NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase for the Sprint Cup Week 1 Edition
The snapshot taken following completion of the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway was quickly and widely distributed throughout all of America by NASCAR and media outlets that thought they were recording a little piece of history.
But then it changed dramatically and almost as quickly.
Within 48 hours the picture taken of the supposed 12 Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers was in need of some major photoshopping. By virtue of unprecedented penalties and fines levied against Michael Waltrip Racing in wake of some real funny business at the end of the Richmond race that turned out to be not so hilarious, driver Ryan Newman is in the Chase and Martin Truex Jr. of MWR is out.
What other craziness is in store for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series over the next 10 races that will decide the 2013 Chase winner? Who is the favorite heading in and what kind of fallout can some others expect from the spectacular SpinGate controversy that swallowed up the sport post-Richmond?
Who wields the power heading into the Chase and who is still chasing it, based on all of the above, the tracks that will comprise the 10-race postseason schedule, who's hot (and not just under the fire suit collar) and who's not?
Read on to find out.
12. Greg Biffle
Previous Rank: 9
Why He's Here: With only three top-five finishes all year—and none since his lone win at Michigan in mid-August—Biffle lacks the speed and momentum to make much noise in the Chase. In his last 10 races, he hasn't finished higher than ninth but has seven finishes of 12th or worse, including one finish of 34th and one of 24th according to racing-reference.info.
Keys to Chase Success: It's very obvious that for The Biff to avoid being quickly forgotten in this Chase, he has to make a stand early. That means winning at either New Hampshire, Dover or Kansas—three of the first four venues the Chasers will visit. He owns a combined five career wins at those tracks. Good finishes there, plus perhaps a win at one of the three, would turn his fortunes around.
Chicagoland Prediction: In 10 career starts at Chicagoland, his only finish inside the top 11 was a fourth in 2008 per racing-reference.info. In the four races since then, his average finish is 27.5. Al Capone appears to have as good a chance for a high finish in Chicago as The Biff, and Capone has been dead for years.
11. Clint Bowyer
Previous Rank: 6
Why He's Here: Obviously Bowyer might be ranked higher, but with all the controversy surrounding his alleged intentional spin at the end of last week's Richmond race, it's difficult to know how he and his team are going to respond right out of the Chase gate. There is more to it, too.
He still has yet to prove he can win this season, and to be a factor in the Chase he'll have to pull a Tony Stewart a la 2011 and do it quickly if he's going to change that reality.
Keys to Chase Success: Bowyer must find a way to not only regroup after what has been a tumultuous post-Richmond week, but also must get with crew chief Brian Pattie to find a little more speed in his No. 15 Toyota.
Then there is the matter of what all his fellow competitors are thinking. It's very likely that one or more of them might not treat him too kindly if it gets late in the Chase and he's still in the championship hunt, given what he did at Richmond. Jeff Gordon, for one, might not flinch at booting him if given the right opportunity.
Chicagoland Prediction: He has never won at this track, but he has performed consistently well. He has six top-10 finishes, including a fourth in 2010, in seven career starts per racing-reference.info. And while race-car drivers generally are good at blocking out distractions, the strange cloud of circumstances hovering over him make it seem more likely that karma will dish out a tougher, top-15-type finish this time that will have him lagging behind the other Chasers.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Rank: 10
Why He's Here: With only five top-five finishes this season and only one at a Chase track (fifth at Phoenix in the second race way back in March per racing-reference.info), it's going to be difficult for him and his No. 88 Chevrolet team to flip a switch and suddenly be more competitive over the final 10 races.
Oh, did we mention that Earnhardt also is working on another winless season?
Keys to Chase Success: If there is one thing Earnhardt can do at times, it's get on a roll where he can put together consistent top-10 finishes. When you're competing against 42 of the other best stock-car drivers in the world, that's pretty good. When you're in a tight Chase against 11 of the best of the best of a single season, it's not good enough to win a championship. But it could secure him a higher points finish and a bigger bonus check at the end of the season.
Chicagoland Prediction: Earnhardt does have one career win at Chicagoland. And even though it came back in 2005, can you imagine how fired up Junior Nation would be if he could pull off another one? He also has finishes of third and eighth in his last two races at the 1.5-mile track, so a top-10 finish is not out of the question at all. Junior won't win, but he will keep everyone on their toes for at least another week.
9. Ryan Newman
Previous Rank: 12
Why He's Here: Hello, Newman. Good-bye, Truex Jr. Not only did NASCAR's post-race altering of the Richmond race results get Newman into the Chase at the expense of Truex, but give Newman credit for his gritty effort at RIR. He should have—and would have—won the race if not for the alleged intentional spin by Clint Bowyer with seven laps to go.
Keys to Chase Success: Newman has shown down the stretch of the regular season and especially with his determined run at Richmond that he's not distracted by the fact that he's already been fired by Stewart-Haas Racing. Maybe the knowledge that he already has landed another premier Sprint Cup ride with Richard Childress Racing has calmed him.
Whatever the case, he's suddenly displaying the kind of fire in the belly that might just allow him to make a Cinderella run at this title with his lame-duck SHR team.
Chicagoland Prediction: He's wearing the white hat in NASCAR's current controversial storm and will ride that feel-good momentum to a strong finish at the track where he owns one win, three top-five finishes and seven top-10 finishes in 11 career starts (according to racing-reference.info).
8. Kurt Busch
Previous Rank: NR
Why He's Here: The real Cinderella story of the season belongs to the elder Busch brother and Furniture Row Racing, who have taken this single-car team places no one thought it had the power or resources to reach. And now the pressure is off.
With Busch in the Chase, he can be even more aggressive in trying to win races and make an improbable run at the championship that once, and not long ago, would have seemed utterly impossible. He already has secured a premier ride for next season at Stewart-Haas Racing so he's playing with house money now for this season.
Keys to Chase Success: The key to this team's Chase success lies not in the already proven and capable hands of its driver, but in the pits. His pit crew will have to step it up, limit mistakes and compete on a higher level than it ever has done previously. And on the flip side of that, the driver will have to make sure he doesn't flip out if one of his pit stops doesn't go quite as planned.
Chicagoland Prediction: With zero top-five finishes in 12 career Chicagoland starts, it's unrealistic to think this is where he might win. But he does have six top-10 finishes at the track, and that's the kind of start he needs to hope for to keep his Chase championship dreams alive for the time being.
7. Joey Logano
Previous Rank: 8
Why He's Here: Logano seems poised to build off a solid finish to the regular season if he can shake off survivor's guilt (meaning he really shouldn't be here in the Chase at all, given that the alleged intentional spin by Bowyer at Richmond inadvertently benefitted Logano at the expense of Jeff Gordon).
Yes, he inexplicably failed to run well at RIR and it nearly cost him, but that doesn't change the fact that over the nine races prior to that, only two other drivers scored more points than him (Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch, per the Charlotte Observer).
Keys to Chase Success: Build off the confidence and momentum accumulated during the six races prior to the 22nd-place struggle at Richmond, and he'll be fine.
Logano's No. 22 Ford team actually started to show signs of life even before that, but had their progress up the points food chain stunted by back-to-back 40th-place finishes at Daytona and New Hampshire in July. Those finishes seem like anomalies now, but one of those in the Chase could cook his championship hopes for good so they'll need to be averted.
Chicagoland Prediction: He's never led a single lap at the track and has only one top-10 finish in four career starts, per racing-reference.info. He's more likely to rally and take a stand the following week at New Hampshire, where he has experienced success despite July's rough finish. A middle-of-the-pack finish amongst his fellow Chase competitors, somewhere around a top 12 overall, seems likely for Chicago.
6. Kasey Kahne
Previous Rank: 4
Why He's Here: There have been times this season when Kahne looked every bit the solid championship contender. Then there have been times when his No. 5 Chevrolet team has looked out to lunch when it was dinner time for everyone else. It's difficult to know which group will show up for the Chase, if they'll be able to sustain success if they have it early, or if they'll fold quickly if they don't.
Keys to Chase Success: Failing to get inside the top 10 in points by the end of the regular season cost him six possible bonus points that he would have earned for his two race victories if he wasn't a Chase wild-card entry. He can't think about that now.
In fact, no one has ever questioned Kahne's ability to drive a fast race car to the front at virtually any race track. To be a champion, he will have to improve at coaxing better finishes out of the car on the days when it isn't capable of winning.
Chicagoland Prediction: Although he's never won at Chicagoland, he has contended. Last year in his first run for Hendrick Motorsports, he started sixth and finished third according to racing-reference.info. Another strong run like that could be in order, as he frequently has followed up poor finishes with good ones this season.
5. Kevin Harvick
Previous Rank: 5
Why He's Here: During a season in which three drivers somehow made the Chase despite the knowledge at some point that they were going to be driving elsewhere beginning next season, Harvick is the poster boy for the lame-duck teams. He and his No. 29 Chevy team have performed at a high level all season, despite the fact that it was announced before it even got under way that he would be leaving Richard Childress Racing at season's end for his new gig at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Keys to Chase Success: Continue to operate under the rallying cry to win one for Richard! What better way could there be for Harvick to wrap up his long run at RCR than to go out a champion? He'll need to get off to a good start, but he has had past success at Chicagoland and New Hampshire—the first two Chase stops.
Chicagoland Prediction: The winner of the first two Sprint Cup races held at the venue, he needs to rediscover his old Chicagoland magic. It's been more than a decade now since the second of his back-to-back wins on the 1.5-mile track, but he finished second there in 2011 and also has a third and two fourths in his 12 career starts per racing-reference.info. He will contend for the win.
4. Carl Edwards
Previous Rank: 7
Why He's Here: It was a long time between wins one and two this season, but the fact is that by winning at Richmond in the regular-season finale Edwards, showed the muscle that will be required to contend in the Chase. His first win came in the second race of the season at Phoenix, a track that will be visited again in the next-to-last-race of the Chase.
Keys to Chase Success: If he can coax better Chase results out of Dover, Kansas, Martinsville and Charlotte while duplicating or even better what he accomplished earlier this season at aforementioned Phoenix, New Hampshire (eighth), Talladega (third) and Texas (third), he will be in the mix when the circus arrives at Homestead-Miami Speedway for its final act of 2013. He'll have to win at least one of those along the way, of course.
Chicagoland Prediction: He's never won at the track, but he's been close. He finished third at Chicagoland in 2007, second in 2010 and fourth in 2011. Maybe he's due. Regardless, he is expected to run toward the front and contend. A top-five finish would be a great Chase start.
3. Matt Kenseth
Previous Rank: 2
Why He's Here: What a first year it has been at Joe Gibbs Racing for Kenseth. With five wins already, he officially enters the Chase as NASCAR's top seed. The only reason he's not ranked accordingly here is that only one of those wins earlier this season came at a track that will be visited again during the Chase, and he's been too inconsistent overall.
Keys to Chase Success: To stay in the title hung over the long haul, he'll need to avoid a 40th-place hiccup like the one he had during the season's first stop at Dover. And he'll likely have to keep winning. In both cases, this Chase may be about whether JGR's Toyota engines and other parts are equal to the 10-race test that lies ahead as much as anything Kenseth does behind the wheel.
Chicagoland Prediction: In each of his last two visits, Kenseth has qualified like a champion (he won the pole in 2011 and was third in 2012 quals). Now he needs to race like one. He's finished second twice previously at Chicago, but his finishes of late haven't matched his qualifying efforts. That needs to change or he'll be staring at a so-so start to his Chase.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Rank: 1
Why He's Here: What? Five Time is no longer at the top of the rankings? Four finishes of 28th or worse for the first time in a Sprint Cup career will do that to a guy, no matter how many titles he's won. But to knock him down any further or dismiss him prematurely from contention to become Six Time would be a mistake. He and crew chief Chad Knaus still know what they're doing when it comes to the Chase.
Keys to Chase Success: Listen to the naysayers, if you must, and laugh it off. The numbers don't lie. In six of the eight races held earlier this year at tracks that will be graced again during the Chase, Johnson has finished sixth or better with one win, a second, a third and two sixths per racing-reference.info.
Chicagoland Prediction: He's never won at this place, but he does have six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 11 career starts. It would be no great surprise whatsoever if Johnson wins this race. Chicagoland is one of only five tracks currently on the Sprint Cup circuit where he's never won and he'd like to cross it off his bucket list while silencing the critics.
1. Kyle Busch
Previous Rank: 3
Why He's Here: There is a feeling in Sprint Cup circles that this might finally be his time. The all-time leader in Nationwide Series victories and 2009 Nationwide champ has never finished higher than fifth in the Chase. He craves a Cup title and appears to finally be displaying the on-track maturity required of a champion in NASCAR's top series.
Keys to Chase Success: There is no question the younger of the Busch brothers and the rest of the team led by crew chief Dave Rogers have plenty of work to do to emerge on top after these next 10 races.
Only one of Busch's four regular-season wins came on a Chase track (Texas) and he had finishes of 37th or worse on three others (Talladega, Charlotte and Kansas). One such finish in the Chase and his championship hopes will be finished, so he knows what must be avoided.
On the flip side, he needs to continue to run well at the other Chase tracks where he forged finishes of fifth or better earlier this season (second at New Hampshire, fourth at Dover and fifth at Martinsville in addition to winning at Texas, according to racing-reference.info).
Chicagoland Prediction: He owns one win and three top-five finishes in eight career starts at the venue, which bodes well for him as he pursues a fast start to his Chase. But in 2009 he blew an engine in Chicago and finished 33rd, according to racing-reference.info. Obviously he can't have that happen again.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz