NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 21 Sprint Cup Drivers Coming out of the All-Star Race
The true star of this year's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race wasn't a driver, or an owner, or even a crew chief. It was an engine builder.
Doug Yates built the engines that won all six segments—the two Sprint Showdown segments by David Ragan, the first of the big race by Greg Biffle and the final three by Carl Edwards. It continues a trend that Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota teams must find disturbing: Fords dominating some of the biggest races on the schedule, like the Daytona 500, and winning all of the 1.5-mile races—those which define the Chase for the Sprint Cup—thus far this year.
The Yates name may no longer grace a team, as it did when Davey Allison took two All-Star wins in a row in 1991 and 1992, but the tradition of the great Yates motor continues. And even as Saturday night's race may not have been as exciting as fans hoped it would be, it certainly suggested some things about how the rest of the year will play out for the 21 teams involved.
So without further ado, let's look at the 21 drivers who made the All-Star field this year, and what they can expect for the rest of the season:
1. Carl Edwards
Unless some other team finds something outrageously fast on the 1.5-mile tracks, Edwards has a shot at claiming his first championship this year.
It's often a trendy pick to say that the guy who wins the previous season's finale will take the title at the end of the next year (Denny Hamlin last year comes to mind), but it's usually pretty accurate. And judging by the way Edwards has been running all season, there's no reason to start doubting that trend now.
2. Kyle Busch
Rowdy is going to be a championship challenger every year that he's driving for Gibbs. But what impresses me about him this year, as opposed to previous seasons with the team, is that his maturity level seems exponentially higher than ever before.
Consider the Camping World Truck race on Friday night: He carried the name of a little girl who had been killed nearly a year prior over the door of his truck and brought her classmates out to see the race.
NASCAR's greatest bad guy has a shot at being its top good guy in the future, if only the fans will stop hating him. And it may be under that guise that he wins a championship.
3. David Reutimann
Reutty's 26th in points. He hasn't finished a race better than 13th or led more than a single lap all year; both of those came all the way back at Las Vegas.
He won't make the Chase in that kind of hole, but after showing so well in the All-Star Race, his team seems poised for a turnaround. Remember that—rain-shortened or not—he did take his maiden win at this weekend's race, the Coca-Cola 600, back in 2009.
4. Tony Stewart
The fact that Smoke is only 10th in points right now should only worry those who don't really understand what has gotten him to the top in the past. He usually hangs onto the top 10 by the skin of his teeth in the first third of the season, then really heats up as the calendar hits June and July.
That strategy was the meat and potatoes of his 2002 and 2005 title runs: Stay close enough early not to fall completely out of contention, then turn on the afterburners as others start to struggle.
5. Greg Biffle
After starting the season with three finishes of 20th or worse, Biffle has clawed his way back up to 12th in points, but by virtue of other drivers in the top 20 having won races is not in the Chase right now.
He showed that he could lead by dominating the first segment of the All-Star Race, but he has to finish the deal at least a couple times if he wants a guaranteed Chase spot.
6. Matt Kenseth
What a typical, consistent, quiet Matt Kenseth run.
That's not what you look for in a non-points-paying race, but that's how you put yourself in position to win championships. Kenseth seems to be setting himself up to make a dark-horse championship run... well, as much of a "dark horse" as you can be when you've already won two races this season.
7. Denny Hamlin
We all know that this team is better than the fringes of the top 20 in points, where it's spent most of the season hanging around. But there seems to be a continued hangover from last season's title run that may very well keep them from doing anything significant this season.
Don't expect a breakout, even if they do make some subtle improvements to climb into the bottom half of the top 10.
8. David Ragan
How much is Ragan kicking himself for not having won the Daytona 500?
He'd be 19th in points instead of 21st, a good amount closer to the top 10 and guaranteed in the Chase for the moment by virtue of the win and top-20 position. His strong performance in the Sprint Showdown shows that the right car is there; it's just a matter of getting even within reasonable sniffing distance of how his three Roush Fenway teammates perform.
9. Kevin Harvick
Like Hamlin, I'm not quite as high on Harvick this year as I was last year, either. They're still good, no doubt. They're way better than Hamlin's team; back-to-back wins at Fontana and Martinsville prove that.
But that mojo hasn't been quite as prominent since, with only one of the team's top-five finishes coming since Martinsville. Add the double secret probation that comes with his feud with Kyle Busch, and things may start to get hairy for Harvick and his No. 29 team.
10. Ryan Newman
Newman gets the "Matt Kenseth Consistency Award" thus far this season, by finishing in the top half of the field in every race this year (we'll give him the benefit of the doubt for finishing in the very middle—22nd—at Daytona).
But thanks to Kenseth doing that in 2003, we have a Chase now. And while that strategy may very well get the No. 39 team into the Chase, he's going to need to demonstrate an ability to finish—as Kenseth has this year—before he can expect to rank much higher than his current seventh in points.
11. Jimmie Johnson
That little No. 5 promotion that Lowe's and the Hendrick team ran on Saturday night was pretty clever. Whether for the 5 percent cash back offer Lowe's is doing with its credit cards, or because Jimmie's now got five consecutive Sprint Cup titles, it was mildly innovative and potentially trend-setting—the same way that Dale Earnhardt's alternate paint schemes were in the 1990s.
But even with him second in points, I'm not convinced that he can beat Carl Edwards right now. That team is just too good.
12. Juan Montoya
Earlier this year, I thought that Montoya had a chance at sneaking into the Chase as a low-seed competitor. But four consecutive finishes of 23rd or worse (even though we know he was good at Richmond) have sort of shattered that for me.
At 15th in points and with 15 races to go before the Chase cutoff, the gap is not insurmountable; however, the question is whether or not Montoya can get back into the consistent groove that saw him challenge for the title in 2009.
13. Kurt Busch
I couldn't fathom why there were so many photos of Kurt Busch smiling here on B/R until I realized that none of them were taken on race night.
There, the elder Busch brother went back to the same complaints that have been dogging him all year: The front end of the car won't turn. Don't be shocked if this team misses the Chase, because things are heading downhill.
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There are three things that come certain in life: death, taxes and that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make every All-Star Race he doesn't automatically qualify for by virtue of a fan vote.
While his performance has certainly picked up on the track this year, partially aided by Jeff Gordon's old crew behind him, he doesn't quite have the same finishing instinct that his father or his teammate have.
Chase contender? Probably. Chase winner? Nah.
15. Jeff Gordon
Speaking of Gordon, don't expect much more out of him this season. It seems as if the Hendrick crew swap only really benefited Earnhardt Jr. in the long run, as Gordon's win at Phoenix still feels like the only bright spot for the current No. 24 crew.
If he makes the Chase, chances are it's because the only drivers who win from here on out rank in the top 10.
16. Clint Bowyer
A combination of poor luck and not quite the right amount of killer instinct has been killing Bowyer all season long, in all three of NASCAR's top divisions.
He wrecked out of the Nationwide race at Dover after having a shot at victory and felt like he threw the corresponding Sprint Cup race away. He's also come up bridesmaid both times he's ran trucks this year. Something seems a bit off ever since the penalties that came down at Loudon last year, effectively negating his win and removing him from Chase contention.
17. Jamie McMurray
McMurray's got some work to do on the track, but more importantly, will be racing with a heavy heart because of what happened off of it. One hundred and sixteen people have died and 1,150 more have been injured due to a devastating tornado that went through McMurray's hometown of Joplin, Missouri on Sunday.
Some things are more important than racing.
18. Brad Keselowski
Is it just me, or did it seem like Brad was a lap down all race long?
Sure, he qualified for the All-Star Race by virtue of finishing second in the Sprint Showdown, but that doesn't mean much. Right now, he's still a dominant Nationwide driver and a potential star in training. But given all of teammate Kurt Busch's complaints about their Penske equipment, 18th is about as high as you can expect Keselowski to go.
19. Mark Martin
The throwback paint scheme on Martin's car for Saturday was pretty cool, but don't expect Martin to get a throwback to his 1998 performance anytime soon. Remember that he's a lame duck in that car waiting for Kasey Kahne to take over in 2012, and that the crew that put Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the mid-20s in points these past few years is backing him.
20. Regan Smith
Happy to be here, lucky to be here, psyched about getting another shot at it next year. That's about the extent of it for Smith.
There's still a lot of work to be done with that No. 78 team to make the Chase, but they've sure worked their tail off to get to where they are and deserve a lot of credit.
21. Kasey Kahne
Not much going on with Kahne this year, as he sits in a holding pattern waiting to take over Mark Martin's ride at Hendrick Motorsports. In the end, this one-year experiment may set both him and Team Red Bull back.
There's not much to build on here. Don't expect a Chase run.