NASCAR Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Week 14 Edition
Thirteen races into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, it's a jumble at the top of the point standings and, therefore, in the latest edition of Power Rankings.
Should points leader Jimmie Johnson be a shoo-in at the top? Or what about Matt Kenseth, who owns a series-high three race victories even if he's only fourth in the points? There are others on the move, too, like Kevin Harvick, who hardly has been floundering like a lame duck in his final season with Richard Childress Racing.
Yes, there is a new leader in the Power Rankings clubhouse, which also includes two new faces in place of two old ones. Taking into account not just who's winning races or earning the most points, but momentum, recent results and the total team efficiency of drivers, pit crews and crew chiefs alike, just read on and the whole picture will soon come into sensible focus.
12. Paul Menard
Previous Rank: NR
Why He's Here: In the past, Paul Menard was known mainly for having the most spectacular sideburns in NASCAR and for bringing large amounts of family money into the sport as his team's primary sponsor. But Menard moved into the top 12 in points after finishing 10th in the third race of the season at Las Vegas. And after all-too-brief forays into the top 12 in previous seasons, he's showing some staying power with the heavyweights this year. As the calendar turned to June, he was 10th in points and was working on his 12th consecutive week in the top 12.
Key 2013 Stats: Menard is doing it with consistency, not flash. He's finished every race he's started this season, has no finishes lower than eighth and only four lower than 13th—but also only one higher than 21st, per racing-reference.info.
Short-term outlook: More of the same should be expected from Menard at Pocono, where he has finished no lower than ninth and no higher than 16th in each of his last six races per racing-reference.info. But with only one career win (2011 at Indianapolis), he needs to start running all the way up front more.
11. Tony Stewart
Previous Rank: NR
Why He's Here: Where there is Smoke in the summertime, it's usually hot. There might even soon be a torrid fire. So it was no great surprise when, on the second day of June, Stewart broke out of a season-long slump and won the Sprint Cup race at Dover to claim perhaps the coolest trophy in NASCAR. It moved him to only 16th in points, but he's on the move in the right direction.
Key 2013 Stats: Stewart's struggles this season are well documented. They are best illustrated by the fact that he led laps in only three of the first 13 races, including the grand total of three in his win at Dover, per racing-reference.info.
Short-term Outlook: Smoke should continue to rise in the summer heat. He has two career victories at Pocono, where he has finished in the top five or better in six of the last nine races. Then it's on to Michigan, where he has finished top 10 or better in 13 of the last 16 per racing-reference.info.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Rank: 8
Why He's Here: Unlike Tony Stewart and some others who seem to heat up with the weather, Earnhardt Jr. has a nasty habit of struggling under the searing sun of summer—with one notable exception, which we will get to in a moment. Earnhardt's struggles this season seem to be setting in even earlier.
Key 2013 Stats: A hot start to the season had him leading the points after the first five races, but since then he's had one fair-to-middling, indifferent finish after another—interrupted only by a blown engine at Charlotte Motor Speedway that relegated him to a 39th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600. He has led laps in only two races, and more than a single lap in only one—when he led 47 en route to a fifth-place finish at Phoenix in the second race of the season per racing-reference.info.
Short-Term Outlook: Hey, the June Michigan race is coming up. It's the only race he's won in the last six years, and he has done it twice, including last year. Pocono never really has been his cup of tea, although he has three top-nine finishes there in his last four visits.
9. Brad Keselowski
Previous Rank: 5
Why He's Here: The defending Sprint Cup champion would be higher both in points and Power Rankings if he could only keep his No. 2 Ford team from getting leveled by NASCAR penalties. The latest—six points lost for having the car being too low after a fifth-place finish at Dover—made it a total of 31 points lost to penalties for the season.
Key 2013 Stats: The 31 points lost because of penalties are the difference between Keselowski being fourth in points and 10th, per NASCAR.com. Interestingly, even with the penalties he was one spot higher in the standings this year after 13 races than he was after the same number of races during his run to the championship last year, per racing-reference.info.
Short-Term Outlook: He likes the unique triangular layout of Pocono, where he won while racing with a broken ankle in 2011. Oddly, he has struggled at Michigan, which he considers his home track. Maybe he tries too hard there to make it happen.
8. Denny Hamlin
Previous Rank: 10
Why He's Here: In his first two full races after missing four total and most of a fifth because of a compression back fracture, he finished second at Darlington and fourth in NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And despite a late-race wreck taking him out at Dover, he led 41 laps and looked like a contender much of the day.
Key 2013 Stats: He's led in six of the eight races when he's been behind the wheel of the No. 11 Toyota full-time for a total of 203 laps, per racing-reference.info. His qualifying has also been rock solid. So, he and crew chief Darian Grubb clearly are getting top-notch speed in the car on a consistent basis.
Short-Term Outlook: Hamlin always has liked and excelled on the triangular layout of Pocono that which seems to befuddle others. The Prince of Pocono has won there four times, plus twice more at Michigan. Since he's gunning now for a wild-card berth into the Chase for the Sprint Cup because of the time he missed, and desperately needs wins, this is a good stretch of schedule for him to get to Victory Lane.
7. Clint Bowyer
Previous Rank: 9
Why He's Here: Although he headed into the Pocono race weekend third in points, there is a gap in Bowyer's credentials for the season. He hasn't won and he's rarely even led races. His No. 15 Toyota team needs to find more speed in the car so he can run up front more, and then he has to find a way to seal the deal at the end.
Key 2013 Stats: Despite his lofty position in the points, he has led more than one lap in only one race. That was at Richmond, when he led 113 and went on to finish second. To put that in perspective, Denny Hamlin has led a total of 203 despite missing four complete races and most of a fifth.
Short-Term Outlook: Based on his past history, these next two races could be tough. He's never won at either Pocono or Michigan, and he has only one top-five finish in a combined 28 career starts at the two venues (a third at Pocono in 2009 when the current Michael Waltrip Racing driver still wheeled for Richard Childress Racing).
6. Kyle Busch
Previous Rank: 3
Why He's Here: It's not his fault he's not higher in the points or these rankings. It's the fault of Toyota Racing Development, which provides the engines to Joe Gibbs Racing that seem to keep blowing up. It's happened twice already to Kyle: in the season-opening Daytona 500 that resulted in a 34th-place finish, and after he had led 65 laps in the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR's longest race, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Key 2013 Stats: He had two wins and led nearly 1,000 laps in the first 13 races, according to racing-reference.info, so crew chief Dave Rogers and the boys at Joe Gibbs Racing are building fast race cars and Busch obviously knows how to drive them. His problems mostly have come from faulty engines built by TRD (although he also has a 38th-place finish on the books that resulted from getting caught up in a wreck at Kansas).
Short-Term Outlook: He has never won a Cup race at Pocono, where last year he finished 30th in the first race because of—you guessed it—a blown engine, and 33rd after crashing out of the second race. He's won once at Michigan.
5. Kasey Kahne
Previous Rank: 6
Why He's Here: Kahne and his No. 5 Chevrolet team are on the rise, and you know he's being supplied with top-notch, reliable equipment from Hendrick Motorsports. It's his special chemistry with crew chief Kenny Francis that also seems to be paying off.
Key 2013 Stats: When Kahne has an obviously fast car, he's usually a lock to get results. He led 114 laps at Las Vegas and finished second. He led 109 and won at Bristol. He led 161 and finished second at Charlotte. He's led in only one other race and that was for two laps at Dover, per racing-reference.info.
Short-Term Outlook: He has won once each at Pocono and Michigan, and seems to have the kind of momentum that's likely to carry over to good runs at the two venues. One thing is certain: If he's fast enough to get up front and lead laps at any point, he's likely to be in position to contend for the wins at the end.
4. Carl Edwards
Previous Rank: 4
Why He's Here: Edwards has been holding down the No. 2 spot in the point standings for going on six weeks and has one win to his credit, winning at Phoenix in the second race of the season, where he led 122 laps. That's a whole lot of twos—and like Clint Bowyer, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig will have to find a little more speed in the car going forward to lead more laps and have a true chance of finishing No. 1 when it's all over.
Key 2013 Stats: Other than the 122 laps he led en route to Victory Lane at Phoenix, he's hardly led any laps at all. He led 19 at Kansas, but finished 17th after qualifying second, five at Talladega (where he finished third after sitting on the pole) and seven at Charlotte before finishing 11th, per racing-reference.info.
Short-Term Outlook: Fennig, in his first season as Edwards' crew chief, might be the key to this season. He and Edwards are just getting to know one another, and Edwards has won twice apiece at Pocono and Michigan. If the No. 99 doesn't find Victory Lane this time through these two venues, look out for them the second time through later this summer.
3. Kevin Harvick
Previous Rank: 7
Why He's Here: Lame duck? So what? In his final season at Richard Childress Racing after a long and successful run, Harvick already has announced that he's headed to Stewart-Haas Racing next year. But you'd never know it by the way he and his RCR team are attacking this season.
Key 2013 Stats: After starting the season by finishing 42nd, next-to-last, in the Daytona 500, it's been a steady march forward for Harvick and his No. 29 Chevy team, led by crew chief Gil Martin. Throw out an early wreck that eliminated them at Talladega, and since winning at Richmond, Harvick has finished fifth at Darlington, won again at Charlotte and finished a solid eighth at Dover. That also took him all the way up to fourth in the points.
Short-Term Outlook: Pocono is not Harvick's favorite race track. He's never won there in 24 career starts, so it will be a challenge to continue capitalizing on all the positive momentum his team has built up recently. He has one career win at Michigan, but only two other top-five finishes in 24 career starts, according to racing-reference.info.
2. Matt Kenseth
Previous Rank: 1
Why He's Here: Kenseth continues to lead the Sprint Cup Series in victories with three, but like Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, he also has been cut down twice by faulty engines supplied by Toyota Racing Development. He finished 37th in the season-opening Daytona 500 after losing an engine, and limped home in 40th when another one went before he reached the halfway point of the race at Dover.
Key 2013 Stats: Kenseth has led at least 10 laps in his No. 20 Toyota in 11 of the first 13 races. That is precisely the total number of races in which he led 10 laps or more during the entire 36-race schedule last year, in his final season of driving the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, per racing-reference.info.
Short-Term Outlook: He generally runs well at Michigan, where he has won twice and has 12 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in 27 career starts. He doesn't really like or fare well at Pocono, which requires more gear shifting and has never yielded him a victory in 26 career starts.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Rank: 2
Why He's Here: Yes, he jumped a critical restart and paid the price for it at Dover, where he could have and probably should have claimed what would have been his third victory of the season. But he still led 143 laps and had the dominant car there. He's still No. 1 in the points, and the Hendrick Motorsports engines in his No. 48 Chevy aren't blowing like those of some of his closest competitors.
Key 2013 Stats: In the first 13 races, he completed 99.8 percent of the 4,349 laps possible, according to racing-reference.info. And his two wins came in the Daytona 500 and at Martinsville, two tracks he will visit again before this season is over.
Short-Term Outlook: Bad news for the 48 haters. Johnson likes quirky Pocono, and it shows with two wins, two poles, nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 22 career starts. His average start at the track is 9.3 and his average finish is 9.0. He's not nearly as good at Michigan, where he has never won and his average finish is 15.2.