NASCAR 2013 Power Rankings: Three Down, 33 to Go...Bring on Bristol, Baby

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2013

NASCAR 2013 Power Rankings: Three Down, 33 to Go...Bring on Bristol, Baby

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    As we put together the second edition of Power Rankings for the 2013 Sprint Cup season, there has obviously been a lot of movement in and out of the top 20 from our preseason Power Rankings heading into the season-opening Daytona 500. We actually had 23 drivers in the preseason rankings, but going forward from here it'll be the top 20.

    Be that as it may, five of the drivers we had in the top-23 of the preseason rankings are no longer in this list, including Danica Patrick, Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya.

    This week's edition is not necessarily based on the top 20 drivers in this week's standings after Las Vegas, but it rather gives credit to drivers who made some of the biggest jumps upward in the standings.

    As we count down this edition of Power Rankings, we list where the driver currently is in the actual Sprint Cup standings heading into Sunday's fourth race of the season at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he was in Bleacher Report's preseason rankings, and where he's at in this week's BR rankings.

20. Jamie McMurray

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 20 (tie)

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 17

    This week's Power Ranking: 20

    Jamie McMurray hasn't exactly gotten off to a great start in 2013, finishing 32nd at Daytona, 22nd at Phoenix and his best outing to date, 13th at Las Vegas.

    With this being such a pivotal year for McMurray and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, he has to build upon the momentum out of Las Vegas, particularly this Sunday at Bristol.

    McMurray typically holds his own on the half-mile bullring, so we won't be surprised if he emerges with a top-10 finish. He certainly could use it.

19. Joey Logano

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 15

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 16

    This week's Power Ranking: 19

    Even though Joey Logano climbed five spots in the Sprint Cup standings to 15th, we're not convinced he's ready for prime time just yet.

    He's finished 19th, 26th and 12th in the first three races, which is moderately decent, but we'd love to see him have a top 10 at Bristol, a place he's come to do well at.

    Logano is still feeling himself out with his new home at Penske Racing after spending his entire Cup career at Joe Gibbs Racing. He's looking for that first breakthrough finish with his new team, so don't be surprised if it comes Sunday at Bristol.

18. Martin Truex Jr.

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 22

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 21

    This week's Power Ranking: 18

    Truex didn't have the greatest start to the season, finishing 24th at Daytona and 36th at Phoenix, but he bounced back with a strong sixth-place finish at Las Vegas that bodes well going forward.

    But Truex has struggled at Bristol in his career, the next stop on the schedule, and whatever momentum he gained from Las Vegas may go for naught this Sunday.

    Unless he surprises us all—which would be nice.

    Still, he jumped 12 places in the Cup standings with his performance at Vegas, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that he has a second straight strong run at Bristol.

17. Kevin Harvick

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 19

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 2

    This week's Power Ranking: 17

    Kevin Harvick jumped 10 spots in the standings after Las Vegas. It was by far his best performance thus far this season, finishing a promising ninth.

    That came on the heels of a 13th-place finish at Phoenix the week before, which was preceded by the absolutely forgettable 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500.

    The good news for Harvick—and not-so-good news for his opponents—is that Bristol is one of his favorite and better-performing racetracks. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised if he comes home with the checkered flag there.

16. Tony Stewart

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 17 (tie)

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 1

    This week's Power Ranking: 16

    Tony Stewart had a rough start to the season with a 41st-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500.

    But since then, the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has looked much more like the typical Smoke we're all so used to.

    He finished a potent eighth at Phoenix and just barely missed the top-10 at Las Vegas, finishing 11th and climbing into the top-20 in the Sprint Cup standings for the first time this season.

    Stewart has a love-hate relationship with Bristol Motor Speedway. You never know what kind of Stewart will show up at the half-mile bullring.

    But given how he's had two top-11 finishes in the last two races, look for a top-10 at Bristol if he can stay out of trouble, namely, other people's wrecks.

15. Kyle Busch

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 17 (tie)

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 3

    This week's Power Ranking: 15

    What we saw at Las Vegas was much more like the Kyle Busch we all know so well. He raced in vintage Busch fashion, leading a ton of laps and coming home with his best run in a long time, a fourth-place finish.

    That helped deflect the rough start he had in the first two races: 34th at Daytona and 23rd at Phoenix.

    But with his run at Las Vegas, Busch practically cut his deficit in the Sprint Cup standings in half, going from 33rd to 17th.

    And with the five wins he's had at Bristol, you'd better believe the driver of the No. 18 will be looking to cut that margin in the standings even further on Sunday.

14. Kasey Kahne

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 14

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 7

    This week's Power Ranking: 14

    Much like Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne finally got back on track and looked like his old self this past Sunday at Las Vegas.

    Not only did he lead the most laps and come close to a win, there's little shame in finishing second, especially when it was to Matt Kenseth.

    Kahne began the season with a 36th-place finish at Daytona and improved to 19th at Phoenix, but it was his runner-up showing at Las Vegas that really got him on track, moving up 15 places in the Cup standings, from 29th to 14th.

    Kahne loves racing at Bristol, but it hasn't always loved him back with optimal performances. For whatever reason, Kahne's race car often appears to be a magnet for other cars to wreck.

    But if he gets a good qualifying spot and can get close to the front early, who knows, KK may just KO Bristol for a win.

13. Jeff Gordon

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 13

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 13

    This week's Power Ranking: 13

    We're still scratching our heads as to what happened at Las Vegas. Gordon started the race with as strong a car as anyone (qualified fifth), but almost immediately began falling back.

    Gordon ultimately finished 25th in Sin City, his worst finish of the still-young season: he was 20th at Daytona and ninth at Phoenix. His Las Vegas finish caused him to drop five places in the Cup standings, from eighth to 13th.

    Bristol has long been a home away from home for Gordon, and we're not going to be surprised to see him come out of there with a top-10, if not a top-five.

12. Paul Menard

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 12

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 23

    This week's Power Ranking: 12

    Paul Menard is one of the bigger surprises thus far in the young 2013 season.

    He's finished 21st, 20th and most recently, 10th at Las Vegas as he climbed three spots in the overall standings to come into Bristol ranked 12th in the Cup standings.

    Alas, however, Bristol has long been his Achilles' heel and we're not expecting miracles. If he can get out of there with a top-20 finish, he should take it and get out of Tennessee as fast as humanly possible after the race.

11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 11

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: Unranked

    This week's Power Ranking: 11

    Even though Ricky Stenhouse Jr. dropped three places in the Sprint Cup standings—from a tie for eighth to 11th—he's definitely opened some eyes this early in the season.

    Stenhouse has finished 12th, 16th and 18th in the first three races. And while girlfriend Danica Patrick has struggled in the last two races, Stenhouse is certainly staking his claim to being the early favorite for Rookie of the Year honors.

    How Stenhouse handles all the beating and banging at Bristol will tell a key story going forward. We predict he'll come out of there in the top 25.

10. Aric Almirola

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 10

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: Unranked

    This week's Power Ranking: 10

    Even though he slipped two spots in the Sprint Cup standings, from a tie for eighth to 10th, Aric Almirola has a lot of people talking about his performance thus far in the fabled No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports.

    Much like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Almirola has driven smartly, not overly aggressive and has just tried to maintain an even keel and pace. Thus far, it's working, as he's finished 13th, 15th and 16th in the season's first three races.

    It’s been a long time since we've seen a Petty car consistently in the top 10, something we wouldn't have a hard time getting used to once again.

    A lot of the credit for Almirola's success goes to crew chief Todd Parrott, who knows quite a bit about Bristol and should give his driver a decent game plan for yet another strong finish this early in the season.

9. Clint Bowyer

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 9

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 4

    This week's Power Ranking: 9

    Clint Bowyer got off to a great start this season, finishing 11th in the Daytona 500 and sixth at Phoenix.

    But it was a completely different story this past Sunday at Las Vegas, where no matter what he and his team tried to do, the only progress they made was backward.

    Bowyer ultimately finished 27th at Las Vegas, dropping five places in the Sprint Cup standings from fourth to ninth.

    But you best believe he's looking to rebound and is smacking his lips with Bristol next on the schedule, as it is arguably his most favorite short track.

8. Greg Biffle

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 7

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 10

    This week's Power Ranking: 8

    Biffle had a somewhat disappointing sixth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500—disappointing in the sense that had he not lost the draft on the final two turns, Biffle would likely have had as high as a third-place finish instead of a sixth-place outing.

    And then came his last two races, Phoenix and Las Vegas, where he came away with identical 17th-place finishes.

    Even though Biffle dropped just one spot in the Sprint Cup standings, it's almost a given that he has to get a top-10 at Bristol to get back up in the standings hunt.

    Biffle is one of the drivers we see as a sleeper to win the Cup championship this season, so if he really intends on doing that, he best not fall asleep at the wheel as his performance has shown the last two weeks.

7. Mark Martin

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 6

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: Unranked

    This week's Power Ranking: 7

    Even though we said in the preseason rankings that Mark Martin would not be ranked because he will not be running a complete 36-race season, we elected to change that stipulation for two reasons.

    First, Martin is off to a great start (even though he'll miss Sunday's race at Bristol by choice, part of the 12 races he plans on skipping this season).

    Second, if Martin wins two or more races in the first 26 and is within the top 20 in the standings heading into the Chase, he potentially could be a qualifier for this year's Chase, a mighty astute accomplishment for a part-time driver.

    Sure, he'll likely take a hit in our next Power Rankings in two weeks after missing Bristol, but we're still holding out hope Martin can do the seemingly impossible and make this year's Chase as a part-timer.

6. Matt Kenseth

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 7

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 9

    This week's Power Ranking: 6

    Matt Kenseth won at Las Vegas on Sunday. Duh, no surprise there, as Kenseth is one of the top-performing drivers on 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule. He also improved 11 places in the Sprint Cup standings, from 18th to seventh.

    But what is surprising is how quickly Kenseth won with a new team (Joe Gibbs Racing), a new sponsor (Dollar General and Home Depot) and a new manufacturer (Toyota instead of his long-time association with Ford).

    Kenseth would likely be in the top three right now had it not been for a disappointing 37th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, the same race he won the year before.

    But Kenseth has done quite well in shaking off that Daytona finish, coming in seventh at Phoenix and, of course, the win Sunday at Las Vegas.

    He now goes to Bristol, where he arguably has to be considered among the favorites there. Who knows, could he make it two in a row? We sure think it's very possible.

5. Carl Edwards

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 5

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 12

    This week's Power Ranking: 5

    It's good to see Edwards having the kind of season start that he's had, especially after the overall disappointment of last season.

    Edwards climbed six spots in the Sprint Cup standings, from 11th to fifth.

    After being yet another star driver who had a horrible outing at Daytona (finished 33rd), Edwards has come back in a big way with the win at Phoenix and the fifth-place outing this past Sunday at Las Vegas.

    We have a good feeling about Edwards this season. Not only does he have immense talent and he's due for a comeback after last year's terrible season, but he also has veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig atop the pit box.

    If anyone can get Edwards that long-elusive Sprint Cup championship in 2013, it will be Fennig, who led Kurt Busch to the crown in 2004.

    Given how Edwards lost the championship by a one-point tiebreaker in 2011, he's got a lot to make up for from last season. So far, so good.

4. Denny Hamlin

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 4

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 11

    This week's Power Ranking: 4

    Denny Hamlin remained in fourth place in the Sprint Cup standings for the second consecutive week after Las Vegas.

    Thus far, Hamlin is off to a great start, with a 14th-place finish at Daytona, a third at Phoenix and a 15th-place showing at Las Vegas that likely could have been higher had he not been pushed back in the field in the latter stages of the race.

    Bristol is next up for Hamlin, who is a diehard short-track racer at heart. He's had mixed success there, but if he can stay out of trouble and get near the front late in the race, he's got a realistic chance to win this Sunday.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 3

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 14

    This week's Power Ranking: 3

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to one of the best season starts he's ever enjoyed on the Sprint Cup level.

    After finishing runner-up at Daytona and fifth at Phoenix, he was seventh this past Sunday at Las Vegas.

    Even though he ultimately dropped one spot in the Sprint Cup standings, from second to third, the decline is marginal, especially with the fact Earnhardt is going to Bristol, a place he used to practically own with his on-track performance.

    We see Earnhardt coming out of the quick half-mile with a top-five and a continuation of the outstanding start he's had thus far.

2. Brad Keselowski

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 2

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 6

    This week's Power Ranking: 2

    Where else would you expect the defending Sprint Cup champion to be than right in the thick of things this early in the season?

    Brad Keselowski is certainly picking up where he left off at the end of last year with three consecutive top-5 finishes to start the season: fourth at Daytona and Phoenix and third this past Sunday at Las Vegas.

    Up to this point, Keselowski has been a picture of near-perfection, with just one other driver having outperformed him, that being points leader Jimmie Johnson.

    Keselowski has become a virtual all-star at Bristol in a very short time and we expect him to be right in the middle of the hunt for the checkered flag on Sunday.

1. Jimmie Johnson

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    Place in current Sprint Cup standings: 1

    2013 Preseason Power Ranking: 8

    This week's Power Ranking: 1

    If anyone came into this season having any doubts about Jimmie Johnson's intentions for 2013, it's likely most of those doubts are gone and, at the same time, it's pretty clear Johnson intends on doing everything he can to win his sixth career Sprint Cup championship this season.

    After winning his second Daytona 500 and finishing runner-up at Phoenix, Johnson finished sixth at Las Vegas and had the potential for yet another top-five finish before slipping back in the pack a bit in the closing laps.

    Johnson looks just like the Jimmie of old, when he was winning those five Sprint Cup championships in a row from 2006 through 2010.

    He came into this season wanting to rid himself of the nickname "five-time." It's not that he doesn't like that colorful moniker anymore, but rather, Johnson now wants to become known as "six-time" by the end of this season.

    Given the way he's started thus far, he's well on his way towards that goal—and we're just three laps into the season. Imagine what's still to come.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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