Power Ranking the Drivers After the 3rd Month of the 2016 NASCAR Season
After a performance so dominant it was unlike any other in NASCAR's 67-year history, there is no doubt Martin Truex Jr. is moving on up in the latest Bleacher Report NASCAR driver rankings.
Truex led more miles than any other driver in any race in NASCAR's long history in taking the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he led 392 of 400 laps overall. That means he was out front for 588 of the 600 miles in NASCAR's longest race.
"It's just kind of sinking in now that we won the 600," an emotional Truex told Fox Sports as he fought back tears in Victory Lane. "I'm just really proud of my team. ... Everybody who made this possible, believed in me and gave me this opportunity. (Crew chief) Cole Pearn and my guys, they're just something special."
So Truex is on the move in the right direction as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Pocono and headlong toward the dog days of summer.
But where does that leave the rest of the top drivers? Based not only on whether they've been to Victory Lane, but also on how much positive momentum they've generated, how well their chemistry is with their crew chiefs and pit crews, and which teams are building the fastest race cars back at the shop, we figured that out.
10. Joey Logano
Previous ranking: 7
Why he's here: Joey Logano has yet to win a points race and is languishing in ninth in the points after winning a series-high six races last season.
Key 2016 moments: Logano is coming off a bitterly disappointing month, as he crashed in three races in a row at Talladega, Kansas and Dover, finishing 22nd or worse each time. The good news? He ran better at Charlotte, particularly while picking up a cool $1 million for winning the non-points Sprint All-Star Race. He was ninth in the Coca-Cola 600.
But he and crew chief Todd Gordon, who normally click like clockwork, continue to have trouble making the right calls for adjustments during points races that they did when Gordon ordered up four fresh tires at the end of the All-Star Race.
That is evident in the fact Logano has finished better than where he's started in just two of the first 13 races of the season. He was hurt in the 600 by a pit-road penalty when too many of his crew members went over the wall too soon, which is exactly the type of mistake that can keep a fast race car like Logano's from reaching Victory Lane.
What's next: Logano has won races at three of the next four tracks, capturing one each at Pocono, Michigan and Daytona. He also has a total of nine top-five finishes in his career at those three venues, so the real challenge for him over this next stretch will come at Sonoma, where his fifth-place finish last year was his first top five ever at the California road course.
9. Matt Kenseth
Previous ranking: Not ranked
Why he's here: Matt Kenseth displayed signs of turning around a hard-luck season by winning at Dover to secure a spot in the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup that will decide the season's champion over the final 10 races.
Key 2016 moments: Kenseth finished 19th or worse in half of the season's first 10 races, oftentimes through circumstances that were no fault of his own. But he's led laps in 11 of the first 13 races, indicating that his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota generally is not lacking for speed.
He followed up his win on the Monster Mile that is Dover with a solid seventh-place finish in the Coke 600, giving him three finishes of seventh or better in a row. You've got to believe that whatever was happening with the usually rock-solid driver and team earlier this season—an "illegal fueling" penalty at Atlanta, a wreck at Las Vegas, a tire going down and a pit-road speeding penalty at Phoenix, among others—crew chief Jason Ratcliff and Kenseth have better days ahead of them.
What's next: This is a stretch of schedule coming up that Kenseth no doubt finds favorable. He won last year both at Pocono and Michigan, registering the first win of his career at the former and the third at the latter. He also has two wins at Daytona and could be a threat there, too, although he would be the first to tell you that road-course racing at Sonoma is not his cup of tea (as evidenced as only one top-10 finish—and no top fives—in 16 career efforts there).
8. Denny Hamlin
Previous ranking: 5
Why he's here: Denny Hamlin finished fourth in the Coca-Cola 600 after coming home in seventh a week earlier at Dover. The back-to-back solid finishes seem to have him going in the right direction again after finishing 31st and 27th, respectively, the previous two weeks at Talladega and Kansas, which dropped him to 13th in points at the time (he's now back up to 11th).
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, but he's led more than 10 laps in only one other race this season. He was in position to win again at Fontana, as he led the field to green on the final restart before falling back to third behind race winner Jimmie Johnson and runner-up Kevin Harvick.
But until scoring a sixth at Richmond and then a seventh at Dover, he went nearly a month between top-10 finishes. So Hamlin needs to work on more consistent finishes with crew chief Mike Wheeler in their first year together at the Sprint Cup level. The good news is that the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota pit crew has been consistently gaining Hamlin spots on pit road, which likely will help him get back to Victory Lane sooner rather than later.
What's next: Hamlin will be one of the pre-race favorites at each of the next two tracks, having piled up four wins, nine top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 20 career starts at Pocono and racked up two wins, six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 20 starts at Michigan. His win in the 500 earlier this year was the first of his career at Daytona, but because he pulled that off, he will be one of the favorites there as well.
7. Kurt Busch
Previous ranking: 6
Why he's here: Although he has yet to win a race this season, the older of the racing Busch brothers arguably has been one of the most consistent finishers in Sprint Cup. Busch currently ranks second in points, and his 11 top-10 finishes are tops on the circuit.
Key 2016 moments: Busch's best finish this season has been third, and he's done it twice—at Bristol and again at Kansas. He's also earned two poles and is currently on a run of seven consecutive top-10 finishes.
That's the type of consistency that wins championships, but at some point he'll likely have to take the next step and get back to Victory Lane. His only really poor finish came at Fontana, where he qualified poorly (26th) and never was a factor on the day when he ended up finishing 30th.
What's next: Of the next four tracks on the schedule, Pocono is the one where Busch has had the most overall success with two wins, 12 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes. But he also has three wins (although fewer top fives and top 10s) at Michigan and one win with seven top-five finishes in 15 career starts on the road course at Sonoma.
Where he's struggled most over the next month-long stretch of tracks, surprisingly, is Daytona. He's never won there in 30 career starts, although he's finished in the top five in 12 of them and in the top 10 in 16.
6. Martin Truex Jr.
Previous ranking: 10
Why he's here: The dominance he displayed in securing his first victory of the season in last Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte was nothing short of stunning. His total of 809 laps led is now tops in the series.
Key 2016 moments: Prior to breaking his 34-race winless streak at Charlotte, Truex had experienced plenty of heartbreak. He finished second by inches (and 0.010 seconds) to Denny Hamlin in the closest Daytona 500 finish in history to start the season. He led the most laps at Texas and Kansas, but won neither race. And he was in position to contend at Dover when Jimmie Johnson's transmission failed on a late restart, leaving Truex with nowhere to go but straight into the back end of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.
Now he's secured a spot in the Chase. Truex said he credits the determination his longtime girlfriend, Shelly Pollex, has displayed. She was declared cancer-free in January after a long battle with ovarian cancer and has been an inspiration.
"I had confidence. I had faith. I had confidence in my team," he told Fox Sports. "I’ve got a lot of great people behind me. Sherry, she gives me a lot of inspiration, and we just keep fighting. We never give up. We never quit."
What's next: Truex won his only race of last season at Pocono roughly one year ago. Another of his four career wins came on the road course at Sonoma. So while he's never won at either Michigan or Daytona, the fact is, he and crew chief Cole Pearn seem to be clicking again, and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team's alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing after switching to Toyota is paying off big-time with even more trips to Victory Lane likely ahead.
5. Brad Keselowski
Previous ranking: 8
Why he's here: Brad Keselowski has won two races and has finished in the top 10 in each of the last four races. He's also currently fifth in points.
Key 2016 moments: It was no great surprise that he picked up his second win of the season at Talladega, the restrictor-plate track where he's always tough. He led 24 laps in his first victory of the season earlier, fittingly winning in Vegas by gambling on fuel at the end.
The good news is that Keselowski's No. 2 Team Penske Ford is beginning to show more speed, having led laps in four of the last five races after Vegas was the only one in which he had led more than a single lap over the first eight.
What's next: This is not a really promising stretch coming up for Keselowski. In a combined 45 career starts at the next four tracks, Keselowski has won only once at Pocono. He's 0-of-33 all time at Michigan, the road course at Sonoma and, surprisingly, Daytona. The restrictor-plate magic he seems to possess at Talladega just has not yet transferred to Daytona, where he's registered just two top-five finishes in 14 starts.
4. Carl Edwards
Previous ranking: 1
Why he's here: Since winning back-to-back races on the Bristol and Richmond short tracks, Carl Edwards and his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team has been, well, pretty bad. He's fallen to fifth in the points as a result.
Key 2016 moments: Edwards won the back-to-back races and then finished, in order, 35th at Talladega, 11th at Kansas, 28th at Dover and 18th at Charlotte. He was involved in wrecks at both 'Dega and Dover, part of which was nothing more than bad luck.
But still, it's time for Edwards and crew chief Dave Rogers to right the ship. They were first in points as recently as one month ago and have the type of team that could get there again, if they get back to showing the kind of consistency they displayed earlier in the season when Edwards reeled off eight finishes of seventh or better in the first nine races.
What's next: Edwards has won twice each at Pocono and Michigan, and once at Sonoma after working very hard earlier in his career to improve as a road-course racer. But he's never won at Daytona, so the time for him to turn around his recent string of poor finishes is now, as in this weekend at Pocono. And he's even better at Michigan, where in addition to his two wins he's also registered nine top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 23 career starts.
3. Kevin Harvick
Previous ranking: 4
Why he's here: Kevin Harvick's second-place run in the Coca-Cola 600 was his second runner-up finish in the last three races. He's led a total of 688 laps, and his average finish of 7.2 is best in the series, which is why he's the current points leader. But he's not higher in these rankings because he's been able to convert all that into just one win.
Key 2016 moments: His one win of the season came at Phoenix, which was no surprise because he's now won five of the last six races at the one-mile track. But that is just one of seven races in which he's led 63 laps or more, so it's obvious crew chief Rodney Childers gives him fast cars at every type of track the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team visits.
He finished second at Fontana when Jimmie Johnson passed him on the final green-white-checkered restart, which was a bitter finish to a race he had pretty much dominated up to that point. But after finishing second a record 13 times last season, he should be used to being runner-up.
He actually was much more pleased with his second-place run in the Coke 600 after struggling in the middle of the pack for much of the race, telling Fox Sports of finishing behind Truex's No. 78 Toyota: "Well, I saw him for about 50 miles or 75 miles (of 600). The rest of the night I never saw him. I was back there swatting flies in the middle of the pack. I didn't have a lot of time to see the 78."
What's next: Harvick has never won at Pocono or Sonoma in a combined 45 starts. He owns one career win at Michigan and two at Daytona, so his best bet to contend over the coming month will be at the latter of those two venues. Sooner or later, though, he and Childers will figure out how to turn more of their seconds into firsts, and he could get on quite a run.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Previous ranking: 3
Why he's here: Of the four drivers who own multiple wins, Johnson is highest in the points (currently third). This is a little odd, since he's had some poor finishes, and his total of seven top-10 finishes is fewer than most of the other top drivers.
Key 2016 moments: Johnson's two wins this season have come at Fontana and Atlanta. Since then, his finishes have been a little inconsistent. That's uncharacteristic for Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team led by crew chief Chad Knaus.
His third-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 snapped a string of three races in a row where he finished 17th or worse, and he's led a total of just nine laps in the last four races. So there remains work to be done, but Johnson said he was encouraged by his strong run at Charlotte, when he was in the top five for most of the long 600-miler and probably had the second-best car behind Truex.
"I could drive the car, the car wasn't driving me. And the last few times we've been here, I've just been kind of hanging on. I think we're going the right way with the race cars," Johnson told Fox Sports.
What's next: Johnson has piled up a total of eight wins at the next four tracks, including three each at Pocono and Daytona. He's won once each at the other two venues and seems optimistic after Charlotte that the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets are making strides toward catching up with the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, which bodes well for his immediate future.
1. Kyle Busch
Previous ranking: 2
Why he's here: Kyle, the younger of the racing Busch brothers, is the only driver with three Sprint Cup wins already in the books this season. That trumps all else, despite the fact he's crashed out of the last two races at Dover and Charlotte.
Key 2016 moments: Busch won back-to-back at Martinsville and Texas earlier in the season, and he then followed that with a win at Kansas four races later. He also nearly won at Richmond, but Edwards, who is one of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, executed a perfect bump-and-run move on the final lap to steal the victory.
Yes, Busch is No. 1 in spite of the finishes of 30th and 33rd in the last two races. You have to look at the entire body of work on the season, and when you do that, no one has been better. In addition to his three wins, he's finished second twice, third twice and fourth twice. There is no doubt the last two races are little more than hiccups in a season full of championship possibilities.
What's next: The only one of the next four tracks Busch has never won at is the next one—Pocono. He's won twice at Sonoma and once apiece at Michigan and Daytona. The fact is, though, that with the chemistry he and Adam Stevens have developed at the Cup level over the last two seasons, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is a threat to win at any track he visits. That's why he's the defending Sprint Cup champion.
Joe Menzer is a Digital Content Producer who covers NASCAR for FoxSports.com and writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. He also co-hosts a weekly radio show on ESPN 730 AM in Charlotte and you can follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.