2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 16 Edition
It isn't a runaway—yet. But there is some separation beginning to occur at the top of the Bleacher Report NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings.
The Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have helped see to that. They've won the last two races, and Johnson has won three of the last four overall to make everyone feel silly about fretting over what had been perceived by many as a slow start to his 2014 season.
Johnson and Earnhardt are half of the group of four drivers with more than one victory already in the bank, meaning their places in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that determines the season's champion over the final 10 races are secure.
See how everyone else stacks up based not only—but largely—on the number of race wins they've earned. They also are being judged on how consistently fast they are, how many laps they've led recently, how they've finished and the current state of chemistry between them and the rest of their teams, particularly their crew chiefs.
10. Matt Kenseth
Previous Ranking: 9
Why He's Here: After struggling to his worst back-to-back finishes of the season in the last two races at Pocono, where Matt Kenseth finished 25th, and at Michigan, where he placed 14th, last year's Sprint Cup runner-up remains without a race victory as the halfway mark of the season rapidly approaches. Consistently solid finishes without a win may not be enough to get him into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Key 2014 Stats: Kenseth led no laps at Pocono and only two at Michigan, a track where he has performed well in the past. That gives him 323 laps led over the first 15 races and puts him on pace to lead about 775 for the entire 36-race season—or more than 1,000 laps shy of the career high 1,783 he led last year while also winning a career-high seven races.
What's Next: He's never been fond of the road course at Sonoma, where he has zero top-five finishes and only one top-10 with an average finish of 20.7 in 14 career starts. So he'll be happy to put this week in the rearview mirror and move on to Kentucky Speedway, where he has one win and has not finished outside the top 10 in three career starts.
9. Denny Hamlin
Previous Ranking: 10
Why He's Here: At Speedweeks in Daytona at the very beginning of the season, Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing organization seemed a step ahead of everyone else—including Hendrick Motorsports. That supposed edge has not held at the 1.5-mile intermediate tracks or really anywhere else, as Hendrick in general—and drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in particular—have improved their overall performance.
Key 2014 Stats: Hamlin finished fifth at Dover and fourth at Pocono, which is one of his favorite tracks, before stumbling to a 29th-place finish at Michigan, where he finished two laps down to race winner Johnson. Hamlin's only win came at Talladega, but he absolutely must start displaying more prowess on the 1.5-mile tracks if he hopes to challenge in the Chase.
What's Next: Hamlin almost always has struggled at Sonoma in his career, with finishes of 34th, 37th, 35th and 23rd in his last four races on the road course. The only exception was a fifth-place finish there in 2009. He finished third at Kentucky two years ago, but he crashed last year and had to settle for 35th.
8. Kyle Busch
Previous Ranking: 6
Why He's Here: When Kyle Busch won at Fontana and then ripped off three finishes of sixth or better—including a pair of thirds—over the next four races, he looked like he might be the man to beat this season. Since then, he's fallen on some hard times and hasn't handled it exceptionally well, as evidenced by a reprimand from car owner Joe Gibbs, who, according to Fox Sports, was not amused by Busch's "potty mouth" over the team radio at Pocono.
Key 2014 Stats: He crashed out at Dover and finished 42nd after leading 81 laps, but it was Clint Bowyer's fault and not his. At Pocono, though, Busch continued to antagonize Kasey Kahne and probably now has made an enemy on the track for life, appearing to run Kahne into the outside wall at a point in the race where the overly aggressive move just made no sense. Then he was running inside the top 10 at Michigan when a rear-hub issue caused him to take his No. 18 Toyota to the garage for repairs on Lap 71 of the 200-lap race, relegating him to a 41st-place finish.
What's Next: Since winning at Sonoma in 2008, Busch hasn't finished higher than 11th on the road course. But he does have the one win there and another at Kentucky in only three career Cup starts, so he enters these next two races with high hopes of turning his recent misfortunes around.
7. Carl Edwards
Previous Ranking: 7
Why He's Here: As rumors continue to swirl that Carl Edwards will be leaving Roush Fenway Racing when his current contract expires at the end of this season, per Fox Sports' Larry McReynolds (h/t FanSided's Christopher Olmstead), he continues to offer no comment on the subject as he attempts to plow ahead in his No. 99 Ford. The problem is, that's exactly what his current race car does all too often on the race track—it plows ahead instead of sailing along like many of the others driven by his fellow competitors.
Key 2014 Stats: Since finishing fourth in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway last month, he's finished 14th at Dover, 41st after getting caught up in a wreck not of his doing at Pocono (it was the same one involving Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, as a matter of fact) and 23rd at Michigan. In none of those events did he manage to lead a single lap. Throw out the 78 he led at Bristol in his only win of the year, and he's led a total of only 26 laps in the other 14 races combined.
What's Next: He's never won nor been in contention very often at Sonoma or Kentucky, the next two tracks on the Cup schedule. This is beginning more and more to look like it will be a lost season for Edwards and that he then will begin driving for someone else next season. He looks like a driver in need of a change.
6. Jeff Gordon
Previous Ranking: 4
Why He's Here: Jeff Gordon is back in the Sprint Cup points lead, where he has resided in the standings over eight of the last nine races (he briefly dropped to second behind Matt Kenseth after finishing 15th at Dover). Now that he has a win to go with it, his spot on the Chase for the Sprint Cup seems secure—and since no one has been as consistent as him this season, he could be a real threat to win what would be his fifth championship. But he needs to prove he can win more than the occasional race, because he likely will be required to do so in the Chase.
Key 2014 Stats: He led 36 laps before finishing sixth at Michigan. That's significant because it was the fourth time this season he's led 23 or more laps in a race—and you have to lead laps before you score wins. He also has finished in the top seven or better in seven of the last nine races, with a pair of seconds (at Texas and at Richmond) and his lone win at Kansas included in that stretch.
What's Next: Gordon used to own Sonoma, where he has five career victories and also 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in 21 career starts. He hasn't won there since 2006, but he finished second in each of his last two visits. He has finished in the top 10 in all three of his career efforts at Kentucky, including fifth in 2012.
5. Brad Keselowski
Previous Ranking: 5
Why He's Here: In his last three races, Brad Keselowski finished second at Dover, second again at Pocono and third at Michigan while leading a total of 100 laps (of which a race-high 95 came at Pocono). It could be argued that he made a tactical error in the final laps to cost himself what seemed a sure win at Pocono, but he would argue—and has, according to Fox Sports—that his No. 2 Team Penske Ford would have blown an engine if he hadn't, which would make him a hero instead.
Key 2014 Stats: His total of 507 laps led is third in the Sprint Cup Series behind only Jimmie Johnson (1,007) and Kevin Harvick (859). He's led 38 or more in seven of the last 11 races, and it seems only a matter of time until he transfers that ability to run out front in clean air into multiple victories. For now, his only visit to Victory Lane this season came early at Las Vegas.
What's Next: He neither qualifies well nor runs well at Sonoma, where his career-average start is 20.5 and his career-average finish is 19.5. But he likes Kentucky, where he has won once in three tries.
4. Joey Logano
Previous Ranking: 3
Why He's Here: Joey Logano is in a group that includes just four drivers who have won more than one race this season. His two wins (at Texas and Richmond, respectively) came in a span of just three races back in April.
Key 2014 Stats: Logano's total of 476 laps led over the first 15 races ranks fourth in Sprint Cup. But after an earlier streak of six consecutive races when he led 25 or more—and notched his two wins—he went three straight without leading a single lap before getting out front for 29 at Michigan last Sunday.
What's Next: His best finish at Sonoma is sixth, which occurred after he started from the pole in 2011. He finished fourth at Kentucky last year and has long excelled at that 1.5-mile track in the Nationwide Series, so he is expected to be a a threat there.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Ranking: 8
Why He's Here: Who said summer is like kryptonite to NASCAR's Superman, aka Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Since May turned to June and the temperatures started to soar, so has Earnhardt with a ninth-place finish at Dover, a win at Pocono and a seventh at Michigan.
Key 2014 Stats: The win at Pocono gave Earnhardt multiple victories in a season for the first time in a decade—since he won a career-high six in 2004 while still driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He's up to third in points, and if he can keep winning races in the Chase, who knows? This might be the year he finally secures a Sprint Cup championship.
What's Next: Earnhardt has made no secret of his disdain for driving at Sonoma, and it shows. In 14 career starts, he's never finished in the top 10 and has led a total of just nine laps, while his average finish is 21.5. He's much more likely to be a factor at Kentucky, where he started seventh and finished fourth in 2012 and won the pole last year before finishing 12th in the race.
2. Kevin Harvick
Previous Ranking: 2
Why He's Here: It could be argued that Kevin Harvick should have four or five race victories this season. But that wouldn't be doing Harvick or his talented crew chief, Rodney Childers, much justice. They've won twice—at Phoenix and at Darlington—and finished second three times in the last five races (at Kansas, Charlotte and Michigan) when they found themselves just slightly on the wrong side of strategy and/or luck. The bottom line is they are fast every week, and the inconsistencies and mistakes that plagued the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet team earlier in the season seem to be left in the past.
Key 2014 Stats: Only Jimmie Johnson has led more laps than Harvick this season. In Harvick's two wins alone, he led a total of 462—or more than all but three drivers have over the first 15 races combined. He's led 15 or more in seven of the last eight races, which includes four events where he led 63 or more.
What's Next: Harvick has one second and two third-place finishes in 13 career starts at Sonoma, but his poor finishes far outweigh his good ones. He has yet to lead a single lap at Kentucky, where his best finish of 10th came last year.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Ranking: 1
Why He's Here: He's baaacckkk! Now unquestionably the hottest driver in Sprint Cup and arguably the one to beat once again for this year's championship, Johnson won at Michigan last Sunday for his third victory in the last four races. His 13-race winless streak (the last two of last season and the first 11 of this season) already has been rendered meaningless.
Key 2014 Stats: Johnson was consistently leading laps even when he wasn't winning, which was why he and crew chief Chad Knaus were never worried. They knew the wins would come as long as he kept running up front. Now he's the only driver who has led more than 1,000 laps this season, and he has three trips to Victory Lane to show for it.
What's Next: Johnson has worked hard to transform himself into a decent road-course racer over the years, and he has one win, four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 12 career appearances at Sonoma to show for it. He hasn't won at Kentucky—yet. But he's never finished worse than ninth, and that came last year when he led a race-high 182 laps.