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