NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Drivers Coming out of Texas
All season, I've been criticizing Matt Kenseth for being too quiet. Leading a total of five laps. Running reasonably up front, but not challenging for victories. Doing too much of what he did in 2003 without getting into the points lead first.
Well, I think he heard me.
Kenseth's dominant Texas performance, leading 169 of a possible 334 laps to take his first win since February 2009, suggested that maybe the No. 17 isn't going to have a quietly solid year after all. In fact, maybe they're going to make some noise. A lot of noise. Maybe not championship-winning noise (I'm not that convinced yet), but noise nonetheless.
But Kenseth's not the only one making noise in Sprint Cup. Read on:
1. Carl Edwards
Okay, ha, ha, we get it. Stop using the "gut check" headlines to refer to Edwards' stomach illness during the Texas event. Yes, it's great that he drove through the pain, even if he threw his mom under the bus in post-race interviews. But stop ignoring the real story: Edwards, who's always been a streaky driver from season to season, is in a hot streak that might last through the rest of the year.
2. Kyle Busch
Not the best of days for Rowdy, who finished a lap down in 16th. Undoubtedly Interstate Batteries, Joe Gibbs Racing's first sponsor ever and a locally-based company, was hoping for more, but at least their driver's still second in points, only seven back from Edwards, and has undergone a media metamorphosis this year while trying to establish that he has the maturity he needs to win a Sprint Cup title.
3. Matt Kenseth
Is one win a season? No, unless you're Kenseth (remember 2003?). Still, they've gotten over that hump, and you can't keep building unless you have a solid foundation. And for future reference, remember that on the rare occasion when Kenseth qualifies well (he started 4th at Texas), he usually finishes up front; Kenseth isn't known as a pole winner, with only five in his career.
4. Jimmie Johnson
Don't worry about Johnson not having won a race yet. We all know this team is already biding time for the Chase.
5. Kevin Harvick
Happy was anything but after bad luck on his first two pit stops stuck him mid-pack, derailing his two-race winning streak with a 20th place finish. But you can't have the golden horseshoe in your bumper every weekend, can you?
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Who would've thought at the beginning of the season that Steve Letarte, frequently panned by Jeff Gordon fans for poor strategy while atop the No. 24's pit box, would be the guy to help resuscitate the career of NASCAR's most popular driver? But Rick Hendrick's goal for the season was to make the Junior thing work, and so far it has.
7. Kurt Busch
Started 10th, finished 10th. Not bad, but somewhat of a downgrade for sponsor Pennzoil from where Kevin Harvick was last season, and would be right now if not for those pit road incidents. His new commercial is as good as any Shell's done with the scientists, though. More logos ARE better.
8. Ryan Newman
I seem to recall ranking Newman higher not so long ago. Hm. 14th place at Texas isn't all that impressive. This is about where I expect this team to be at the end of the year.
9. Tony Stewart
I'm convinced that Stewart will be higher on this list when he's able to get over the hump of closing out a couple of races this year. He can lead late, or position himself near the front, but he seems to inexplicably fade when he gets there. But once he's able to take that first victory, I think the rest will come.
10. Juan Montoya
Here's a picture of Montoya passing Ryan Newman. He finished one spot better than Newman in Saturday's race, placing 13th. If he does Newman one better once again this week, they'll be tied in points. There's a close battle going on right now between these two, and while the broadcasters may not care, it's going to be fun to watch the next couple of weeks.
11. Paul Menard
Is the Menarch ready to take over? His Empire seems to think so. It's still early in the season, but I'm more and more convinced every weekend that Menard is for real this time.
12. Clint Bowyer
Not a bad run for Bowyer - second with 44 laps led is his best performance of the year and his third top-10 in a row. Now the goal is to make up the 12 points on 10th place Tony Stewart and get into the Chase, because it's never too early to position yourself for the fall.
13. Mark Martin
14. A.J. Allmendinger
The fact that the 'Dinger gained a spot in points while finishing 19th is more of a testament to the failures of other teams to capitalize than his own solid performance, but hey, you take what you can get, right? Richard Petty Motorsports has proven that they can have a competitive car on any given weekend - this weekend it just wasn't Allmendinger's. But what's better - two streaky cars, or one hot one and one clunker?
15. Marcos Ambrose
Speaking of Petty, big ups for Ambrose with a solid sixth-place run and a lap led under green. I may be overrating him a bit here, but this is exactly what RPM brought him in to do, and with finishes of fourth and sixth on the two 1.5-mile tracks thus far - the sport's bread and butter - Ambrose could be a dark horse to make the Chase with a little consistency.
16. Jeff Gordon
I'm pretty sure I cited Alan Gustafson as one of the most overrated crew chiefs in the Sprint Cup garage way back when for only being able to perform with top drivers like Kyle Busch, while the No. 5 team suffered the one season where Casey Mears was behind the wheel. With the way this team is underachieving right now, though, I don't know what to think. Is it Gustafson and Gordon not working well together, or is it just a Jeff Gordon who's not as rejuvenated behind the wheel as we thought he'd be?
17. David Ragan
Props to the Raygun for being fast all weekend long and running up front quite a bit, culminating in his best finish of the season and second top-10 in a row. This is what Jack Roush has been looking for more often from his former flagship car and team.
18. Greg Biffle
At least Ragan's had a more even season than Biffle, though. Recall that the No. 16 team was in the high 30s in points not too long ago. With consistent finishes and hassle-free races, though, Biffle has quietly worked his way up to 18th. He's still 30 points out of the top 10, but with a race win and some less than perfect luck on the part of the folks in front of him, he could theoretically be there as soon as this weekend. They'll get there.
19. Kasey Kahne
Who cares, it's a throwaway year for Kasey anyway. At least nobody used his left rear quarter panel as makeshift brakes this time.
20. Denny Hamlin
This picture is the fastest Denny looked all weekend. To muster no better than a 15th place finish with no laps led at a track whose races he swept last year is simply anemic. It's time to hit the panic button on the No. 11's season. On the bright side, at least he's not teammate Joey Logano (28th in points).