NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings 2014: Post-Daytona 500 Edition
But who else served notice that they could be forces to be reckoned with this Sprint Cup Series season? Heading into the second event on the 36-race schedule this weekend at Phoenix, who ranks near the top with Junior, and why?
Taking into account not only where they finished at the 500, but how they ran for the majority of the night and throughout Speedweeks, read on for our first 2014 edition of driver rankings.
10. Kevin Harvick
Why he's here: Harvick finished 13th in the Great American Race, but ran up front much of the night until a last-lap wreck cost him at least a top-10 finish and maybe something better. Harvick also finished fifth in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race and was a close second to Matt Kenseth in his Budweiser Duel qualifying race for the 500 before getting disqualified for having "exceeded the maximum split on the track bar," according to NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp via NBCSports.
Daytona 500 performance: The problem was that Harvick appeared to cause the multi-car wreck that also claimed Kyle Busch, among others. Harvick may have been to blame for triggering an earlier wreck, too.
2014 Outlook: So while it wasn't his best night behind the wheel at Daytona, Harvick did show some speed and muscle in the No. 4 Chevrolet he was driving for the first time in a points race for Stewart-Haas Racing. If he's more patient in the races ahead, he'll get better results at the end.
9. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Why He's Here: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished sixth in the 500 in his No. 17 Ford, which was a good sign for him. He's only ranked ninth because he didn't consistently prove he could run up front with the leaders in the Daytona 500, but rather put on a late rush at the end and benefitted from a wreck in front of him on the last lap that took out some top cars.
Daytona 500 performance: At least he stayed out of trouble on a night when so many others found it. That's often the key to surviving a restrictor-plate race. You have to be running at the end to post the kind of finish he did, a simple truth that is much easier said than done.
2014 Outlook: The fact that Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle also ran strong, finishing eighth, appears to be a sign that perhaps this will be a better year for the organization that fell behind quickly last year and never really caught up with the likes of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing.
Stenhouse won Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors last year, but that's an award that has seemed hollow for most winners in recent years. He hardly dazzled anyone with only three top-10 finishes all year and only one finish of better than eighth—a third at Talladega in the 32nd race of the season. He's still dating Danica Patrick, though, so his outlook is good.
8. Kyle Busch
Why He's Here: Yes, Kyle Busch finished 19th after getting caught up in a wreck not of his own doing on the last lap of the 500. But he also led 19 laps in the race and ran up front with the leaders when the time was right. In short, he deserved a better fate. But sometimes that's just the way racing goes down.
Daytona 500 performance: Busch was the leader at Lap 39 when the rains came, prompting a delay of six hours and 22 minutes that was the longest in Daytona 500 history. It could be that his car was set up to run in different conditions than the cool night-time ones that followed after the delay, because it definitely seemed better before the rains than it was after.
2014 Outlook: There is a sense that this may be a make-or-break year for the driver-crew chief relationship between Busch and Dave Rogers, who have experienced some success but continue to look for that breakout year where they actually keep it together long enough to contend for a championship past the first three or four races in the Chase. Last year seemed as if it might be the year when he finished second, second and fifth in the first three Chase races, respectively. But then he finished 34th at Kansas and was removed from serious contention yet again. It's those types of finishes he'll need to avoid this season.
7. Greg Biffle
Why He's Here: Biffle led a total of eight laps en route to finishing eighth. Considering the best he could manage in a much smaller field in his Budweiser Duel qualifying race was 13th, he had to be pleased.
Daytona 500 performance: Biffle is hoping his ability to lead some laps at Daytona is a good sign that the engineers at Roush Fenway Racing and his crew chief Matt Puccia have begun to find more speed in the RFR Fords. Last year he led more than five laps in only three of the season's 36 points races.
2014 Outlook: This is a pivotal year for Biffle, who is entering the final year of his contract with RFR. Biffle, 44, has said he doesn't want to leave the organization that he has called home since 2001—and won both Nationwide and Truck Series titles with before moving up to Cup. Biffle told NBCSports in Daytona that he's close on a three-year extension, which should help him then focus solely on this season that lies ahead.
6. Matt Kenseth
Why He's Here: Prior to finishing a respectable seventh in the 500, he won his Budweiser Duel qualifying race to send notice that that he's prepared to back up last year's runner-up finish in the points race with another strong season.
Daytona 500 performance: It was a vintage Matt Kenseth night in that most of the time, you hardly noticed he was there. But when the time came to get up front, there he was running with the leaders. He has made staying out of trouble and waiting until the right time to make his move into an art form.
2014 Outlook: There is absolutely no reason to expect any kind of big falloff in performance from the consistent, crafty Kenseth, who seemed rejuvenated last year by his switch to Joe Gibbs Racing and driving a Toyota after spending his whole career driving Fords for Roush Fenway Racing.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Why He's Here: Hey, Six Time had to lose at Daytona sometime after sweeping both Sprint Cup races at the track a year ago. Of course, many watching a television replay of his 2013 Daytona 500 victory during Sunday's long rain delay mistakenly thought otherwise, bombarding Johnson with congratulatory texts and tweets hours before he actually finished fifth in the 2014 race.
Daytona 500 performance: Johnson was out front for 15 laps and looked like he might just make good on all the erroneous texts and tweets, but he got shuffled out just a bit at the end of the race and felt fortunate to avoid all the wrecks and come home safely with a top-five finish. He wasn't as fortunate in his Budweiser Duel qualifying race, when he ran out of gas in the middle of the pack on the last lap and helped trigger a wild, multi-car accident.
2014 Outlook: Oh, don't worry. Johnson will be in the hunt for another championship again come Chase time. He's literally chasing down history and determined to catch it with what would be a seventh title, which would tie him for most all-time with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
4. Jeff Gordon
Why He's Here: After wrecking in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race (which wasn't his fault), he finished second behind Denny Hamlin in his Budweiser Duel qualifying race and then a strong fourth in the Daytona 500.
Daytona 500 performance: Gordon's effort was workmanlike. He stayed out of trouble and helped push his faster Hendrick Motorsports teammate, eventual race winner Earnhardt Jr., when he could. All in all, it wasn't spectacular but it was just the kind of solid start to the season Gordon needed and wanted.
2014 Outlook: His own rosy outlook aside, Gordon knew better than anyone that Earnhardt's triumph meant a whole lot to everyone associated with NASCAR. "Congrats to Junior," Gordon told the Orlando Sentinel afterward. "The world is right. Dale Jr. won the Daytona 500. That's a great sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a great one."
3. Brad Keselowski
Why He's Here: Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup series champ, finished third in the 500 behind only Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. He said beforehand and even during the long rain delay that he had a car that he thought could contend for the win, and then he went out and drove like it.
Daytona 500 performance: His best chance to pull out the victory was missed when he started second on a restart with two laps remaining, but had the misfortune of having an old rival—Kyle Busch—lined up behind him. When Hamlin, Busch's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, went one way on the restart, Busch tried to follow in his No. 18 Toyota. That ended Keselowski's chance to win and he had his hands full trying to hang onto third.
2014 Outlook: Last year was flat-out weird for Keselowski, who won his 2012 title while driving a Dodge but tried to defend it in 2013 while driving a Ford. Now he seems more comfortable again in his No. 2 rocket, and crew chief Paul Wolfe has a year of notes to work with that might actually mean something and allow them to contend again.
2. Denny Hamlin
Why He's Here: Hamlin was the story of Speedweeks until Earnhardt Jr. stole his thunder in the 500. He won the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race and his Budweiser Duel qualifying race before finished a close second to Earnhardt on Sunday.
Daytona 500 performance: It's hard to find fault with anything Hamlin did during Speedweeks. In fact, the runner-up finish he registered Sunday may have been his most impressive bit of driving because his team radio kept going out during the race—and driving without a full-time spotter telling you what's happening around you at a place like Daytona International Speedway is dangerous business indeed.
2014 Outlook: Hamlin has the swagger of someone who is ready to contend for a championship again. That seemed to be missing last year after he suffered a back injury early in the year, missed five races, and then tried to fight through the pain to salvage his season. He's healthier, happier and seems to be on the verge of developing great chemistry with crew chief Darian Grubb.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Why He's Here: Junior owned the rain-soaked night at Daytona, ending a stretch of 57 Sprint Cup races since he'd been in Victory Lane (his winless streak officially was at 55, though, because of two races he missed during the 2012 Chase because of a concussion). After finishing second in the 500 three of the previous four years, he was overdue to win it.
Daytona 500 performance: Sure, Earnhardt Jr. had a fast car and couldn't have won without that speed. But he drove a masterful race, holding off pre-race favorite Denny Hamlin down the stretch while leading the last 19 laps at the place where oftentimes the second-place car and driver are able to use the draft to execute a slingshot pass in the final laps.
2014 Outlook: This is the final year he'll have close friend and confidante Steve Letarte as his crew chief, and the pair want to go out in style. (Letarte already has announced he's leaving for the NBC broadcast booth at the end of the season). This was an important step in making that happen as winning even just one race out of the first 26 under the new format adopted by NASCAR virtually guarantees they've already qualified for the Chase that determines the season's champion.