NASCAR Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Week 17 Edition

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistJune 26, 2013

NASCAR Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Week 17 Edition

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    As the NASCAR Sprint Cup season approaches the halfway mark of its 36-race grind, many familiar faces seem entrenched in all-too-familiar places.

    But not everything remains the same. And if the latest race winner on the road course at Sonoma is any indication, more surprises could be right around the next turn.

    So take a look at who's holding on to what they've got, who's moving up and who's moving down in the weekly power struggle that is the Sprint Cup Seriesbased on factors such as not only who is winning the races, but which drivers and teams are showing a willingness and ability to battle through adversity, and which drivers have the most momentum and confidence at the present time.

    Then keep in mind that it all could change as the summer months heat up and so do the point standings.

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Previous Rank: 10

    Why He’s Here: Five weeks into the season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was first in the point standings.  Now he’s sixth and headed in the wrong direction, as he has led more than one lap in only two of the first 16 races of the Sprint Cup season.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: The first Michigan race has come and gone, and that’s not good for Dale Jr. The June Michigan race is the only one he’s won in the last six-plus seasonsand he had done it twice. Those also represent the only two victories he’s had since joining mighty Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

    But in his latest visit to Michigan on June 16, a blown engine left him finishing 37th and pretty much negated the good work he did while finishing third at Pocono the week before Michigan and the 12th he grinded out on the road course at Sonoma the week after per racing-reference.info.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: Kentucky Speedway, the next stop on the schedule, is the only currently active Sprint Cup track where he has never led a single lap. But that’s followed by a trip to Daytona, where Earnhardt has fared well over his 15-year Cup career.

11. Kasey Kahne

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    Previous Rank: 5

    Why He’s Here: Kahne moved to as high as second in the standings before a series of setbacks led to poor finishes, dropping him all the way back to 12th after a wreck ended his day at Michigan in mid-June just past the halfway point of the race. His No. 5 Chevrolet has been consistently fastfast enough to win at Bristol earlier in the year and finish second on three other occasionsbut hasn’t been getting the consistently great finishes to match.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: Pocono (36th) and Michigan (38th) were disasters. He rebounded with a sixth-place finish at Sonoma, where he had won previously in his career, and that’s a good sign. It also was yet another indication of the continuing maturity of Kahne, who used to struggle on road courses and used to wither under adversity. Now he’s learned to run well no matter what the track while dealing better emotionally with the days when the car is a little off or bad luck rears its ugly head.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: It’s only a matter of time until Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis get it together and keep it together. Kahne is too good of a driver, showing too many signs of a guy about to bust out into true championship contender form, and his entire team is a reflection of that.

10. Brad Keselowski

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    Previous Rank: 9

    Why He’s Here: The defending Sprint Cup champion, Keselowski is fond of reminding alarmists that this is the highest he has been in the point standings at this juncture of a season in his relatively brief Cup career. While that is true, it is concerning that he has yet to win a single race. Until he does or moves up in the standings, the fact is that he’s on the edge of failing to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: Last year en route to his title, Keselowski was 10th in points heading into the 17th race of the season at Kentucky per racing-reference.info. But he had already won twice and therefore had virtually locked up a spot in the Chase well ahead of the rest of his fellow competitors. Then he won at Kentucky, too, to really lock himself in.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: Winning at Kentucky last year enabled Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe to use the rest of the 26-race regular season to gear up for a Chase championship run. He needs his first win of 2013 soon to ensure a solid title defense, and Kentucky is as good a place to start as any. In a combined 15 career starts at Daytona and New Hampshire, the next two stops on the schedule, he has never won.

9. Martin Truex Jr.

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    Previous Rank: NR

    Why He’s Here: After flirting with victories earlier in the year at Texas and Kansas, and after finishing third a week earlier at Michigan, Truex broke a 218-race winless streak by going to Victory Lane on the road course at Sonoma. His only previous Cup triumph came in 2007 at Dover, giving him the distinction of owning the longest winless streak between victories in the history of the series.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: Everyone was in Truex’s rear-view mirror at Sonoma, and he admitted afterward it was a great feeling. It erased the disappointment of having high hopes dashed a couple weeks earlier when he started second but finished 38th at Dover because of an engine failure. When he struggled to a 23rd-place finish at Pocono a week later, he dropped all the way to 17th in points according to racing-reference.info. Now he’s back up to 10th place. That’s a remarkably quick and efficient turnaround, indicating a team able to deal with adversity that is on the rise.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: He’s never registered so much as a top-five finish at Kentucky or Daytona, but has had some good runs at New Hampshire. But more than anything, Truex has momentum and confidence on his side. That means a whole lot and sometimes renders past performances meaningless.

8. Tony Stewart

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    Previous Rank:  11

    Why He’s Here: It’s summer. The heat is steadily rising and so was Stewart in the Sprint Cup point standings before a disappointing 28th-place finish at Sonoma that he mostly brought on himself by running into the back of Denny Hamlin and damaging the No. 14 Chevy that Stewart drives. That ended a string of four consecutive finishes into the top seven (including a win at Dover despite leading only three laps, a fourth at Pocono and a fifth at Michigan) and dropped Stewart from a season-high 10th in the points to 15th.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: Normally strong on road courses, Stewart was glad to see Sonoma behind him this time. It marked his seventh finish of 21st or worse in the first 16 races per racing-reference.info.  When he won his third Cup title in 2011, he had only seven such finishes the entire 36-race season.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: Even though Stewart is showing his usual signs of summer life, it’s still disturbing that he’s led laps in only three of the first 16 racesand never for very long. He led 18 at Fontana and six at Charlotte before the aforementioned and well-timed three he parlayed into a trip to Victory Lane at Dover. The bottom line is the good folks at his Stewart-Haas Racing shop need to find more speed in the car.

7. Kyle Busch

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    Previous Rank: 6

    Why He’s Here:  He had a tough day at Sonoma, finishing 35th. But in the three races prior to that, he finished fourth at Dover, sixth at Pocono and fourth at Michigan. Coupled with two wins earlier in the season, it’s obvious that all he has to do is eliminate the really awful days like the one at Sonoma to climb into true championship contention once the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup commences.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: No driver has been all over both sides of the spectrum more than Busch this season. He’s finished sixth or better and led more than 27 laps in nine of the first 16 races, but also has finished 34th or worse five times per racing-reference.info.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: Two of Busch’s poor finishes came as the result of blown engines that obviously were not of his doing. If Toyota Racing Development, which supplies Joe Gibbs Racing with the engines that power Busch’s No. 18 race car, can get its act together and keep it together, Busch will be in the mix for the long haul this season. If they can’t, it will be another frustrating season filled with too many downs to go with the ups.

6. Greg Biffle

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    Previous Rank: NR

    Why He’s Here: Biffle is the hottest driver in the Sprint Cup Series over the last three races. While that isn’t a real extensive sample size, it’s hard to ignore the significance of his finishes of second at Pocono, first at Michigan and eighth on the road course at Sonoma. He’s up to sixth in points and now, with a win in his fire suit belt, he’s closing in on becoming a lock for the Chase.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: Throw out three bad races (36th in back-to-back weeks at Richmond and Talladega, and 31st two weeks after that in Charlotte) and The Biff might be pushing Jimmie Johnson for the points lead. He was up to third earlier in the season before encountering the three poor finishes over a four-week stretch, according to racing-reference.info.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: Although he has yet to lead a lap at Kentucky in two career Cup starts there, that could change based on the same sort of confidence and momentum that Martin Truex Jr. is riding right now. Plus the next two stops after the Blue Grass State are Daytona and New Hampshiretwo places where Biffle has previously won. Another victory and he’ll be locked into the Chase for sure.

5. Clint Bowyer

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    Previous Rank:  7

    Why He’s Here: After watching his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate win at Sonoma, Bowyer no doubt is suffering a little anxiety for having not won a race yet this season. He’s led more than one lap in only one race113 while finishing second at Richmond in Aprilbut he’s been stunningly consistent and that has enabled him to climb to third in the point standings.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: Bowyer has finished worse than 18th only twice while registering nine finishes of eighth or better over the first 16 races according to racing-reference.info. He also finished second at Martinsville earlier in the season, so he knows he’s close to getting back to Victory Lanea place he visited three times last year during his inaugural season at MWR.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: He has New Hampshire Motor Speedway circled on his race calendar. It’s one of his favorite race tracks – one of three on the schedule where he’s posted more than one victory in his Cup career. He hasn’t fared well at Kentucky, but could make some noise at Daytona.

4. Carl Edwards

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    Previous Rank:  4

    Why He’s Here: Much like Bowyer, Edwards has been remarkably consistent but he also has one win to his creditgetting to Victory Lane at Phoenix in the second event of the season. He’s already doubled the total of top-five finishes that he registered during a disappointing 2012 season, and is closing in on his 2012 laps led total after only 16 races in 2013, according to racing-reference.info.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: Edwards has been on a roll in qualifying, earning the pole at Michigan and narrowly missing out on poles at Pocono, where he started second, and Sonoma, where he started and finished third. Edwards and the No. 99 Ford finally seems to be recovering from the blows they felt a year ago after losing some key engineers who worked on their program at Roush Fenway Racing.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: Edwards continues to click with new crew chief Jimmy Fennig, with all indications being that they’ll only get stronger as the season progresses as their chemistry develops even further. Edwards knows he can’t ask teammate Greg Biffle to slow down to assist him after rightly being rebuffed for such a request at Michigan. He’ll have to mount his own championship run with Fennig’s able assistance.

3. Matt Kenseth

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    Previous Rank: 2

    Why He’s Here: Kenseth has lost a fair amount of momentum since capturing two poles and three race wins over the first 11 weeks of the season. In the five races after posting win No. 3 at Darlington, his average finish was just 21.0. That included a 40th-place finish after the engine in his No. 20 Toyota blew less than halfway through the race at Dover.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: Kenseth did finish a respectable sixth at Michigan, but that’s his only finish inside the top 14 since Darlington per racing-reference.info. He’s never liked the road courses like Sonoma, where he qualified well and started sixth but finished only 19th. The good news and harbinger of better times ahead lies in the revelation that even as he’s struggled with getting good finishes, he has continued to run up front in most races. He led 10 or more laps in 11 of the first 16 races, and that’s without leading any in the last three.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: He’ll be a threat to win at Daytona over July 4 weekend. He has yet to win a Cup event at either Kentucky or New Hampshire, although he’s come close at Loudon. Don’t worry about Kenseth. He’s got the staying power to remain in the championship race as long as his equipment doesn’t fail him.

2. Kevin Harvick

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    Previous Rank: 3

    Why He’s Here: Happy, happy, happy. That describes Harvick’s lame-duck hunting season. Nothing seems to rattle him or his team, as they’ve repeatedly stated that they want Happy’s final season at Richard Childress Racing to be a memorable one. With two wins at Richmond and Charlotte already, it’s shaping up that way.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: Soon enough RCR will be in Harvick’s rear-view mirror, as he’s already announced he’ll leave the organization at the end of this season for Stewart-Haas Racing. So far, he appears to be going out in true Harvick style. He owns the two wins and a total of four top-five finishesincluding a second at Michigandespite leading very few laps on the whole. In fact, the only races in which he’s led more than one lap are the two he won, and he led a total of only three in one of those according to racing-reference.info.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: He should be a threat to win at both Daytona and New Hampshire. He hasn’t yet fared well in Cup races at Kentucky. The Lame Duck Commander seems a good bet to remain happy, happy, happy over the coming weeks.

1. Jimmie Johnson

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    Previous Rank: 1

    Why He’s Here: Who else would be here?  Everyone else has been pretty much chasing Five Time since Johnson won the season-opening Daytona 500. He has been atop the point standings for all but two of the first 16 weeks, is the only other driver besides Matt Kenseth with three race victories, and seems a threat to win no matter where he goes.

    In The Rear-View Mirror: He might have had a fourth victory if he hadn’t jumped a late restart at Dover. That just illustrated again how he’s willing to push it to the edge to try to win races, when others in a similar situation might have settled for second and “a good points day.” His average finish thus far this season is a career-best 9.4, and that’s saying something for someone who already is a five-time Cup champ.

    Beyond The Next Pit Stop: More bad news for the 48 haters. He started fifth and finished third in his first Cup race at Kentucky two years ago, then won the pole and finished sixth last year there. Then it’s on to Daytona, where it’s feast or famine for Johnson but he can’t ever be ruled out. And the next stop after that is New Hampshire, where he owns three wins, eight top-five and 15 top-finishes in 22 career starts according to racing-reference.info.

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