2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 12 Edition
A chaotic last two weeks have caused some shuffling at the top of the Bleacher Report NASCAR Sprint Cup driver rankings.
Jeff Gordon, the points leader most of the season, finally earned his first win of the year at Kansas to go along with all the solid but non-winning runs he had earlier. But then his car burst into flames after hitting the wall during the subsequent Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
So where does that leave him?
It's all based on results, momentum and current chemistry between the drivers and their teams, most importantly their crew chiefs. There is a fine line between getting hot and going up in flames, as Gordon found out.
See who stands where as the Sprint Cup Series prepares to run NASCAR's longest race, the Coca Cola 600.
10. Jamie McMurray
Previous Ranking: Not Ranked
Why He’s Here: In an upset of monumental proportions that seemingly came out of nowhere, Jamie McMurray put on a terrific display of driving in the closing laps to hold off Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and others to win the Sprint All-Star Race and the $1 million that came with it. He hasn’t sniffed a victory in a points race yet, but what he pulled off against the best in the business at Charlotte last Saturday night can’t be totally disregarded.
Key 2014 Moments: Prior to pulling off the All-Star upset, McMurray finished 29th at Talladega and 39th at Kansas in the two races leading up to it to fall to 24th in the points standings. He had qualified to compete in the All-Star event based on his victory last fall at Talladega and had entered that race with high hopes, even though that was his only win in the last four seasons. Furthermore, it’s not like he has even threatened to win a points race this season. He’s led a total of only 10 laps all year—and that all came in one race at Bristol, when he eventually crashed out and finished 38th.
What’s Next: It’s obvious that McMurray and his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet team need to build on the shocking All-Star triumph. Whether or not they can do it remains to be seen, but he has won twice before at Charlotte (in the fall of 2002 and again in the fall in 2010, but never in the Coca Cola 600). He knows he needs a win in a points race to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which he has never accomplished in his 13-year career.
9. Matt Kenseth
Why He’s Here: Matt Kenseth continues to post consistent—but not winning—finishes. And in a season when winning matters more than ever, that’s becoming a bit of a problem for him and defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson—who isn’t even included in the B/R top 10 this week for the first time in years. Kenseth needs to win a race soon, or he’ll slip out, too.
Key 2014 Moments: He finished third in the All-Star Race—but like his other strong finishes this season, it meant next to nothing. That followed another decent, but rather non-descript, 10th-place run at Kansas. Those two races—solid but hardly spectacular—pretty much sum up the season he’s having, and it pales in comparison to last season when he won a career-high seven races during his first year driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
What’s Next: He owns two wins each in his 17-year career at Charlotte and Dover, the next two places where the series races. So now would be a good time for him to win and claim that spot in the Chase, where consistently strong finishes mixed with a win here or there might be good enough to win a championship.
8. Brad Keselowski
Why He’s Here: The 2012 Cup champion, Brad Keselowski, seemed focused and fast earlier in the season. Then he started driving a little too aggressively. That not only cost him chances at some better finishes, maybe even another win or two, but it also ticked off his fellow competitors to the point that it may cost him later in the year when it matters more.
Key 2014 Moments: In consecutive weeks, Keselowski complained bitterly about how Kenseth blocked him while both were going for the win at Richmond (neither got it) and then twice made poor, costly decisions at Talladega. The second of those triggered a 15-car wreck when he was aggressively racing up front with the leaders—even though he was six laps down. Yes, he won at Las Vegas early in the year, and that opened the door for him to be more aggressive until the Chase starts; but you have to be smart about it, too.
What’s Next: Keselowski’s strange season might get stranger before it’s over. His missteps and the fallout from them now seem to be having a negative overall effect on him and his No. 2 Team Penske Ford team. He needs to discover a fine line he can drive where he’s as competitive as possible without putting others in danger or to the point where they'll feel an urge to retaliate somewhere down the line.
7. Denny Hamlin
Why He’s Here: Denny Hamlin bookended a terrific start to his season in Daytona with his one win at Talladega and then went right back to being a bit of a mystery man again just when it seemed he might get on a roll. Now no one, perhaps not even Hamlin himself, is quite sure of what to expect from the driver of the No. 11 Toyota fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing.
Key 2014 Moments: Obviously, he’s been fantastic on the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. He won everything but the Daytona 500 during Speedweeks and finished second then. And he won at ‘Dega. It’s the 1.5-mile tracks and everything else in-between that have been problematic, and that may have to do with what’s happening back at the JGR shop in preparation of his cars (as well as Kenseth’s and Kyle Busch’s) more than anything else.
What’s Next: He’s never fared very well at Charlotte or Dover, where he’s never won in a combined 33 career starts. It will be interesting to see how competitive he is on the concrete "Monster Mile," and it could go a long way toward telling if the boys at the JGR shop have their program moving in the right direction for the rest of the season.
6. Kyle Busch
Why He’s Here: Like his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kenseth and Hamlin, Kyle Busch has struggled on certain tracks in his No. 18 Toyota. He still looked like he was trending upward until he got to one of his least favorite tracks at Kansas, where he finished 15th and then wrecked himself out of the All-Star Race at Charlotte arguably by being too aggressive, too early in the night.
Key 2014 Moments: After winning at Fontana, he finished in the top six in three of the next four races, including a pair of third-place finishes (at Texas and at Richmond, respectively). That offered the perception that his season was beginning to come together, but since then he's struggled.
What’s Next: Surprisingly, he is 0-of-20 in his career in points races at Charlotte, even though he has finished in the top five in nearly half of those (nine total). He's won twice at Dover, so again, these next two races could tell a whole lot about how the JGR boys are doing in building fast—yet durable—race cars.
5. Carl Edwards
Why He’s Here: While rumors swirl about his possible departure from Roush Fenway Racing at season’s end, according to Tom Jensen of Fox Sports, Carl Edwards quietly is putting everything he has into trying to get his No. 99 Ford race team back to where it once was on the 1.5-mile tracks. He finished sixth at Kansas and fifth in the All-Star Race after winning the pole and battling with McMurray at the front on the final restart, both of which are hopeful signs.
Key 2014 Moments: He certainly showed he hasn’t forgotten how to drive a winning race when he took the checkered flag at Bristol earlier in the season. But the fact that he hasn’t led a whole lot of laps overall, especially at the key 1.5-mile venues, indicates that consistent speed has been lacking in his car. That falls mostly on the Roush Fenway Racing engineers back at the shop—and if they don’t find that missing speed soon, it could lead to Edwards’ departure from the organization.
What’s Next: He led six laps in each of the last two points races, sat on the pole and ran up front for much of the All-Star Race—which are all good signs for a team that went the five races before that without leading a single lap. He's never won a points race at Charlotte, but he does have one win at Dover.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Why He’s Here: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has one win, has finished second three times (at Phoenix, Las Vegas and Darlington) and is coming off finishes of fifth at Kansas and fourth in the All-Star Race, respectively, despite telling Fox Sports, per Jared Turner, after the extravaganza in Charlotte that he drove “a dump truck.” Hey, can you imagine what he could do with a real race car?
Key 2014 Moments: Earnhardt had a real race car when he swept to Victory Lane in the season-opening Daytona 500. More often than not this season, in fact, crew chief Steve Letarte has put him in equipment that has enabled him to contend for the win. The driver needs to find a way to start turning some of those top-five finishes into more victories.
What’s Next: He is yet another top driver who surprisingly has never won a points race at his home track in Charlotte, where he has gone 0-of-28 with only five top-five finishes in his career. He owns one career win at Dover.
3. Jeff Gordon
Why He’s Here: Jeff Gordon has been the points leader for much of the season, but it didn’t really carry much weight until he backed it up with a win at Kansas. Now he’s looking for more and likely to get it sooner rather than later, as his chemistry and in-race communication with crew chief Alan Gustafson have never been better.
Key 2014 Moments: Obviously the win at Kansas tops the list. But there have been plenty of other highlights that fell just short of celebrations in Victory Lane, including a pair of seconds (at Texas and Richmond) and a fourth in the Daytona 500. He has finished inside the top 10 in eight of the 11 points races run thus far, including five finishes inside the top five. It seems odd that he led 173 laps at Richmond, only to finish second; but he won at Kansas after leading just nine.
What’s Next: With five wins in his storied career at Charlotte and four at Dover, don't be surprised if win No. 2 of this season comes very quickly for Mr. Gordon. Then again, his last win at Charlotte came in 2007, and his last win at Dover came in 2001—although he has finished second, third and fourth, respectively, in his last three outings on the Monster Mile.
2. Joey Logano
Why He’s Here: As one of only two drivers with a pair of race wins (Kevin Harvick being the other), Joey Logano has been displaying championship-contending mettle all season. He wrecked in the All-Star Race, ending his night early, but a week earlier he had his fourth fourth-place finish of the season at Kansas.
Key 2014 Moments: The spate of solid fourth-place finishes back up his two victories, indicating that his relationship with Team Penske crew chief Todd Gordon, now in its second year, is reaching new heights and reaping high rewards. Logano’s two wins in the first 11 races came at 1.5-mile Texas and the .75-mile short track of Richmond, so he’s showing that his No. 22 Ford can run well at all tracks, no matter the size or configuration. Logano led 63 laps at Kansas and now has led 25 laps or more in six straight races on tracks of varying dimensions.
What’s Next: He has never won at either Charlotte or Dover, but he does have five top-five finishes combined in 20 career starts at the two venues. Plus with the kind of year he’s having, past history at many of these tracks means little to nothing for the surging No. 22 team.
1. Kevin Harvick
Why He’s Here: Kevin Harvick’s here instead of Logano or Gordon because when his car is right, no one has driven better this season. And when his car is right, he’s not just faster than everybody else. He’s downright dominant. He’s also coming off back-to-back runner-up finishes at Kansas and in the All-Star Race at Charlotte, respectively.
Key 2014 Moments: In addition to winning at Phoenix and Darlington, he nearly ran down eventual race winner Jeff Gordon in the closing laps before settling for second at Kansas. He led 119 laps on that 1.5-mile track, marking the third time this season he has led that many laps or more. What that means is that when he and crew chief Rodney Childers have it dialed in, no cars are faster than the No. 4 Chevy Harvick is driving for Stewart-Haas Racing.
What’s Next: The Coke 600 will be only the 12th points race Harvick and Childers have worked together. That’s scary for the rest of the Sprint Cup competition. Harvick also owns two recent wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway after previously struggling on that 1.5-mile track for much of his career. He’s never won at Dover, but he has three top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 26 career starts on the Monster Mile.
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