Power Ranking the Drivers After 1st Month of 2016 Season
The first five races of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season are in the books.
Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, whose No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, featuring a Superman paint scheme last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, is the only driver with multiple wins. Johnson also passed Hall of Famer and seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt in career wins with his 77th of all time in the Auto Club 400, which Fox Sports television analyst Darrell Waltrip recently attempted to put into perspective.
"He hasn't been in the sport all that long, so the amount of time it took him to break Dale Earnhardt's record is remarkable," Waltrip told Fox Sports of Johnson, who took 512 races to score career win No. 77 (Earnhardt earned his 76 over 676 starts). "Johnson is a phenomenon like Jeff Gordon, his mentor. Seventy-seven wins and six championships is total dominance. What's most impressive is the amount of time it took him to hit this mark—not so much the mark itself."
Yet despite all this, Johnson is not currently leading in the Sprint Cup points standings.
So are the two wins enough to put Johnson at the top of the season's inaugural B/R Driver Power Rankings? Or is someone else leading the way? And where does everyone else fall in our first top-10 list?
Read on to find out.
10. Austin Dillon
Why he's here: Austin Dillon, now in his third season after bringing the No. 3 back to Sprint Cup, still hasn't won a race in NASCAR's top series. But he sat on the pole for the Auto Club 400 and is 10th in points after a consistent start that is turning some heads.
Key 2016 moments: Dillon has three top-10 finishes in the first five races. Last season he had five for the entire 36-race schedule, and that represented a career high. He started and finished fifth at Las Vegas, giving him the same number of top fives this season that he managed in each of his first two Cup seasons.
What's next: This next stretch of four races will reveal whether Dillon's strong start is legit or not. In 18 career starts at Martinsville, Texas, Bristol and Richmond, Dillon has no wins, no top fives and only one top-10 finish.
Dillon told Fox Sports his team's hard work from the offseason, and his chemistry with crew chief Slugger Labbe have been the keys so far, adding: "I really enjoy working with Slugger and my group of engineers that are with me. We have just tried to eliminate mistakes and make me a better driver and our team better race cars. The work is paying off."
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Why he's here: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy featured a Batman paint scheme, but he fought handling issues all day while struggling to an 11th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway. It was a respectable finish and kind of indicative of the season he's been having—as in good, but not great.
Key 2016 moments: Junior led 15 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500, but ended up finishing 36th after crashing. He led 34 at Phoenix and finished fifth. But his best finish came in the second race of the year at Atlanta, when he finished second to race winner and teammate Johnson.
What's next: The next month lines up favorably for Earnhardt Jr., who has won once at each of the next three tracks he'll visit (Martinsville, Texas and Bristol) and three times at Richmond, where he has finished in the top five in nearly one-third of his career 33 starts (10 times).
8. Kurt Busch
Why he's here: Kurt Busch is seventh in points and has led a total of 93 laps, which ranks fifth. But his finishes haven't quite matched the speed he's showing in his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy, with only one top five in the first five races.
Key 2016 moments: Busch's best finish was fourth at Atlanta. And it's not like he was terrible in any of the first four races, finishing 10th at Daytona, ninth at Las Vegas and sixth at Phoenix in addition to the strong run at Atlanta, where he led 62 laps. He also led 31 at Vegas. His only really poor finish came at Fontana, where he qualified poorly (26th) and never was a factor on day when he ended up finishing 30th.
What's next: Busch has won multiple times at three of the next four Cup venues, but his best chance of winning is at Bristol where he has gone to Victory Lane five times in his career. He also has won twice each at Martinsville and Richmond, and once at Texas. His chemistry with crew chief Tony Gibson almost guarantees that he will contend for a win at at least one of these tracks.
7. Joey Logano
Why he's here: Joey Logano has finished sixth or better in three of the five races, but he's really been a strong threat to win in only one. That was at Las Vegas when he started and finished second after leading 75 laps.
Key 2016 moments: The Vegas race obviously has been the highlight of his season so far. But he also finished fourth at Fontana and sixth at Daytona and hasn't had a really terrible run yet, finishing 12th at Atlanta and 18th at Phoenix in his other two races.
Logano, who did not make many friends on the track last year, already has been infuriating some folks this year. After he got into the car of Martin Truex Jr. and ruined Truex's day at Fontana, Truex crew chief Cole Pearn tweeted that he guessed Logano "can't see through his squinty douchy eyes" (although Pearn later apologized).
What's next: Logano has won races at three of the next four tracks, including twice at Bristol. Of the next four races, Martinsville is the only place where he has yet to win. Crew chief Todd Gordon will coax enough speed out of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford to give Logano what he needs to win sooner rather than later, and when he does, Logano will know what to do with it.
6. Carl Edwards
Why he's here: Carl Edwards hasn't won a race yet, but he's been one of the more consistent drivers with three top-five and four top-10 finishes in the first five races. He's been solid enough that he's currently third in points.
Key 2016 moments: He finished second at Phoenix after leading 65 laps, getting edged by Kevin Harvick for the win in the closest finish in track history. "I should've wrecked him," Edwards joked afterward to SB Nation's Jordan Bianchi. "We had an opportunity to win it. That's going to be a tough one to swallow, but it was a lot of fun." He also opened the season with a pair of fifth-place runs at Daytona and Atlanta, and finished a respectable seventh last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. The only race where he has finished worse than seventh was at Las Vegas, when he struggled to an 18th-place finish.
What's next: Edwards is showing real promise in his first season with crew chief Dave Rogers—a veteran at Joe Gibbs Racing. His best bets to contend for wins over the next month will be at Texas and Bristol, where he has won three times each.
5. Brad Keselowski
Why he's here: Brad Keselowski is one of just four drivers who have won thus far, going to Victory Lane at Las Vegas. But he's only ninth in points because he finished 20th at Daytona and 29th at Phoenix.
Key 2016 moments: He led 24 laps at Vegas and led one lap at Daytona, fittingly winning in Sin City by gambling on fuel at the end. He has not led any laps in any other race, indicating his No. 2 Team Penske Ford has been lacking in speed compared to other top title contenders. He also has a pair of ninth-place finishes at Atlanta and Fontana.
What's next: The 2012 Cup champion has never won at either Martinsville or Texas, despite making 27 career starts. He owns two wins at Bristol and one at Richmond, so those are the tracks where he can be expected to run up front and possibly contend for the win.
It's a plus that he's a big fan of the new low-downforce aerodynamic package, telling Fox Sports after the win at Vegas: "This rules package, I love it. In these cars, you can be really fast at the start of the run or really fast at the end of a run—and we had awesome speed at the end of every run."
4. Kyle Busch
Why he's here: The younger of the two racing Busch brothers has yet to win, but Kyle's done everything but that over the opening stretch of five races. He led laps in each of the first four while racking up two third-place finishes and two fourths, and his 134 laps-led total is third in Sprint Cup.
Key 2016 moments: Busch was not pleased when a blown tire with two laps to go took him from contention for the race win (or at least another finish inside the top five) to 25th at Fontana. It came only one day after a blown tire on the final lap at the same track cost him the win in the XFINITY Series race. "That's pretty disappointing to have two tire failures two days in a row go unexplained," Busch told USA Today after the Cup race, according to Jessica Ruffin of NASCAR.com.
What's next: Although he's never won at Martinsville and won only once at Texas, Busch always is formidable at both Bristol and Richmond. He's won five times in his career at Bristol and four times at Richmond—where he's also scored 14 top-five finishes in 21 all-time starts.
3. Denny Hamlin
Why he's here: Denny Hamlin began the season by showing serious speed in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota during Daytona Speedweeks, which he capped by winning the season-opening Daytona 500. After falling off in the next two races, he's logged a pair of back-to-back third-place finishes in the last two races at Phoenix and Fontana.
Key 2016 moments: Short of winning a championship, nothing else he does this season will top winning the Daytona 500. He led 95 of the 200 laps en route to that victory. He was in position to win again at Fontana, leading the field to green on the final restart before falling back to third behind race winner Johnson and runner-up Kevin Harvick. "A good day," Hamlin told Fox Sports afterward. "Just not a great day."
What's next: Hamlin has to be excited about this next stretch of tracks. He's won the combined total of 10 races over his career at Martinsville, Texas, Bristol and Richmond—with half of those coming at Martinsville, his self-described favorite track. In 20 all-time starts at the Virginia short track, he's finished in the top five more than half the time (11) and in the top 10 a stunning 16 times.
2. Kevin Harvick
Why he's here: This is beginning to look a whole lot like last year—or the year before when Harvick won the 2014 Sprint Cup title. He once again is far and away the series leader in total laps led with 413 (242 more than anyone else). He's also the points leader despite having won only one race to Jimmie Johnson's two.
Key 2016 moments: He won at Phoenix, which was no surprise because he's now won five of the last six races run at the one-mile track. But that's just one of three races in which he's led 131 laps or more, with the others being Atlanta (131) and Fontana (142).
He finished second at Fontana when Johnson passed him on the final green-white-checkered restart, which was a bitter way to end a race he had pretty much dominated. But the fact is, he has no finish worse than seventh, and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy has consistently been the fastest in the series.
What's next: He's never won at Texas, and he's won only one time apiece at Martinsville and Bristol. But he should be tough to beat at Richmond, where he owns three career victories and has finished in the top 10 in 18 of 30 career starts. If he's in position near the end of a race, he certainly knows how to get it done—as evidenced by beating and banging door-to-door with Edwards before claiming the Phoenix win by a mere .010 seconds. "It worked out, just barely," Harvick told Fox Sports.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Why he's here: No other driver has two wins this season. That trumps all else.
Key 2016 moments: Johnson's roll to victory in the Superman car at Fontana was superb and a little unexpected on a day when Harvick's machine appeared to have the superior speed. But that's typical of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, making the most out of what they have and sometimes even a little more.
Johnson's other win came at Atlanta, and he's led 18 laps or more in four of the five races. His total of 171 laps led trails only Harvick. He also finished third at Las Vegas and is second behind Harvick in points only because he managed just a 16th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and was 11th at Phoenix.
Johnson took particular pride in beating not only Harvick at Fontana but also his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 11th in the No. 88 Chevy featuring a Batman paint scheme. "We saved our best for last, for sure," Johnson told Fox Sports. "I told everybody Superman would kick Batman's butt, and it happened."
What's next: You know the driver with the nickname "Mr. Martinsville" loves going to the Virginia short track where he has won eight times and has a total of 18 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes in 28 career starts. The bad news for his competitors is that he's also won a total of 10 times at the next three tracks after that, including six times at Texas.