2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 20 Edition
There is movement and grumbling at the top of the Bleacher Report NASCAR Sprint Cup driver rankings.
While Brad Keselowski obviously is on the move in the right direction with two victories in the last three races, how about a shoutout for the manufacturer of the race car he and others drive? That would be Ford, of course.
Keselowski drives the No. 2 Ford for Team Penske, and his win at New Hampshire gave Ford its fourth consecutive Sprint Cup win for the first time since 2001. It came on the heels of Carl Edwards' win in the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford at Sonoma, Keselowski's win at Kentucky and Aric Almirola's win at Daytona in the No. 43 Ford he drives for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson wrecked out of two races in a row in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and disagreed with Goodyear when the tire manufacturer blamed his tire issues at New Hampshire on Johnson's team failing to inflate his tires to the recommended pressure.
"I can promise you one thing, it wasn't low tire pressure," Johnson insisted to reporters afterward, via FoxSports.com's Jay Pennell.
Now, with just seven races left before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, see which drivers are positioning themselves to best handle all the pressure that is on its way.
10. Aric Almirola
Previous Ranking: Not Ranked
Why He's Here: This is courtesy of his win in the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 4 weekend. It was Aric Almirola's first career Sprint Cup victory and the first since 1999 for the No. 43 car he drives that Richard Petty made famous.
Key 2014 Moments: Nothing tops what happened in Daytona, when Almirola was out front on Lap 112 of a scheduled 160-lap race as the rain came one last time. The victory came on the 30th anniversary of Petty's 200th and final Cup win, which came in front of President Ronald Reagan—who sat down for a July 4 picnic with the King and Bobby Allison in one of NASCAR history's true iconic moments. More importantly for Almirola in present day, it pretty much locked him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
What's Next: It is important for Almirola to build on his good fortune in Daytona, and he didn't last week when he struggled to a 23rd-place finish at New Hampshire that left him 22nd in the points standings. Next up after a week off is Indianapolis, where he has made just two career starts with a top finish of 17th.
9. Matt Kenseth
Previous Ranking: 9
Why He's Here: Matt Kenseth finished fourth in two of the last three races, including at Kentucky and at New Hampshire. So he continues to get good finishes and seems to be closing in on his first victory of the season.
Key 2014 Moments: With only seven races left now before the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff, it's important not that he's up to fourth in the points standings, but that he's first in the points among the Chase contenders who have yet to win a race. His seven top-five finishes rank third behind only Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
What's Next: Kenseth has six top-five finishes in 14 career starts at Indy but has never won there. In fact, he has led a total of just 39 laps of 2,038 he has run there, fewer than at every other non-road-course track on the Sprint Cup circuit except for Kentucky, where he has led 38 in four career starts.
8. Carl Edwards
Previous Ranking: 7
Why He's Here: While it's true that Carl Edwards has won two races—at Bristol and on the road course at Sonoma—he and all of his Roush Fenway Racing teammates seem like they're struggling to keep up with the competitive crowd at the important 1.5-mile tracks. Time is running out for them to figure it out.
Key 2014 Moments: Aside from his two victories, Edwards has only two other top-five finishes. And his meager total of 130 laps led over the first 19 races is the fewest of any driver with a win who is in the top 24 in points (Edwards is sixth). Furthermore, if you throw out the two races he won (during which he led a total of 104 laps), he has led no more than eight in any of the other 17 races and led a total of just 26 in those events. Bottom line: His No. 99 Ford lacks speed on the bigger tracks.
What's Next: Edwards has one top-five and three top-10 finishes in nine career starts at Indy. He isn't likely to run up front there, either, having led a total of just six laps at the venue. The only track where he's led fewer laps in his career is the road course at Watkins Glen.
7. Joey Logano
Previous Ranking: 6
Why He's Here: Truthfully, Joey Logano might be ranked a little higher if he hadn't finished 40th at New Hampshire—even though it wasn't his fault. He was running second when 72-year-old (yes, 72!) driver Morgan Shepherd ran into him and ran Logano's No. 22 Ford into the outside wall with just under 100 laps remaining in the race.
Key 2014 Moments: Logano won twice early (at Texas and Richmond), but he has been slowed of late. Of course, at New Hampshire, he was slowed when the slowest car on track, driven by someone nearly half a century older, rammed into the 24-year-old's race car. "I feel like there should be a driving test before you get out in a Cup car to make sure you know how to drive before you drive one," Logano groused to reporters afterward, per FoxSports.com. "I don't know. I guess there isn't."
What's Next: Logano's eighth-place finish last year was his best in five career starts at Indy, where his average finish is only 17.4.
6. Kyle Busch
Previous Ranking: 8
Why He's Here: With second-place finishes in two of the last three races, it appears that Kyle Busch has perhaps emerged from the little slump that, coupled with plenty of bad luck, caused him to finish 25th or worse in four of the previous six races.
Key 2014 Moments: His lone win to date came at Fontana in the fifth race of the season, so he's itching to get back to Victory Lane. It has usually been feast or famine with Busch, though. He has led 31 laps or more in three of his last seven races—and led a total of zero laps in the other four.
What's Next: In nine career starts at Indy, he has two top-five and seven top-10 finishes. He has finished 10th or better in four consecutive races there, including second in 2012. This could be the year he breaks through and wins.
5. Kevin Harvick
Previous Ranking: 3
Why He's Here: Kevin Harvick has finishes of 39th and 30th in his last two races at Daytona and New Hampshire. But he also has two victories, earned earlier this season in dominating fashion both at Phoenix and Darlington.
Key 2014 Moments: Since repeatedly calling out his pit crew over costly mistakes, via Sporting News, the chemistry on his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet team seems to have suffered. Harvick hasn't led a single lap in the last three races combined. Prior to that, he hadn't gone even two races in a row all season without leading at least one lap.
What's Next: He enjoys running at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he won in 2003 and has a total of four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 13 career starts. But most of that success came earlier in Harvick's career, as he hasn't finished higher than 11th since running second there in 2010.
4. Jeff Gordon
Previous Ranking: 5
Why He's Here: Despite two subpar finishes in a row—12th at Daytona and 26th at New Hampshire—Jeff Gordon remains the points leader. Prior to these last two races, he had finished eighth or better in four consecutive races and in nine of the previous 11, including his one victory of the season that came at Kansas.
Key 2014 Moments: The Kansas victory tops everything, but Gordon's consistency has truly been remarkable—especially considering that he has been hampered by a bad back much of the season. He also was poised to finish much better at New Hampshire, but he got bit by fuel strategy when the race was extended to a green-white-checkered finish and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet ran out of gas.
What's Next: Gordon is always a threat to win at Indy, where he has visited Victory Lane four times in 20 career starts. He owns a total of 11 top-fives and 16 top-10s at the track.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Ranking: 1
Why He's Here: Johnson was No. 1 before wrecking out of the last two races early in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, producing back-to-back 42nd-place finishes. He remains tied with Keselowski with a series-high three race wins, captured over a stretch of four events, beginning with the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway back in May.
Key 2014 Moments: Johnson took issue with Goodyear after the tire manufacturer blamed his issues at New Hampshire on Johnson's team failing to inflate his tires to the proper air pressure. "We've seen some issues with that particular tire here. ... We'll try to dig in and learn more. I can promise you one thing, it wasn't low tire pressure," Johnson insisted to reporters, via FoxSports.com. The real problem with exiting the race so early (on Lap 13) was that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had said beforehand that they were hoping to build up some notes on the track that would help them when they return for the second race in the Chase in September, per FOXSports.com.
What's Next: Like Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, JJ loves Indy, where he has won four times. Don't ever underestimate the ability of the Johnson-Knaus duo to bounce back just when others think they're vulnerable.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Ranking: 2
Why He's Here: Earnhardt is holding steady at second in the points standings, but with two victories to one for points leader Gordon, he's also second in the driver rankings. That's because he's been almost as remarkably consistent as Gordon with his overall finishes, but he owns one more victory.
Key 2014 Moments: Earnhardt also hasn't had a finish as poor as Gordon's 26th at New Hampshire since he finished 26th himself at Talladega back in May, when he laid back in the field in a move he since has said he deeply regrets, according to FoxSports.com. Since then, Junior has finished 10th or better in seven of nine races—including when he registered his second win of the season at Pocono, a track where he used to routinely struggle.
What's Next: He's never done much at Indy, where in 14 career starts he has only one top-five finish. That's the bad news. The good news is that it came just two years ago, when Junior finished fourth, and last year he was sixth—so maybe he's figuring the place out.
1. Brad Keselowski
Previous Ranking: 2
Why He's Here: Tied with defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson for most wins on the season with three after capturing the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Keselowski and his No. 2 Team Penske Ford team have taken on the persona of a confident team ready to contend for the championship all the way to the end. No team has more momentum right now—or better chemistry.
Key 2014 Moments: Keselowski won the 2012 Cup championship, but he failed to make the Chase last season and has used that as a motivator this season. Now, he is beginning to believe he and his team are on the fast track to another title. "I think we're close, but I want to keep pushing, and I'm committed to getting another championship," he told Motorsport.com.
What's Next: Keselowski has two top-10 finishes in four career starts at Indy but is just the kind of driver with a sense of history in his sport who understands what it would mean to win at a track so rich in tradition. Plus, he'd like to win there for his owner, Roger Penske. Don't count Keselowski out.
Unless otherwise noted, information for all slides was obtained firsthand by the writer.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.