2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 18 Edition
Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway last Saturday night in a race car all decked out for the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, and he did it in absolutely dominating fashion.
But what did that do for him in the latest Bleacher Report driver rankings?
Considering they are based not only on race victories (although those are most important), but also on the momentum of his race team, the chemistry he currently enjoys with crew chief Paul Wolfe and his pit crew and whether or not it seems the gang back at the Team Penske race shop is consistently building him fast race cars, there are a number of variables involved.
Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford, did learn one important lesson when he suffered a cut on his right hand that required four stitches after he attempted to bust open a bottle of champagne during his Victory Lane celebration at Kentucky. "We were playing around with some champagne bottles and as I told my good friend, 'We should have stuck with beer,'" Keselowski told reporters afterward, via FoxSports.com.
Points will not be deducted for the harmless post-race mishap. Read on to find out where not only Keselowski currently stands, but which other drivers make up the latest top 10 as the Sprint Cup Series prepares to head to Daytona International Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the next two races.
10. Ryan Newman
Previous Ranking: Not Ranked
Why He's Here: Hello, Ryan Newman. Although new to the 2014 B/R top 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver rankings, he's quietly earned his way here with consistently solid finishes that included a third at Kentucky, which moved him up to eighth in the points standings.
Key 2014 Stats: Newman's strong finish at Kentucky was his best of the season, but it was also his first top-five finish, so he still has plenty of work to do in the No. 31 Chevrolet in his inaugural season with Richard Childress Racing. The fact that he's led a total of only 10 laps all season is all you need to know about why he has yet to visit Victory Lane. It's obvious RCR as a whole, and crew chief Luke Lambert in particular, need to find him some more speed.
What's Next: This should be a good stretch coming up for Newman, who won the Daytona 500 in 2008. But it's the track the series visits after Daytona that he'll likely enjoy the most. New Hampshire Motor Speedway is one of only two tracks at which Newman has won three times (Dover is the other). He's also won seven poles there.
9. Matt Kenseth
Previous Ranking: 10
Why He's Here: After winning a series-high seven races and finishing runner-up to six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson last year, Kenseth still has yet to win a race this season. That's disconcerting. But Kenseth told reporters after Kentucky, per FoxSports.com, that he believes he is getting closer to getting back to Victory Lane after a fourth-place finish that left him fifth in the points.
Key 2014 Stats: The top-five finish in the Bluegrass State was Kenseth's sixth of the season, tying him with three others for second-most in Sprint Cup. Only Dale Earnhardt Jr., with nine, has more. Kenseth also has 11 top-10 finishes, and only three others have more—current points leader Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt each have 12. So the consistency is there, even if the wins haven't been.
What's Next: Kenseth owns a whole mess of career top-10 finishes at Daytona and New Hampshire (28 combined), so he's likely to run well. He also has two Daytona 500 wins to his credit (although he's never won the July race) and one win at Loudon.
8. Kyle Busch
Previous Ranking: 8
Why He's Here: The younger of the two Busch brothers, Kyle Busch, owns one win this season, same as big brother Kurt. But Kyle has been far more consistent, though he went through a rough stretch before finishing second at Kentucky.
Key 2014 Stats: Busch's runner-up run at Kentucky broke a string of four straight finishes outside the top 10, including a 42nd-place finish at Dover, a 41st at Michigan and a 25th at Sonoma. The 31 laps he led toward the end of the Kentucky race, before getting caught by eventual race winner Brad Keselowski, also were the first laps he had led in a month—since he led 81 at Dover before being wrecked out of that race by Clint Bowyer.
What's Next: He has one career win each at Daytona and New Hampshire. What Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers need to do after the strong run at Kentucky is build on it and continue to regain some of the momentum the No. 18 Toyota team seemed to lose after Bowyer ruined the team's day at Dover.
7. Carl Edwards
Previous Ranking: 7
Why He's Here: His recent win at Sonoma, Carl Edwards' first on a Sprint Cup road course, was impressive and would have moved him higher in the rankings had he not followed it up with a disappointing 17th-place finish at Kentucky that once again illustrated the lack of speed on 1.5-mile tracks that Roush Fenway Racing drivers are experiencing this season.
Key 2014 Stats: Sandwiched around his win at Sonoma was not only the disappointing finish at Kentucky, but also a 23rd-place run at Michigan in manufacturer Ford's backyard that Edwards said, per FoxSports.com, "was really the low point of the season in my opinion." And prior to Michigan, Edwards got caught up in a wreck (caused by Kyle Busch) at Pocono that relegated him to a 41st-place finish.
What's Next: Edwards is a great driver, and veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig is as wily as they come. But if the boys back at the shop can't find them more speed in Edwards' No. 99 Ford on the bigger tracks, it isn't likely that Edwards will win for the first time in his career at either Daytona or Loudon—where he is 0-for-38 in his career.
6. Joey Logano
Previous Ranking: 4
Why He's Here: Since winning his second race of the season at Richmond in late April, Joey Logano has been solid but unspectacular. He's had fast cars, but he hasn't finished off races the way he was earlier in the year and needs to get back to doing that.
Key 2014 Stats: Logano finished ninth after leading 29 laps at Michigan. He finished ninth again after leading 37 laps at Kentucky. Ninth is not terrible, but it won't win you championships. Since the Richmond victory, he's finished better than eighth only once in eight races (fourth at Kansas).
What's Next: Logano has never won at Daytona in 11 career starts, but he did earn the first victory of his Sprint Cup career at New Hampshire in a rain-shortened race back in 2009. He and crew chief Todd Gordon need to rediscover some of the magic that had them looking more like true title contenders six weeks ago than they do now.
5. Jeff Gordon
Previous Ranking: 6
Why He's Here: Jeff Gordon has one win this season and continues to rack up decent finishes with amazing consistency, which has him at the top of the points standings. He will continue to move up these rankings again as soon as he can start finishing off some of his stronger runs with wins instead of top-five or top-10 finishes.
Key 2014 Stats: Including his win at Kansas in May, Gordon has finished eighth or better in six of the last seven races. That includes his second-place run at Sonoma—which marked his third runner-up finish of the season (he also finished second at Texas and at Richmond). With those kinds of numbers over the long haul, it's no wonder he's leading the points and is squarely in contention for a run at what would be his fifth Cup title.
What's Next: The fact that the 42-year-old Gordon is doing all this while battling a bad back makes it all the more impressive. Now he heads to Daytona, where he's won six times, and Loudon, where he has won three times.
4. Brad Keselowski
Previous Ranking: 5
Why He's Here: Victory Lane celebrations gone awry aside, Keselowski seems zeroed in on what matters again after seemingly getting distracted earlier in the season. That bodes well for a run at the championship he won in 2012 but was unable to successfully defend when he didn't even make the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season.
Key 2014 Stats: The win at Kentucky was his second of the season (he also won at Las Vegas) and locked him into this year's Chase. The way Keselowski has embraced NASCAR's new knockout qualifying setup has been pivotal. He won the Kentucky race from the pole, marking the sixth time this season he has qualified in the top three and then gone on to finish fourth or better in the subsequent race, including in both of his victories.
What's Next: He has never won at either of the next two venues, going 0-for-19 in his career. But he desperately wants a Daytona win on his resume and is fully capable of getting one at some point, so why not now when he and crew chief Paul Wolfe appear to be on a roll?
3. Kevin Harvick
Previous Ranking: 2
Why He's Here: All too often recently at the race track, life has been the pits for Kevin Harvick. He continues to run well, and crew chief Rodney Childers continues to put him in fast race cars with Hendrick-powered engines and sleek bodies built with care by Stewart-Haas Racing. But then his pit crew messes up on race day and leaves Harvick unable to live up to his nickname: Happy.
Key 2014 Stats: Harvick has qualified well this season, going off eighth or better in 11 of the last 13 races. But largely because of a continuing string of pit-road miscues, he has finished worse than where he started in nine of those races. Nonetheless, he still has two dominating race wins to his credit (at Phoenix and at Darlington) and is a threat to get to Victory Lane everywhere he goes—if nothing goes wrong on pit road, of course.
What's Next: Harvick has two wins in his career at Daytona and one at New Hampshire, so he'll again be racing at tacks where he has proved he can get it done. The question, then, is obvious: Can his pit crew?
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Ranking: 3
Why He's Here: Dale Jr. battled to a top-five finish at Kentucky, this after it appeared his car was junk throughout pre-race practices, qualifying and even the early part of the race. That represented his fifth consecutive finish of ninth or better and may have been, in some ways, even more impressive than the two race victories he earned earlier in the year.
Key 2014 Stats: The 54 laps he led in his season-opening Daytona 500 win remain the most Junior's led in any event this season. He led only 11 in his win at Pocono and has led only one in the last three races combined. Yet he always seems to be lurking near the front, unlike in seasons past, when he seemed to have difficulty pushing through the adversity that every team faces at one point or another during a race day.
What's Next: Obviously, he's always a threat to win at Daytona, where he's won two Daytona 500s and arguably one of the most emotional, dramatic July Daytona races in the history of NASCAR in 2001, less than five months after his father's death at the same track in a last-lap accident during the 2001 Daytona 500. On the other side of the ledger, Junior has never won at New Hampshire in 29 career tries.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Why He's Here: When President Barack Obama (pictured above, left of six-time Cup champ Johnson) calls you "the Michael Jordan of NASCAR," per USA Today, you know you're doing something at a level that mere mortals struggle to comprehend. So it is with Johnson, who is the only driver this season with three victories to his credit as he continues to chase NASCAR history. If he can successfully defend the championship he won last year, he will tie Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty for the most titles of all time in NASCAR's premier national touring series.
Key 2014 Stats: Johnson struggled mightily in the most recent race at Kentucky, but he still managed to record his seventh consecutive top-10 finish. Included in this streak were race wins at Charlotte, Dover and Michigan—which came over a remarkable four-week stretch and reminded everyone of who's the commander in chief in the Sprint Cup Series.
What's Next: Johnson has three career victories at each of the next two tracks, and whatever issues he and crew chief Chad Knaus seemed to be experiencing earlier in the year are long gone now. A few more well-timed wins and Johnson will be on his way to visit Obama in the White House again this time next year.