NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Drivers Coming out of Phoenix
And we're back!
After not ranking anybody post-Daytona (I mean, it's a restrictor-plate race, after all), we return to our usual post-race power-ranking snark this week.
And what better way to start off a slideshow than with a picture of Jeff Gordon next to the construction equipment that will destroy the track on which he just raced?
Anyway, we stay out west this week, heading from Phoenix to Las Vegas, a track that has made more news recently on the IndyCar front than the NASCAR one.
But coming off the momentum of two great races with two great finishes, I don't think it'll be much of a problem.
So let's do this. The top 20 follows shortly...
1. Kyle Busch
Rowdy nearly duplicated his feat at Bristol last year, winning the first two legs of the Phoenix triple header and coming oh so close to winning the Cup race.
Regardless, he holds the points lead by three (three? I hate this new points system...that ain't what was broke) over his brother, Kurt, and remains a candidate for winning his first title this year.
You know, as he does every year.
2. Jeff Gordon
"We just beat Kyle Busch!"
Remember when this was a given, not an accomplishment?
Well, if that word "drive" plastered across Jeff's chest is as reflective of what he's feeling this year as I think it is, it may be once again.
That No. 24 team is good, especially with Alan Gustafson (Busch's first crew chief, remember) on the pit box this year.
That may be just the revitalization Gordon needs.
3. Kurt Busch
I'm wary of the fact that this team was strong early last year, too, and faded down the stretch.
But two wins at Daytona sure make you forget about that sort of thing quickly, right? Or will winning the first two, but not sealing the deal on the third be a Busch brother theme in 2011?
4. Tony Stewart
From the Jeff Gordon Already Did It Department: Stewart and Formula 1-champion Lewis Hamilton will switch vehicles this summer at Watkins Glen as part of a promotion by mutual sponsor Mobil 1.
Bah. I want to see them both in the same car at the same time and racing each other.
That'd be way cooler (oh, also, Stewart finished seventh at Phoenix, leading 59 laps and he is fourth in points).
5. Mark Martin
After recovering from the Big One at Daytona so well, this could finally be the year for Martin.
Yup, this is the one.
I'm not deterred by five second-place finishes in the Cup standings. Not at all. This is the year. This is the year. This is the year...(Martin's 13th-place finish leaves him sixth in points).
6. Ryan Newman
Lead 37 laps at Daytona, finish 22nd. Lead seven laps at Phoenix, finish fifth. Wonder which one Newman's more satisfied with?
He's ninth in points right now, but the Stewart-Haas cars look strong again this year.
7. A.J. Allmendinger
Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I've heard this story before. Third in points early in the season? We've been here before: Remember 2009, when the Petty cars looked like they were going to all be good? Yeah...how'd that turn out?
I'll reserve judgment, but if things drop off like they did that year (24th), expect Allmendinger to try and make that IndyCar run for $5 million in Vegas in October. Richard Petty does have a partnership with Michael Andretti in that series, after all.
8. Carl Edwards
He won the pole. He led laps. Stupid accidents. He's still 13th in points. There are still 34 races to go. He still almost won the Daytona 500.
9. Paul Menard
Thus far, proof that patience pays off. Richard Childress Racing may finally have that fourth team together. Paul Menard may finally be a top-flight Sprint Cup driver.
Or is this just another great start for the family-backed Wisconsinite?
We'll see. Either way, you know, he has been kind of a pleasant surprise all around.
10. David Gilliland
And if Menard is a "pleasant surprise," Gilliland is the driver that nobody saw coming so far.
Who wants to remind Gilly that this isn't Kentucky in 2006, in the then-Busch Series? I don't want to be the guy.
He looks good so far. Real good. And as long as Front Row Motorsports is kind of what Yates Racing turned into, can we, you know, re-number the cars and bring back the No. 28?
I miss it. OK, thanks.
11. Bobby Labonte
The key to Trevor Bayne's Daytona 500 win, Labonte is a lot like Menard and Allmendinger in that he's had some solid early-season starts that have gradually dropped off into mid-pack points finishes.
We'll see what another season without teammates does for him.
It's too bad he never took that Childress ride when he had a chance. Who knows where he might be right now?
12. Denny Hamlin
Some laps led in both races, but no top 10s yet. He is 14th in points. Come on Denny, no time for a championship-loss hangover.
Pick it up in Vegas, more like the three top 10s of your first three starts there than the 22nd and 19th of the past two years.
13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Ninth in points right now, Montoya went from sixth at Daytona to 19th in Phoenix.
But Jamie McMurray's tough luck the past two weeks—finishing 18th at Daytona and being in the Big One at Phoenix—means he is currently the stronger Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver.
14. Kasey Kahne
Phoenix marks Kahne's second sixth-place finish in a Red Bull car in three races.
He's 15th in points due to a less-than-stellar 25th at Daytona.
15. Jimmie Johnson
Why am I ranking Johnson 15th when he finished third in Phoenix and Daytona is obviously a fluke race?
Well, to be quite honest, I wanted to give the little guys, like Paul Menard, David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte, some respect first.
Come on. We hear enough about Johnson as it is in the fall.
16. Trevor Bayne
You know how it goes.
For every beautiful debut performance that makes a lot of money and ends up on a lot of talk shows, there's a crappy sequel soon to come (or, in the case of Rocky, something like five of them).
Rough weekend for T. Bayne, whose Wood Brothers Ford was not auto-tuned for victory this time around—two wrecks in Cup (one in practice) and one for Jack Roush in Nationwide made sure of that.
17. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior responded to a late wreck at Daytona with a top 10 run in Phoenix, coming in third of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers.
He's still adjusting to new crew chief Steve Letarte, who will almost undoubtedly be blamed if this experiment doesn't work. I mean, Letarte got all the blame for Jeff Gordon's struggles the past few years, and Junior fans have a history of blaming crew chiefs, right?
If I'm Letarte, I'm nervous. Real nervous.
18. Martin Truex Jr.
Two so-so finishes, 19th and 14th, leave Truex right about where he should be—16th in points.
But let's not talk about that.
Let's talk about this year's NAPA commercial, with Michael Waltrip in that Liberace suit and the desk piano. Good stuff.
Now if only they can turn that N-N-N-N-NAPA know-how into v-v-v-v-victories.
19. Regan Smith
NASCAR's answer to Rodney Dangerfield, Smith has no luck on plate tracks (remember Talladega in '08... then being everybody's best friend last weekend only to have his own shot at a win affected by a late-race wreck).
He got caught up in a wreck in Phoenix after starting fifth and, according to the B/R photo finder powered by Getty Images, only appeared in one shot taken this weekend...in the background, as the cameraman focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car.
No respect and, even worse, no luck.
I have a bad feeling about Vegas.
20. Brad Keselowski
He crashed in Daytona, he was a lap off the pace in Phoenix, he can't defend his Nationwide title and his bad luck in that series to start the season would be a detriment to that anyway.
Hope that Miller Lite sponsorship provides Brad with all the free beer he wants. If this is a preview of the rest of the season, he may need it.
Sigh. At least his brother made it out to Phoenix too.
That's all for this week.
Hope you enjoyed it. See you next week, post-Vegas. Until then, remember—the house always wins.