2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 23 Edition
Anyone who watched Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International came away with the feeling that they had just watched something special.
The race on the 2.45-mile road course had a little bit of everything. But most importantly, it had the kind of fantastic finish between eventual winner A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose that is sure to be replayed from video vaults for years to come.
Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com wrote, "In 212 prior starts, Allmendinger's best finish was a second at Martinsville Speedway in April 2012, but he never put a foot wrong on this day, waging a sensational fight with Ambrose over the final 10 laps, including a two-lap, green-flag shootout at the end."
It reminded everyone of how great the racing could be in the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup, which will now include the popular Allmendinger from the upstart, single-car JTG Daugherty racing team that includes former NBA standout Brad Daugherty among its owners.
See how it and the performances of others on the road course impacted this week's Bleacher Report driver rankings, which are based not only (but largely) on who's winning but also on who has the most momentum going forward, which drivers are clicking best with their crew chiefs and pit crews, and what it looks like for them around the next left turn (now that there are no more road courses left on the 2014 schedule).
10. A.J. Allmendinger
Previous Ranking: Not ranked
Why He's Here: A performance like the one Allmendinger put on for the single-car JTG Daugherty race team at Watkins Glen deserves a visit to the B/R top 10. Knowing their resources can't match those of NASCAR's top multi-car superteams, Allmendinger's No. 47 team decided to bet it all on performing well at the road courses, where they tested vigorously in the hopes of producing a victory like the one that transpired on Sunday.
Allmendinger, though, had to get it done behind the wheel and was nothing short of brilliant all day—especially so in the closing laps when another road-course ace, Marcos Ambrose, pushed him to the limit again and again and again.
Key 2014 Moments: It's pretty obvious that the Watkins Glen moment tops the list, but don't forget Sonoma—the other road course where Allmendinger also tested, qualified second and led 35 laps before getting wrecked and finishing 37th. Driver and team did not let that get them down. If anything, it seemed to sharpen their focus for the second and final road-course opportunity of the season at The Glen.
What's Next: It could be back to reality very quickly for Allmendinger, who has never had so much as a top-10 finish at the next two tracks on the schedule—Michigan and Bristol.
9. Matt Kenseth
Previous Ranking: 9
Why He's Here: He battled to a ninth-place finish at Watkins Glen, despite the fact that he generally doesn't like or do very well on road courses. Kenseth still hasn't won a race this season, but his 14 top-10 finishes are surpassed only by the 15 recorded by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
Key 2014 Moments: Kenseth has finished third twice (in back-to-back races at Charlotte and Dover) and has finished fourth five times. But he hasn't been able to close the deal in any race when he's been in contention and run up front—which will be a real problem if he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff can't get it solved by the time the Chase starts.
The good news is that he almost will certainly qualify for a Chase spot even if he doesn't win a race before then, as he's currently the highest winless driver in the point standings. It would take four different first-time 2014 race winners over the next four races to knock him out.
What's Next: Kenseth no doubt has the next two weekends circled on his racing calendar. He has won a combined five times in his career at Michigan (twice) and Bristol (three times).
8. Kyle Busch
Previous Ranking: 5
Why He's Here: Since back-to-back second-place finishes that made it seem like Busch's No. 18 Toyota team was building momentum, he has finished 42nd at Pocono and 40th at Watkins Glen. Whatever could go wrong, did seem to go wrong—from a gas can getting stuck in the car as Busch pulled away on pit road at The Glen, which led to Busch getting impatient and tearing up his car, to an engine failure just 23 laps into the Pocono race.
Key 2014 Moments: Prior to his most recent two poor finishes, he finished second in three of the previous four races. But here is the problem: Over the last 10 races, he has had four finishes of 40th or worse. It will take just one of those in the Chase to end his championship hopes.
What's Next: He has one win in 19 career starts at Michigan and might have a better chance of righting the listing No. 18 ship the following week at Bristol, where he owns five wins and 12 top-10 finishes in 19 career starts.
7. Carl Edwards
Previous Ranking: 8
Why He's Here: While the headlines all went to Allmendinger and Ambrose for their dramatic duel at the end of the race at The Glen, Edwards was right there pushing them, along with Kurt Busch. Edwards ended up fourth, but it was a valiant effort considering his lame-duck situation with his current No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team. (RFR already has announced that Edwards won't be back next season).
Key 2014 Moments: Until he won at Sonoma earlier in the year, Edwards was considered perhaps the best road-course racer to have never won a Cup road race. Now the secret is out on that. The secret also appears to be out on where Edwards will be driving next year, although both Edwards and J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, have been consistent in saying no announcement concerning a fourth JGR team or its driver will be made until September. Edwards' other win this season came at Bristol.
What's Next: Edwards called his earlier 23rd-place finish at Michigan, in manufacturer Ford's backyard, the "low point of the season," per FoxSports.com. He won the next week at Sonoma. It will be interesting to see how the team does at Michigan this time around and whether or not he can repeat as a winner on the short track at Bristol after that.
6. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Ranking: 4
Why He's Here: Johnson and the usually formidable No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team are struggling again. They went through one of these stretches earlier this year and also last year at right about this same point in the season, so there is no reason to overreact. But the facts don't lie: Their best finish in the last five races was 14th at Indianapolis, and Johnson has finished 28th or worse in the other four.
Key 2014 Moments: Johnson is one of only three drivers with three victories on the season, with the other two being his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski from Team Penske. Johnson's wins came in a flurry—three in a four-race stretch that began with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, continued the following week at Dover and then ended with a win in the first Michigan race in mid-June.
What's Next: Well, he won the last time he was at Michigan—ending a 24-race winless streak at the track for his career. Can he do it again this weekend to get his team back on track? Then it's on to Bristol, another place where he's struggled much of his career—with only one win and seven top-five finishes in 25 career starts.
5. Kevin Harvick
Previous Ranking: 6
Why He's Here: It appears the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team that includes crew chief Rodney Childers finally is starting to jell, and maybe at just the right moment. Harvick finished second at Pocono and followed that up with a seventh-place run at Watkins Glen.
Key 2014 Moments: Harvick has finished eighth or better in the last three races, with his runner-up effort at Pocono marking the fourth time he's finished second this season. Throw in his two dominating wins at Phoenix and Darlington earlier in the season, plus the kind of consistency he's finally starting to display, and he's starting to look like a probable championship contender again.
What's Next: Harvick owns one win each at Michigan and Bristol in a combined 54 career starts, as well as 15 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes. One of his four runner-up finishes came at Michigan earlier this season when he started from the pole—while he crashed out at Bristol and finished 39th.
4. Joey Logano
Previous Ranking: 7
Why He's Here: In his last three races, Logano has finished fifth at Indianapolis, third at Pocono and sixth at Watkins Glen. It's his best three-race stretch since he won two out of three all the way back in April.
Key 2014 Moments: Logano's two victories came at Texas and Richmond earlier in the year, but then he embarked on a 10-race odyssey where he would be competitive one week and finish poorly the next. That's what makes his current streak encouraging, as it's coming at the right time with the Chase for the Sprint Cup right around the next few left turns.
What's Next: He went through a stretch where he was pretty horrible at Michigan, but that was when he drove for Joe Gibbs Racing. Since coming over to Team Penske Ford, he's finished ninth twice and won once at MIS. He has not fared well at Bristol with no wins, one top-five and two top-10 finishes in 11 career starts.
3. Brad Keselowski
Previous Ranking: 2
Why He's Here: Yes, he finished 35th at Watkins Glen. But he appeared to possibly have a contending car until brake issues did him in. He's not far removed from the hot stretch when he won two of three races, and the sense is that he and crew chief Paul Wolfe are on the cusp of getting on another one.
Key 2014 Moments: He won at Kentucky and then won again two weeks later at New Hampshire. He and his team seemed to be on track to possibly another special day at Watkins Glen when the bad luck of an apparent broken brake line did them in. His other win this season came early at Las Vegas, as he, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. remain tied with a series-high three wins apiece.
What's Next: Keselowski appears to be at his best when he has a bit of extra motivation, and he really wants to win at Michigan in manufacturer Ford's backyard for owner Roger Penske. He finished third there in mid-June. And while he has yet to win at MIS, he's won twice in nine career starts at Bristol and should be a factor under the lights there.
2. Jeff Gordon
Previous Ranking: 1
Why He's Here: Gordon's roll of late was slowed mysteriously when his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet suddenly lost power after he dominated much of the early going at Watkins Glen. That relegated him to a 34th-place finish when it looked like he might contend for his second win in three weeks and third overall of the season.
Key 2014 Moments: Gordon won at Indianapolis and finished sixth at Pocono in the two races prior to Watkins Glen. His 15 top-10 finishes for the season are tied with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most in the Sprint Cup Series, but he lost the points lead to Earnhardt by virtue of what transpired at The Glen. (Gordon's team later determined the loss of power was because of a bad electrical connection that caused both his car's main battery and backup battery to go dead after he had led the first 29 laps in the race.)
What's Next: Gordon's career statistics at the next two tracks are staggering for their sheer volume. He has two wins, 18 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes in 43 starts at Michigan, and five wins, 16 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes in 43 starts at Bristol.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Ranking: 3
Why He's Here: No driver in the Sprint Cup Series has more wins. No one has more top-five finishes. And only Jeff Gordon has the same number of top-10 finishes. Enough said.
Key 2014 Moments: Along with his three wins, he has 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in this remarkable season, his last with crew chief Steve Letarte—who already has announced he's leaving at the end of the season for the NBC broadcast booth. From the start of the season, which began with a win in the Daytona 500, they've played this out like they intend to do something special. They've already done that but now want to finish it off with Earnhardt's first Cup championship.
What's Next: Prior to this season, when he backed up the Daytona 500 win by sweeping both Pocono races, Michigan was the only track where he had won a points race in the previous seven seasons (he won at MIS once in 2008 and once in 2012). He has one win at Bristol, but that was in the night race back in 2004. Then again, in this season, who knows?
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now covers it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow Joe on Twitter @OneMenz.