2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 14 Edition
Hello, Six Time.
After falling out of the bi-weekly B/R driver rankings for the first time this year—or in any recent year, for that matter—six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson charged hard in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to make it back in a hurry.
Johnson has won the last two points races at Charlotte and Dover, respectively, and now is one of a trio of drivers with two wins apiece this season (Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano being the others). But is it enough to rank Johnson No. 1?
And what about the rest of the top 10? Based not only on number of wins (although that is the No. 1 criteria) but also momentum over recent weeks, communication and chemistry with crew chiefs and pit crews, and whether or not the organization they drive for is consistently placing fast race cars underneath them, read on to see who ranks where this week.
10. Denny Hamlin
Why He's Here: Denny Hamlin seems to be hanging on this season. He's not making up too much ground, but he's doggedly refusing to give any as well. He won at Talladega earlier to likely secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that will determine the season's champion, but he hasn't managed to lead a single lap elsewhere since visiting Victory Lane.
Key 2014 Stats: Like his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates—Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch—Hamlin has struggled to get out front and lead laps this season. His 111 total-laps led are the fewest of any driver inside the top 12 in points who also have a win (Carl Edwards' total of 122 is next fewest).
What's Next: No one seems to love Pocono more than Hamlin, who in 16 career starts has amassed four wins, eight top-five and 10 top-10 finishes while also claiming two poles. If he isn't able to get up front there for more than a few laps, it will be a strong indication that something is wrong with the cars the boys are building him back at the JGR shop. He also owns two career wins at Michigan, the next stop on the Sprint Cup circuit after Pocono.
9. Matt Kenseth
Why He's Here: Kenseth needs to win a race, and he seems ever so close. He finished third at Dover, and his 10 finishes inside the top 10 are the most of any Sprint Cup driver this season. He also took over the de facto points lead from Jeff Gordon after Dover, although that means less than in previous seasons because of NASCAR's new rules governing who gets in the Chase.
Key 2014 Stats: You want to know when a driver is really wheeling it? It's when his average start for the season is 15.8, but his average finish is 9.2. That's what Kenseth has done this season. He has finished third in each of the last two races, including in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
What's Next: He is winless in 28 starts with only three top-five finishes in his career at Pocono, but one of those was a fourth last year so he does have some reason for hope this weekend. He's pretty stout at Michigan, where he has won twice and has 12 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes in 29 career starts.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Why He's Here: The furor over Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s great start to the 2014 season is fading. After winning the season-opening Daytona 500, finishing second in three races and third in one over the next seven events, he's sort of been on a one-on, one-off pattern of decent but not great finishes vs. poor ones.
Key 2014 Stats: One good sign for Junior is that he's already led a total of 190 laps this season. While that isn't a ton, it puts him on pace to lead over 500 for the season. He hasn't led that many laps in a season since 2008—when he led a total of 896 during his first season at Hendrick Motorsports. Of course, he won only one race that season.
What's Next: Michigan is coming up, and that obviously is one of Earnhardt's favorite tracks. Prior to winning the Daytona 500 in February, his only two other wins in a Hendrick-prepared car came at the Michigan track. He has never won at Pocono in 28 career starts.
7. Carl Edwards
Why He's Here: As rumors, courtesy of Fox Sports' Tom Jensen, abound in the Sprint Cup garage that his days at Roush Fenway Racing may be numbered and he may be headed to Joe Gibbs Racing or elsewhere at season's end, Carl Edwards continues to give it the yeoman's effort this season. His No. 99 Ford clearly lacks the speed of many other competitors, but he's pushing it to the limits to get consistently solid results, won one race at Bristol and currently sits third overall in the points.
Key 2014 Stats: Even though he's led laps in three of the last four races, it hasn't been many (four at Charlotte and six each at Talladega and Kansas). Other than Bristol, where he led 78 laps en route to his victory, he has led more than one lap in only one other race—and that was when he led eight in the season-opening Daytona 500 before fading to 17th by the finish.
What's Next: He has two wins each at Pocono and Michigan, the next two tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. Now is the time for him to at least show he can get up front and lead more laps, which always is a precursor to more victories. Otherwise, he's destined for a solid—but hardly spectacular—season and probably will be glad to be running for someone else next season.
6. Kyle Busch
Why He's Here: Forget the fact that he finished 42nd in the field of 43 cars at Dover. (He no doubt wishes he could). Busch may have had the best car, led 81 laps early and was wrecked out of the event when the spotter for Clint Bowyer mistakenly made the wrong call, according to Fox Sports. Earlier, he won both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races and was going for the rare clean sweep of all three NASCAR events on the same weekend.
Key 2014 Stats: He hasn't led as many laps as he usually does either. He's led 19 or more in five of the 13 races thus far, but his current average of 20.3 laps led per event is his lowest since 2007—by a bunch. In the six seasons beginning in 2008, when he averaged 46.5 laps led per event, through 2013, when he averaged 34.1, he's never had such an average below 32.1. That means his No. 18 Toyota has been lacking the speed he needs to run up front where his race cars typically devour clean air like no other, frequently leaving others far behind in his wake.
What's Next: He has one win in 18 career starts at Michigan but none in 18 career starts at Pocono. But he has finished in the top eight at Pocono in five of his last eight races there, including a pair of seconds. How he responds to the misfortune he encountered in the Cup race at Dover will be important.
5. Brad Keselowski
Why He's Here: After a stretch earlier in the season when Brad Keselowski seemed to lose his head and make some overly aggressive—and ultimately very costly—decisions on the race track, he seems to have gathered himself mentally. He finished second to Jimmie Johnson at Dover after running 10th at Charlotte and won earlier in the season at Las Vegas.
Key 2014 Stats: Perhaps no driver (except maybe for his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano) has adapted better to NASCAR's new qualifying rules, which have been in play everywhere except for the season-opening Daytona 500. Keselowski has won two poles, including last week at Dover and has qualified second and started on the outside of Row 1 six times. So he's started from the front row in eight of the 13 races, but he hasn't been able to parlay that into enough good finishes.
What's Next: He usually runs well at Pocono, where he has one win in eight career starts and desperately wants to win for the first time in his career at Michigan in manufacturer Ford's backyard. There is a sense that he and crew chief Paul Wolfe are close to getting on a bit of a run, and it could start this weekend at Pocono.
4. Jeff Gordon
Why He's Here: Gordon's been at or near the top of the points standings all season, dropping from first to second only when he finished 15th at Dover, while Matt Kenseth, the new points leader, was finishing third. He also proved he could win again by going to Victory Lane at Kansas.
Key 2014 Stats: Proving the point of how consistent he has been, the 15th-place finish at Dover was his second-worst of the season (he finished 39th after getting caught up in a wreck at Talladega). He has finished inside the top nine in nine of the first 13 races, including second at both Texas and Richmond before he scored his victory at Kansas.
What's Next: Gordon made news when he told the media at Dover that the back pain he experienced recently during the Charlotte race weekend was so bad that he would have no choice but to contemplate retirement if it continues. So that will be something to watch for the remainder of the season. He has six career wins at Pocono and two at Michigan, so he's always a threat at both places.
3. Joey Logano
Why He's Here: As one of the trio of Cup drivers with two wins apiece, Joey Logano has proven already that he has the speed and the know-how to be a championship contender this season. His two wins came over at Texas and Richmond, respectively, over a three-race span.
Key 2014 Stats: After leading 25 laps or more in six consecutive races and in eight of 10 overall, he failed to lead a single lap at either Charlotte or Dover. He still ran well enough to finish 12th at Charlotte and eighth at Dover. Like his Team Penske teammate Keselowski, he has taken advantage of the new qualifying rules and has started inside the top 10 in 10 of the 12 races in which the new format has been used, including from the pole at Las Vegas.
What's Next: Speaking of poles, under the old format he won two at Pocono and one at Michigan. So he obviously knows how to get around those tracks fast. He also owns one career win at each of the two venues.
2. Kevin Harvick
Why He's Here: Unlike Logano, who failed to lead a single lap at either Charlotte or Dover, Kevin Harvick continued to flash speed that was unmatched by others for long stretches at both tracks. He led 100 laps (out of 400) at Charlotte before settling for second and finished 17th at Dover after leading 24 laps only because he was victimized by a flat tire.
Key 2014 Stats: He has led 15 or more laps in six consecutive races and in nine of the 13 races overall this season, indicating that he and new crew chief Rodney Childers obviously are hitting on the right combinations, despite their lack of time together. His problem has mostly come in the pits, where his pit crew has too often been the pits—and he has let them know it.
What's Next: Harvick has one win at Michigan but is winless in 26 career starts at Pocono with five top-five finishes and nine top-10s. His average finish at Pocono in his last five visits is 14th, with his highest finish of ninth coming one year ago.
1. Jimmie Johnson
PR: Not Ranked
Why He's Here: You knew it was only a matter of time until Johnson started winning races again. And once it happened, when he captured the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, no one was surprised he made it two wins in a row by going to Victory Lane at Dover. He now owns the record for most all-time victories at both tracks (seven at Charlotte, breaking a tie with Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison; and nine at Dover, extending his own record).
Key 2014 Stats: After leading a race-high 272 laps at Dover, Johnson has led 963 on the season—more than any other driver. (Harvick, the previous leader, is now second with 807). So the rumors of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus not exactly seeing eye to eye, which Johnson addressed with Joe Posnaski of NBCSports.com, obviously were greatly exaggerated. Johnson also is up to fourth in the points standings, not that it really matters much now that he has two wins.
What's Next: Now Johnson and Knaus seem poised to go on a real tear. You'll know that's the case if he wins at Michigan, one of the few tracks where he's never won. He does own three career wins at Pocono, though, and might be willing to let someone else visit Victory Lane for a week or two if he makes it three straight victories there.