The 2011 Sprint Cup season is only three races old, but the teams have already had the chance to visit a superspeedway, a flat track and a 1.5-mile track. As the series heads to a bye week before returning to action at Bristol, it’s time to take a look at the 10 best drivers through the first three races.
1. Carl Edwards: His win at Las Vegas all but cements his status as Jimmie Johnson’s biggest threat in 2011. Dating back to last season, he has won three of the last five races, and it is clear that the momentum from the end of last season has carried over.
The Ford drivers keep getting better as the FR9 engines are perfected, and Edwards is the manufacturer’s best driver. He won nine times in 2008, and he could threaten that total this season at his current pace.
2. Tony Stewart: A pit road penalty at Vegas cost him a victory, but Stewart still boasts the top driver rating in the series after three races. He has had a shot to win all three events in 2010, and his 7.3 average finish is tied for the top mark in the series.
Stewart is a notoriously slow starter, and although he is still winless in the month of February at the Cup level, the fact that he is leading the points this early in the year should have the competition concerned. “Smoke” could be headed for one of the best years of his already impressive career.
3. Kurt Busch: After the first three races, Busch is the only driver to have finished in the top-10 in all three events. He hasn’t been dominant outside of his run at Daytona, but you count discount his consistency. Give him a lot of credit from bouncing back from a miserable performance during the Chase last season.
A lot of people forget that he won the series title in 2004, and there are a lot of great drivers that haven’t been able to hoist the Sprint Cup. Driving for the only major Dodge team in the sport hurts him a bit, but he always seems to wins races and make the Chase.
4. Juan Pablo Montoya: He is looking much more like the driver that made the Chase in 2009 than the driver that struggled last season. He finished sixth in the opener at Daytona and ran a strong third last weekend at Vegas. His season is going to live and die with his performance at the larger ovals, and his performance last weekend was very encouraging.
Even though he has yet to win an oval track event, Montoya is one of the top all-around talents in the sport. Last season, he ranked in the top-10 in terms of laps led, average running position and number of fastest laps run. If he can avoid the bad luck that plagued him in ’09, he is going to remain in the mix all season long.
5. Ryan Newman: After managing just four top-five finishes all of last season, Newman has two in the first three events. His strong run at Phoenix was expected, but his top-five run at Vegas opened a few eyes. Newman and his car owner Tony Stewart are both off to strong starts, and Stewart-Haas Racing appears to be an organization on the rise. Newman could be heading for the Chase in 2011.
6. Kyle Busch: The blown engine at Vegas wasn’t his fault, but it did cost him the point lead. He had finished eighth at Daytona and second at Phoenix prior to his equipment issues last weekend, and there is no question he has the talent to win the title. With 88 career wins and counting between the top three series in NASCAR, Busch will be a staple of the Power Rankings throughout the year.
7. Jeff Gordon: He followed his win at Phoenix with a cut tire at Vegas, but the important thing for the No. 24 team is that the winless drought is finally in the past. Gordon has remained a consistent top-10 driver the last two years, but his inability to close races was becoming a major issue. As long as he is winning races, the four-time champ is capable of adding another title to his resume.
8. Denny Hamlin: There has been a bit of hangover from barely missing out on the title last season, but Hamlin has improved his result in every race this season. His sixth-place run at Vegas after starting dead last was a clear sign that he is close to returning to championship form. Hamlin has always gotten better as the year goes on, and the top-five finishes should start piling up in the coming weeks.
9. Jimmie Johnson: Outside of his third-place finish at Phoenix, Johnson hasn’t been all that impressive in 2011. That being said, the guy is the five-time defending champ. Even if he would have opened the year with three consecutive last-place finishes, I still wouldn’t bet against him.
This ranking is more out of respect for past performances, but I don’t think anyone would argue that Johnson is the one guy that deserves the benefit of the doubt. After all, he has averaged seven wins and 23 top-10s during his five-year reign as champ.
10. Paul Menard: Did anyone have Paul Menard sitting sixth in the standings after three races? Not to mention the fact that he has been the best Richard Childress Racing driver to start the year. Ironically, critics thought Menard’s poor performance could drag down the rest of the RCR team. It turns out, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer could be dragging down Menard.
It will be interesting to see if Menard can continue to run this well, but for now, you can’t argue with what he has accomplished. He has recorded career-best finishes at all three tracks the series has visited thus far.
On the Bubble
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: This isn’t a typo. Seemingly lost in a never ending slump, Junior has notched back-to-back top-10 finishes heading to Bristol. He and crew chief Steve Letarte seem to be clicking, and a little confidence will go a long way for Junior. Letarte’s in-race pep talks have been borderline nauseating, but they appear to be working for Junior.
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