens. But he won't be able to start the Chase with valuable bonus points unless he also finishes within the top 10 in points after the first 26 races.
6. Carl Edwards
Previous Rank: 4
Why He's Here: It's been a successful season for Carl Edwards and the No. 99 Ford team thus far. But it's been a long time since Edwards' lone victory at Phoenix in the second race of the season and he's led the grand total of one lap in the last six races per racing-reference.info.
Key 2013 Moments: Cousin Carl has been second or third in points since registering a sixth-place finish at Richmond in late April. That's a long time and a testament to his team's consistency. But Edwards seems to have lost some momentum since starting second and finishing 21st at Kentucky at the end of June.
Chase Outlook: Crew chief Jimmy Fennig is like a Jedi master in the Sprint Cup garage, and needs to use all his mind tricks to find more speed in the car going forward. Otherwise, another consistent, solid season by Edwards will soon be forgotten by whomever else captures all the Chase glory.
5. Clint Bowyer
Previous Rank: 5
Why He's Here: Bowyer doesn't yet have a win this season, but he's been consistent enough to head into the final three weeks before the Chase cutoff second in the point standings behind five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Key 2013 Moments: Bowyer's season in a nutshell was illustrated last Sunday at Michigan, when he spun on the first lap but displayed remarkable patience and resolve over the remaining 199 laps to earn a fifth-place finish. That's the type of effort that will be required to prevent poor finishes during the Chase that could crush his championship hopes.
Chase Outlook: Bowyer could use a victory and the bonus points that go along with it before the Chase begins, and his best bet to do that is at Richmond, where he's won twice previously during his career. He also runs well at New Hampshire, which could help him get off to a good start in the Chase. That's the second stop on the 10-race Chase docket.
4. Kevin Harvick
Previous Rank: 2
Why He's Here: While Harvick's second-place run at Michigan last Sunday was impressive, as has been his focus during his final season driving for Richard Childress Racing, Harvick has been unable to move up past fourth in the point standings since winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte last May.
Key 2013 Moment: The turning point for a season that seemed to have the potential to turn sour in a hurry occurred when Harvick took his No. 29 Chevy to Victory Lane at Richmond in the ninth race of the season. He's been in the top 10 in points all but one week since then and in the top five since the win at Charlotte.
Chase Outlook: It's hard to believe it won't come apart at some point for this lame-duck team. Then again, Harvick wants to depart RCR on good terms as he sails off to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing next season. And he's already learned that chances to win championships don't come around all that often, so he could surprise and challenge until the end. Color him a dark horse.
3. Matt Kenseth
Previous Rank: 3
Why He's Here: By virtue of his four wins, which currently places him in a tie with Jimmie Johnson for most in the Sprint Cup series, Kenseth has to be considered a legitimate title threat. He already has surpassed expectations in many ways for his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing after a long run with car owner Jack Roush.
Key 2013 Moments: Team president J.D. Gibbs made it clear from the start that JGR hired Kenseth to be a leader, and the veteran driver never shrank from that responsibility. Throw out a handful of poor finishes—two of which came via blown engines that were not of Kenseth's doing—and the No. 20 Toyota team would be higher than sixth in the point standings. Even when it's gone bad, however, Kenseth has never flinched and continues to act the part of a champion.
Chase Outlook: There is no question that the performance of Kenseth and his team has fallen off in recent weeks. But one gets the impression that they're saving a little something for the Chase. Time will tell if that is the case.
2. Kyle Busch
Previous Rank: 7
Why He's Here: For years, the former Nationwide Series champion and all-time race-wins leader in that series has pined for a Sprint Cup championship. He's set up to contend after the bitter disappointment of missing the Chase last season.
Key 2013 Moments: When he's not been running into Kasey Kahne (three times) or blowing an engine (twice), he's been as fast as anybody. He's led at least 27 laps in more than half of the races this season. But what's most impressive is that his three wins have come at three different types of tracks—2-mile Fontanta, 1.5-mile Texas and the road course at Watkins Glen, where he led 29 of 47 laps.
Chase Outlook: With three wins already, he's poised to start near the top of the Chase standings just behind Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. He'll need his No. 18 Toyota equipment to hold up—an issue in past Chases—but this could finally be the year he sticks around until the end to challenge for his first Cup title.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Rank: 1
Why He's Here: Where else would Jimmie Johnson be but at the top of the point standings? The five-time champ is right where he wants to be as the Chase beckons.
Key 2013 Moments: Johnson's season has played out like mostly a dream since he captured the season-opening Daytona 500. In fact, since that moment he has been first in the point standings for all but two of the first 23 race weekends of the season. On the rare occasions when there has been a hiccup, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have routinely brushed it aside in business-like fashion.
Chase Outlook: Look out, 48 haters! Johnson and his No. 48 Chevy team are poised to pursue championship No. 6—and they have the might of Hendrick Motorsports behind them. That makes it difficult to bet against them.