NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Drivers Coming Out of Darlington
Well that was fun, wasn't it? The Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway was a throwback to everything that made NASCAR exciting in the 1980s. Regan Smith, with a low-budget, single-car team, scored the huge upset win over the big boys, outracing Carl Edwards on the final restart to steal his first career victory (Officially, that is. Don't talk to me about Talladega.).
After the checkers flew, though, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick got into a scuffle, as Harvick wouldn't let Busch pull his car into the garage. Harvick parked his car in front of Busch's, got out, and tried to swing at his new enemy, as Busch pushed the unmanned car out of his way and dangerously into the pit wall.
There were fireworks, all right. Fireworks that have set up what could be a hell of an All-Star race in two weeks. We're going to see a lot of scores settled in Charlotte.
So who's hot and who's not heading into Dover? Let's go through the power rankings:
1. Carl Edwards
Edwards had fresher tires than Smith at the end of the race, but Goliath just couldn't get by David. Regardless, he's got quite the championship lead at the moment. Now with a 23-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, and his Chase position probably not in question, Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne can start trying to utilize the old Johnson-Chad Knaus strategy: using the early races of the season as test sessions for the 10 Chase events.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Team 48 bounced back from this early race spin, getting a free pass back onto the lead lap with under 100 laps to go and finishing a respectable 15th. Championship caliber teams minimize the negative impact of their bad days, and by rebounding so well, Johnson managed to do that, even as he's got 23 points to make up on Carl Edwards for the top spot in the standings.
3. Kyle Busch
Well...that was fun, wasn't it? Busch led 78 laps, second most of any driver, before falling back and causing the incident with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. To be fair, though, his analysis of Harvick's driving—not receiving any room from the No. 29 car on the track—didn't look too far off, from the replay. Both drivers race hard at the end of the event, and something had to give. Did Busch overreact by spinning Harvick's car on track and in the pits? Maybe. But the drama is sure fun to watch.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior, like Kurt Busch in the weeks before, seems to be slipping back in the running order a bit lately with his results. You have to wonder if it's just a momentary lapse, or if it will result in Junior lambasting his crew a la Busch at Richmond, because we all know Junior isn't afraid to speak his mind. Then again, I'm probably wrong. They haven't exactly been bad this year.
5. Kevin Harvick
You know what? When it comes down to it, I think Harvick's just pissed that his Philadelphia Flyers got swept by my Boston Bruins. Payback sucks, don't it, Happy? No more comebacks for you.
6. Ryan Newman
Positives: With his fifth place finish and 28 laps led, Newman moved up to sixth in points. And with the Harvick-Busch feud, his spat with Juan Montoya may be swept under the rug, for now.
Negatives: We all found out from Montoya that Newman punches like a girl. So there's that.
7. Tony Stewart
Shackleford, the horse wearing No. 14 in the Kentucky Derby, was the pacesetter for a good 80 percent of the famed event. Had he not fallen to fourth, he'd have paid well as a 23-1 underdog. It might have been a good luck charm for Stewart, who, continuing with the gambling theme, almost came up all sevens this weekend: finished seventh, now seventh in points...but six laps led. Alas.
8. Clint Bowyer
Well...he WAS running decently, until the wreck on lap 365. Too bad that 83.4 driver rating, 16th best in the field, doesn't mean much when you finish 31st.
9. Kurt Busch
So calling out his crew at Richmond didn't work so well for Busch, who ended up finishing 27th at Darlington. On the bright side, teammate Brad Keselowski finished third, his push on the restart helping to set up Regan Smith for his first career victory. Hopefully, for his sake, those lines of communication that have supposedly been opened up at Penske since the freakout will lead to a steadier Chase spot.
10. Matt Kenseth
Meh. Started 20th, finished 25th, four laps down. Not the biggest or baddest of days for Kenseth, who's quietly hanging onto the 10th and final Chase spot over A.J. Allmendinger by eight points and teammate Greg Biffle by nine. If he's not careful, Biffle will pass him in the standings, like he is on the track here.
11. Greg Biffle
Biffle had plenty of reasons to be happy after Darlington. His eighth place finish has him 12th in the standings and only nine points out of the final Chase spot, a huge jump from the 31st place position he found himself in after Las Vegas. Since then, he's only had one finish outside of the top 15, a 21st place run at Martinsville. Da Biff has only led 21 laps all year, so he still doesn't look like a race winner, but recall that I called out teammate Matt Kenseth for the same lack of intimidation earlier this year, and he responded with his first win since 2009. And with two career wins and an average finish of 11.0 at Dover, making it his third-best track, Biffle could break out in much the same way this weekend.
12. A.J. Allmendinger
Here's your dark horse Chase contender for the year. Allmendinger only managed a 20th place finish at Darlington, but he's still a solid 11th in points. If he scores that breakout victory, he's going to have no problem maintaining a top-10 spot...or, if he does falter, chances are he'll be one of the two wild card drivers to make it in by virtue of that theoretical victory. Either way, the ex-Champ Car star finally seems like a viable race win contender in NASCAR.
13. Kasey Kahne
Kahne scored his second top-five finish in a row by placing fourth at Darlington, after leading a race-high 124 laps from the pole. But he seemed unsatisfied with the way the race ended, and why not? He had the best car on track for much of the event, leading as late as lap 359, when Smith got by. Regardless, it's a good sign for a team that's taken a while to figure it out thus far this year.
14. Juan Montoya
Nice job remaining completely anonymous in the running order by finishing 23rd, Juan, but you can come out of hiding now. In fact, now that you've fallen out of the Chase to 13th in points, you kind of need to.
15. Regan Smith
I don't care that he's 27th in points. The winning driver ALWAYS gets love in the power rankings. Now, Smith gets to keep a trophy, after a "win" at Talladega in 2008 was stripped when he passed under the yellow line in the tri-oval.
16. Mark Martin
Martin finished 19th on Saturday, the first driver a lap down in the running order. He's now down a spot in points, at 14th. He hasn't lost the knack, but you have to wonder if another somewhat trying year like this one, combined with his impending replacement at Hendrick Motorsports by Kasey Kahne, will lead Martin to consider cutting back his schedule again in 2012.
17. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's sixth place finish elevated him to 16th in points, but the No. 11 team still has a long way to go if they want to make a serious Chase charge. That involves winning races. Unfortunately, don't expect it at Dover, where Hamlin has only managed an average finish of 21.4 (his second-worst track) in 10 career starts.
18. Jeff Gordon
Gordon rebounded from a hard hit at Richmond to finish 12th at Darlington, but remains mired at 17th in points. At this juncture, he's still in the Chase, by virtue of being the only driver between 11th and 20th in the standings with a win, but how long can we expect that to last?
19. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex's NAPA Know How (no, I'm not paid to say that, but the jingle HAS been stuck in my head since about last February) helped power him to his second top-10 of the season at Darlington, his first since Las Vegas. It'll probably take a miracle to get him into the Chase, but it's not impossible. He's only 50 points behind 10th place Matt Kenseth; meanwhile, Kenseth is 83 out of the overall lead. The fringe Chase drivers are a lot closer to one another than the first tier is to the second tier.
20. Paul Menard
Sigh. What the hell happened? Menard was seventh in points through the first five races; since overheating at Martinsville, he's plummeted to 18th in points in the last five. His fifth place at Texas seemed like the rule rather than the exception, but he's dropped seven spots in the past two races alone. The Menarch needs to pick it up real quick, lest his drop-off prove the old theory that Richard Childress Racing can't handle four teams.