Quick, name the three drivers to win multiple points-paying Sprint Cup races this season.
The quarreling Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick? Okay, that's two.
Jimmie Johnson? Nope, just one.
Carl Edwards? Sorry, no.
Denny Hamlin? Not even close.
No, the third is... Matt Kenseth, surprisingly enough. After winning the 2009 Daytona 500 and following race in California, Kenseth's well ran dry until Texas last month, and he struck for the second time in five races at Dover. Quietly, Kenseth has asserted himself to be a Top Five caliber driver, much like he was in his championship-winning season in 2003.
This weekend, we head to Charlotte for the All-Star Race, which is not a points paying event. It'll probably be more of a grudge match between feuding drivers than an accurate representation of the sport's top drivers, but it'll be a fun time nonetheless. But who looks good—and who doesn't—coming out of Dover?
After Jimmie Johnson led the majority of the first half of the Dover race, Edwards managed to bite off chunks of laps in the middle to late stages of the race, leading a solid 117 laps in all. He finished seventh, behind a pair of fellow Roush Fenway-prepped cars and championship rival Kyle Busch, but these are the sort of consistent runs that bring a team to the championship.
Last week, a fan started to complain (on more articles than just mine, it appears) that Johnson was getting a ton of undue credit from us writers based on his Darlington performance. You're entitled to your own opinion, as are we, but if you use any less powerful adjectives than "dominant" to describe his performance through the first 200 laps, you simply weren't watching. Finishing ninth wasn't the best way to end the day, but by leading the most laps he only lost a single point to championship leader Carl Edwards.
Finishing fourth after starting 43rd (he dropped to the back due to an engine change) is pretty impressive, but that's just how strong the No. 18 team is this year. But it's not the best performance by a driver who started a race back in the Darrell Waltrip hole. Back in 2005, at Bristol, a driver came from 43rd after unapproved impound work to lead 109 laps and take the victory. That driver was Kevin Harvick.
The plot thickens.
Well, 25th place at Darlington wasn't the greatest way to welcome new sponsor Wiley X Sunglasses to the hood of his No. 17 car. But I'm sure they're pretty pumped about this whole victory thing. Let's hope that partnership lasts for a while—being sponsored by sunglasses and whiskey significantly improves the "cool" factor of a driver often stereotyped as robotic and boring.
You know how earlier this season I called Matt Kenseth out for not driving like a winner and he won? (If you read these every week, I'm sure you do. I feel like I've brought it up 1,000 times.) On behalf of Junior Nation, I bestow the same title upon Junior, in hope that, for their sake, the same thing happens. Clearly Junior has become one of the best leaders in the garage as far as drivers go, assembling his crew and apologizing for letting them down at Darlington. Now it's a matter of taking another step.
Started 10th, finished 10th, didn't get involved in a fistfight with Kyle Busch after the Cup race. Relatively speaking, a quiet weekend for Happy. I guess probation works.
This may have been the only time Bowyer smiled all weekend—before the Nationwide race. That ended with Bowyer's car sideways in the air, coming to a hard head-on impact with the inside wall. The Cup race ended with Bowyer a solid sixth, but bitterly disappointed at what he felt was throwing away a win by choosing the wrong pit strategy to end the race.
Memo to Ryan: We've all kind of forgotten about your feud with Juan Montoya already. You don't have to hide in 21st place anymore. It's cool.
Oh hi, massive jump in the power rankings for Martin, partially aided by a handful of unimpressive performances by drivers within the Chase. Then again, there's not much difference statistically between Martin and 10th place Tony Stewart, who only has a four point advantage on the sport's elder statesman for that spot. Perhaps I've undersold my favorite driver from childhood.
The elder Busch brother seems encouraged with the progress his team has made since his radio freakout at Richmond. He noted that certain Penske Racing employees who normally don't show up at the tracks themselves have begun making the trips, but he's gone from a Top 10 driver every weekend to a Top 20 driver. That can only cut it for so long.
You never like to spend any time with your hood open on pit road over the course of the race. Clearly, Da Biff wasn't able to elude that on Sunday. Still, he managed to finish 19th, the first car off the lead lap, and is only 17 points out of 10th after flirting with the edge of the Top 30 early on in the year.
Stewart broke a streak of two Top 10 finishes with a disappointing 28th on Sunday. He hasn't finished better than seventh since coming up second at Las Vegas. I know that Stewart's typically a slow starter, but hanging on the edge of the Chase isn't where you want to be at almost halfway through the regular season.
Sorry. I'm not going to completely shatter the 'Dinger's power ranking because his engine failed. We all know that Doug Yates is a better engine builder than that, and accidents happen. We also all know that the 'Dinger has been the most consistent dark horse this season, and the way he's been driving, he will win a race soon, mark my words. Dover was an anomaly.
Another reason that I didn't penalize Allmendinger in the power rankings was because I don't give much merit to Hamlin jumping three spots in points with a 16th place finish. I will, however, give credit where credit is due: Hamlin's sponsor, FedEx, donated part of its race naming rights to Autism Speaks, and offered to donate an extra $100,000 if Hamlin was able to win.
Surprisingly enough, Gordon may have been the guy who benefited the least from the massive Hendrick Motorsports crew swap of the offseason. Mark Martin is still flirting with the Chase, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ascent has been well chronicled, but Gordon hasn't had much luck other than his win at Phoenix. When he's on, he's a Top Five car; when he's not, he's decidedly mid-pack. Crashes at Richmond and Las Vegas haven't helped. Expect more as the season continues.
The inconsistency may not merit a rank this high, but the third place finish on Sunday does. Ambrose's driver rating of 113.9 was fourth best in the field, as he snagged his third finish of sixth or better on the season. The problem is, those other eight races have only seen three finishes inside the Top 20. That needs to change, and quickly.
Eighth place at his de facto hometown track? Way to use that NAPA Know How, Truex! (Seriously, I need to cut it out with that. Or NAPA needs to send me a free air filter, at the very least. Or, maybe, some Apple Brown Betty. If you don't get the reference, you haven't been watching.)
Did I use this photo last week? Yes, yes I did. But apparently, nobody at Dover thought to photograph the guy who made for a popular preseason dark horse pick. And, well, this was the only picture of Menard from Darlington. What a shame. You'd think more photographers would want to capture those sideburns.
Montoya actually led a pair of laps on Sunday, but that doesn't mean much when you finish 32nd. His Chase hopes are fading faster than his Formula 1 career did after joining McLaren. He needs a mojo boost from the IndyCar wing of the Ganassi team, and fast.
You have to feel bad for Kasey. He finally gets some momentum with Red Bull, with an average start of 3.0 in his last three races and two Top Four finishes, and then the engine gives out with less than 100 laps to go. Oh well. Now the pressure is on to rebound from that, continue to ascend the standings and maybe, just maybe, sneak into the Chase.