NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Drivers Coming Out of Charlotte

Christopher LeoneSenior Analyst IMay 31, 2011

NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Drivers Coming Out of Charlotte

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser/Armed Forces Chevrolet, races with Dale Earnhardt Jr,, driver of the #88 National Guard / AMP Energy Cherolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway o
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    What a terrible day Sunday was to be driving a car sponsored by the National Guard.

    J.R. Hildebrand (in IndyCar) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (in NASCAR) nearly swept the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in Guard-backed cars, only for both of them to lose their respective races coming out of Turn 4. Hildebrand wrecked, and Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel.

    Instead, Dan Wheldon won at Indianapolis, and Kevin Harvick—the closer, as it were—inherited yet another victory with a last-lap pass, even though he openly admitted in Victory Lane that he hates Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    Don't feel bad for Junior, though.

    Even as some folks argue the spin behind the leaders wasn't waved, a caution to try and benefit the sport's most popular driver (and I'm going to tell you right now that their argument is dead wrong), the No. 88 team can walk out of Charlotte with their heads held high because they know their first win of the year can't be too far.

    So, who else walked out of Charlotte with momentum, and whose star fell a little on Sunday? That's what these things are for—to find out:

1. Carl Edwards

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29: Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Scotts EZ Seed Ford, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    As it stands, Roush Fenway cars are still the best on 1.5-mile tracks.

    As it stands, Carl Edwards is still the points leader by a whole 36 markers (read: three finishing positions better per race) over Kevin Harvick.

    Until either of those things change, Edwards is pretty much the undisputed No. 1.

2. Kevin Harvick

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser Armed Forces Tribute Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.
    Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    So far, it looks like Harvick has the best chance of dethroning Edwards this year.

    I'm not going to lie, last year's championship run—what would have been the championship by a wide margin in a pre-Chase world—felt like the kind of thing that would spend a team after one year, before a disappointing turn in fortunes a la Denny Hamlin this season.

    Instead, it was Harvick who was able to continue his momentum early on in the year with a series-leading three race wins.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/Amp Energy Chevrolet, races side by side with Kasey Kahne, driver of the #4 Red Bull Toyota, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 2
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Am I crazy for ranking Junior here? Only a little.

    He's fourth in points, you know, but his near-miss at Charlotte signified something a lot of people have been doubting—that this team is ready to contend for race wins.

    I seem to recall calling them out, for their own sake, recently. Kyle Petty did the same thing.

    Now, the entire No. 88 team (as if they weren't motivated before) will be working their collective tails off to finish the job as soon as possible.

4. Matt Kenseth

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Jeremiah Weed Ford races with Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot / Mobil 1 Chevrolet during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord,
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Somebody remind me the last time Kenseth was this consistent and noticeable at the front of the pack in a season. I honestly can't remember.

    Kenseth seems poised for a top-five championship finish, and a lot of the credit should go to crew chief Jimmy Fennig and Doug Yates' engine builder for giving him the best cars he's had to work with since the early stages of the Robbie Reiser era.

5. Kyle Busch

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, spins out after an incident in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for
    John Harrelson/Getty Images

    This was a rough week for "Rowdy"— the speeding ticket in the Lexus, questions about Kimi Raikkonen's payment to his team, the spins and subsequent 32nd-place finish in the sport's longest race.

    He'll bounce back, though, if only because his hell week is over. He can hopefully start with a clean slate and clear mind at Kansas.

6. Jimmie Johnson

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  Jimmie Johnson drives the #48 Lowe's Summer Salute Chevrolet off pit road after an incident in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Le
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    See this? This is Jimmie Johnson turning his car into the garage after blowing a motor with just a few laps to go in a race at a track that he usually dominates.

    This is also convincing-sign No. 1 six consecutive championships may be just a bit out of reach for the No. 48 team.

7. Kurt Busch

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 28:  Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Chris Graythen
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    You know, I'm not sure I ever really understood the complaints from the elder Busch brother in regards to his Penske Racing team.

    No, the cars don't turn as well in the corners as Busch and teammate Brad Keselowski want them to, but they have to at least be good enough to keep Kurt knocking on the door of the top five in points, right?

    It's a start, if nothing else.

8. Greg Biffle

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 28:  Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Ford, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Image
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Biffle's ascent up the standings has been incredible since a rough first few weeks.

    He hated his car for a lot of the early stages of the race, partially owing to a faulty battery, and it didn't help that he wasn't satisfied with his crew's communication over the issue.

    That didn't prevent him from leading a solid 50 laps, though, all the way to lap 398, before running out of fuel.

9. Denny Hamlin

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    It looks like the No. 11 team is finally starting to reach the levels they wanted to be at for the beginning of the season.

    Hamlin led a respectable 24 laps on Sunday on the way to a 10th-place finish. He's now up to 12th in points with only 14 points to gain on Ryan Newman for 10th.

10. Tony Stewart

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 28:  (***EDITORS NOTE*** - THIS DIGITAL IMAGE WAS CREATED WITH THE USE OF VARIABLE FOCAL PLANE LENS) Tony Stewart drives the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Co
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    I'm sticking by my prediction Stewart will kick it into high gear in June and July. Right now, though, that means it's crunch time.

    Smoke needs to figure out what's been dogging him the past couple of weeks and fix it. If not, both he and teammate Ryan Newman could have a hard time making the Chase.

11. Clint Bowyer

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 28:  Clint Bowyer, driver of the #33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet, climbs in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Phot
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Bowyer has six top-10 finishes and seven top-15s in his past eight races, but something just doesn't have me fully convinced about the No. 33 team. I don't know exactly what.

    Maybe it's the way their Chase hopes self-destructed after the Loudon penalty last year. Maybe it's Bowyer's feeling he's throwing away race wins. I don't know.

    Either way, Bowyer comes in 11th on this list, fair or not.

12. Ryan Newman

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  Ryan Newman, driver of the #39 U.S. Army Chevrolet, David Gilliland, driver of the #34 Taco Bell Ford, and Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Carquest/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, hit the wall after an incidnet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Add another instance where "driving a car sponsored by the military on Memorial Day is terrible for your luck and the health of your racecar."

    At 10th in the standings, Newman has 10 points on 11th place, but the 11th place driver is Greg Biffle, and Kansas is pretty much Biffle's best track. Wuh-oh.

13. A.J. Allmendinger

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #43 U.S. Air Force Ford, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    Starting second and finishing fifth is a good day for most drivers, but you know "the Dinger" wants more.

    That No. 43 team wants to prove that they are, at least, a top-10 caliber team in Sprint Cup. They want wins. They want to make the Chase. When it all comes down to it, they want a shot at the title.

    They're just as fired up as the guys working on the No. 88.

14. Mark Martin

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  David Gilliland, driver of the #34 Taco Bell Ford, and Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Carquest/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, collide after hitting the wall during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Let's give both Martin and David Gilliland credit for giving their post-crash interviews together, then shaking hands on camera and walking off together with no malice. They're two of the real good guys in the sport, and that accident was a shame for both of them.

    I wish I were able to rank Martin higher.

    I wish I were still able to rank Gilliland.

15. Marcos Ambrose

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 28:  Marcos Ambrose, driver of the #9 Dewalt Ford, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Seeing a DeWalt car face off at the front of the pack with Matt Kenseth, the sponsor's former driver, was pretty cool.

    Seeing both the affable Australian and his teammate run up front was also a good sign for Richard Petty Motorsports. It's altogether possible both could take their maiden wins this year.

16. Juan Pablo Montoya

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 28:  Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, sits in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jason S
    Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Hey, 12th place beats 37th place (teammate Jamie McMurray's fate after blowing an engine just as Kenseth passed him for the lead)—or no place at all.

17. Jeff Gordon

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29: Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASC
    Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    You know, it's funny how things work out. We all thought shifting Alan Gustafson and the former No. 5 crew to Gordon's car was going to help them overall, but in the end, it seems to be hurting them more than anything.

    I'm no longer convinced of my initial belief Gustafson is a poor man's Chad Knaus, who can turn these cars into something special.

    He now seems like more of a rich man's Steve Addington, a crew chief who will put the car right about where his driver should be in the standings.

    Then again, he's got 24 races to prove me wrong, and he undoubtedly will because I opened my mouth. I hope he does.

18. David Ragan

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  David Ragan pits the #6 UPS Ford, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Jason Smith/Getty Images

    You have to wonder if Ragan is going to start surging on these 1.5-mile tracks. We all know the Fords can cut through the corners like nobody's business.

    If Ragan can even show half of the performance that got him on the edge of the Chase a few years ago, he might have a shot.

19. Kasey Kahne

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  Kasey Kahne, driver of the #4 Red Bull Toyota, leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NAS
    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    I still don't think it was worth it to put Kahne in the car for one year and have to consider having two completely new drivers for 2012. Red Bull might pay for this move in the future, even if Kahne came oh-so-close to a victory on Sunday night.

20. Paul Menard

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    CONCORD, NC - MAY 29:  Paul Menard, driver of the #27 Moen/Menards Chevrolet, spins out during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    We're ranking Menard 20th in honor of the 20 stitches in his foot from the dock incident...

    Nah, just kidding. We're ranking him 20th because that's about where his on-track performance suggests he should be right now.

    This has been another typical Menard year—flash in the first five races, then a constant slide back. Hey, it was fun while it lasted.