2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 4 Edition
So far, this NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has belonged mostly to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But he is being chased furiously in the points by 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who inherited the victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday when Junior ran out of gas coming off Turn 2 on the final lap and had to coast to the finish line from there.
There are other movers and shakers in the Sprint Cup driver lineup. See who's moving up, who's down and what's next, based not only on their own driving prowess but also their crew chiefs' cunning ways, the timing of their risky gambles and where they're off to run at next.
10. Kyle Busch
Previous Ranking: 8
Why He's Here: It seems like Kyle Busch has run better than where he sits here or in the point standings, where he is mired in 10th after the first three races. But the fact is that his No. 18 Toyota was good at the start of the race in Las Vegas and then the handling went away, never to be found again, on the 1.5-mile track. It's better to have the scenario play out the other way around.
Key 2014 Moment: He was staring down a top-five finish in the Daytona 500 when he got caught up in a wreck on the last lap. He led 19 laps in that race and 52 more in Vegas, before mid-race adjustments ordered up by crew chief Dave Rogers seemed to make the car much worse instead of better.
What's Next: He's won five times at Bristol, where the Sprint Cup Series races next. Then it's on to Fontana, where he has won twice. So it would appear that now is the time to do a better job of finishing strong and moving up in the standings and rankings.
9. Denny Hamlin
Why He's Here: Taken on the whole, no driver was better throughout Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway. He won the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race, won his Budweiser Duel qualifying race and finished a close second to Earnhardt Jr. in the Daytona 500. But since then, Hamlin has strangely struggled.
Key 2014 Moment: Following up his tremendous Speedweeks with a lost weekend in Phoenix, a track where he usually excels, was a bit of a shocker. He finished 19th there and then had to fight for every position he got in Las Vegas to finish 12th. It's early, but for now it appears the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas are a bit behind some of the other big teams on the 1.5-mile tracks.
What's Next: Hamlin has one career win at Bristol and none at Fontana. And in three of his last four races at Bristol, he has finishes of 20th, 23rd and 28th sandwiched around that one win. That doesn't appear to bode well.
8. Carl Edwards
Why He's Here: He's actually currently tied for sixth in points with Matt Kenseth and would be in better shape if he hadn't been caught up in the same last-lap wreck that doomed Kyle Busch in the season-opening Daytona 500. Edwards followed that up with solid—but not spectacular—finishes of eighth at Phoenix and fifth at Las Vegas.
Key 2014 Moment: He led eight laps at Daytona and was right in the mix at the end until disaster struck. But he led only a single lap in each of the next two races, indicating that the engineering group at Roush Fenway Racing still needs to find more speed in their cars (something they failed to do virtually all of last year).
What's Next: Edwards has two career wins at Bristol and one at Fontana, so if the RFR gang and veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig can get his No. 99 Ford right, he should be a contender the next two races.
Then again, he last won at both tracks in 2008—the year he won a career-high nine races and contended down to the end for the championship. In the five-plus seasons since then, he's won a total of five races while struggling to lead laps.
7. Matt Kenseth
Why He's Here: He finishes sixth in the Daytona 500 to open the season on a promising note. But after three races, he's led a total of two laps. Last year he led a total of 128 laps in the first three races and already had the first of what would be a career-high seven race wins as he went on to finish second in points to Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.
Key 2014 Moment: Kenseth laid it out in an interview with reporters prior to the Las Vegas race just what last year's great run means now, per Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer: "Success is great while you're having it. But what we did last year has just about zero impact on this year. Some people, they get on a roll, and maybe they get more confident or maybe even arrogant. Some of that works for them. That doesn't work for me."
What's Next: He owns three career wins apiece at the next two stops on the circuit and needs to start putting this season in better perspective. Despite his early struggles, he's still been the best of the trio of high-profile Joe Gibbs Racing drivers.
6. Jeff Gordon
Why He's Here: There is nothing wrong with the start to Gordon's 2014 season. He's finished fourth at Daytona, fifth at Phoenix and ninth at Las Vegas, respectively. The issue is that he's led a total of only four laps in those three races and hasn't seriously contended for the win in any of them.
Key 2014 Moment: Surviving all the wrecks at Daytona allowed him to get the season off to a decent start. Since then, though, he's been solid but unspectacular.
That will permit him to hang around in the point standings, but it isn't enough to earn him the race win that he will need to gain entry into this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. So he and crew chief Alan Gustafson must find more speed in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
What's Next: With five career wins at Bristol and three at Fontana, he should be a threat at each of the next two Cup venues. But you have to start leading laps consistently before you can honestly expect to be the first one finishing a race at the end, and he hasn't proven he can do that yet this season.
5. Kevin Harvick
Why He's Here: Harvick has been hard to figure out early in his first season at Stewart-Haas Racing. He finished 13th in the Daytona 500, then won in absolutely overpowering fashion during a magical race weekend at Phoenix and then finished 30 laps down in 41st because of a brake issue at Las Vegas after leading 23 laps earlier.
Key 2014 Moment: Getting crew chief Rodney Childers to join him for his inaugural season paid dividends at Phoenix and will soon enough again.
Childers has been one of the underrated crew chiefs in the Sprint Cup garage the last few seasons and someday will guide a driver to a championship. He and Harvick are only at the very beginning of discovering what they can do for each other and how they can accomplish this mutual career goal.
What's Next: Harvick has one win each in his career at Bristol and Fontana, but he's run much better at the California track in recent years—with four finishes of fourth or better (including his one win in 2011 and a second in 2010) and a total of eight top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts there. Look for him to contend in Cali.
4. Jimmie Johnson
Why He's Here: Sure, Jimmie Johnson, the defending Cup champion, is third in points and has finished in the top 10 in each of the season's first three races, including fifth at the Daytona 500. But like his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon, he's been solid, and that's about it.
Key 2014 Moment: The fact that he led 34 laps en route to the sixth-place finish at Las Vegas no doubt drew a sigh of relief from crew chief Chad Knaus. It was a sign that he'll likely soon be up to his old dominating tricks at the all-important 1.5-mile tracks, which in turn means he'll likely be in contention for that record-tying seventh championship before this season is over.
What's Next: He's a better threat to reach Victory Lane in his home state at Fontana, where he has won five times in his career, than he is at Bristol, where he's won only once in 24 starts and has an average career finish of 15.6. But the wins will come, and until then, solid finishes are just fine for the No. 48 team.
3. Joey Logano
Why He's Here: Joey Logano finished a respectable 11th in the Daytona 500, then followed that up with head-turning performances at Phoenix and Las Vegas. In Phoenix, he started second and finished fourth; in Vegas, he won the pole and finished fourth. Clearly he's a man on the move in the right direction.
Key 2014 Moment: The most telling statistics of all so far are that he led 71 laps at Phoenix and another 44 at Vegas. He also led two at Daytona. When you run up front consistently like that, it's only a matter of time until the wins start coming.
What's Next: In a combined 17 career starts at Bristol and Fontana, he's never won and has only three top-five finishes. So if he excels in this upcoming stretch, we'll know he's for real. At the very least, it seems Team Penske has something special going on with him and teammate Keselowski.
2. Brad Keselowski
Why He's Here: After winning at Vegas, Keselowski is only one point behind leader Earnhardt Jr. in the season standings. Much like he stalked Earnhardt in the closing laps in Sin City, he's going to continue to be relentless in his pursuit of a better season than the nightmare he lived through in 2013 when he failed to even make the Chase for the Sprint Cup while trying to defend his 2012 championship.
Key 2014 Moment: Whether it's why he won or not, Keselowski put on a show during his late-race duel for the race lead with Earnhardt in Vegas, likely forcing Earnhardt to use more gas than he wanted to stay out front.
Keselowski ended up winning when Earnhardt ran out of fuel coming off Turn 2 on the final lap. That was vintage BK driving and showed that he's more confident driving a Ford for Team Penske this season than he was virtually all of last year after the organization made the switch in manufacturers from Dodge.
What's Next: With two career wins at Bristol, he's always a threat to contend at the .533-mile short track. But he's never finished better than 18th in five career starts at Fontana, with four finishes between 21st and 26th. So Bristol is his best bet to make up more ground on Earnhardt.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Why He's Here: It's hard to start a season better than Earnhardt has in 2014, following up his dramatic Daytona 500 victory with second-place efforts in both Phoenix and Vegas. He would have won at Vegas, too, if he hadn't run out of gas on the last lap and had to coast across the finish line.
Key 2014 Moment: Nothing tops winning the Daytona 500—except winning a championship. Earnhardt put himself in position to at least contend for one with the win and then showed the racing world he means to keep his foot on the gas all season by attempting the fuel-mileage gambit in Vegas. He has led a total of 105 laps in the first three races; last year it took him 23 races before he led that many laps.
What's Next: Hey, he won his only Bristol race in 2004, but he took 10 years between his two Daytona 500 wins, so who knows? He's never won at Fontana, so if he runs strong there, it will be a signal that he's definitely for real this season.