NASCAR Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Tide Turns Heading Into Talladega
"I told you it wasn't over!" Denny Hamlin reminded us.
It's true. By taking the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway yesterday, Hamlin took a quantum leap forward in the standings, closing leader Jimmie Johnson's gap to a mere six points heading into the final four races of the season. From here, it basically becomes a "finish in front of the 48, no matter what" situation for Hamlin, who is looking to end Johnson's streak of four consecutive titles.
But don't count out Kevin Harvick just yet, either. The only other driver within 100 points of the leaders also had a strong Martinsville run, placing third when all was said and done. And with the ever-looming possibility of the "big one" taking out twenty-odd cars next weekend at Talladega, that may just be close enough for Harvick to reclaim the points lead in a week's time.
But enough prelude - let's get to this week's power rankings:
1. Denny Hamlin
So somebody has shown us that Four-Time may be vulnerable after all. Excellent. With Johnson's reign atop the standings now approaching its second presidential term, plenty of fans and competitors alike are looking for a regime change, and the No. 11 is the most viable option to do it.
It also helps that Hamlin was the preseason pick of many pundits this year, because it makes a lot of people in the writing community look good for no reason at all other than we guessed exceptionally well. But let's be honest for a second. Did anybody, outside of the Joe Gibbs Racing organization perhaps, seriously expect Hamlin to post seven victories through 32 races this year?
2. Jimmie Johnson
Number one in the points right now but number two in the power rankings. Much like his mentor, Jeff Gordon, Johnson has made Martinsville into his personal playground in the past, but it simply wasn't his weekend.
Now, let's clarify something here. Fifth place is usually a pretty solid points finish. But when the margin between first and second in points is as small as it was, the difference between first and fifth is pretty substantial. And now that Hamlin has closed that small gap almost completely, he can afford to focus on the No. 48 one-on-one through the last month of the season. That's dangerous.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick probably feels like the outcast of the remaining Chase contenders. He goes out and takes care of business better than Johnson yesterday, he keeps himself reasonably within the title hunt heading into Talladega, a track at which he won last year, and all anybody wants to talk about is his feud with teammate Jeff Burton in the second half of yesterday's race.
Classic points update: before the 2004 points system came into place, Harvick would have 4629 points, a 264-marker advantage on second-place Jimmie Johnson.
4. Kyle Busch
Unlikely, but altogether possible, scenario: the top three contenders in points are taken out next week at Talladega in the "big one," while Rowdy coasts to victory and closes the gap on all three.
No, it probably won't happen, but it certainly is possible. And right now, Busch is the only driver close enough to truly benefit from such a circumstance. 172 points back of the lead, Busch could make up a maximum of 161 points on any other driver by winning and leading the most laps. That could bring him within five of Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, or within 11 of Johnson. At that point, we would have a four-man Chase with three races to go. Huzzah!
5. Jeff Gordon
Well, I don't think that Gordon and Kurt Busch will be exchanging Christmas cards this year.
The difference between Gordon and Brett Favre stands as follows: unlike the Minnesota Vikings quarterback, Gordon is able to recognize his mistakes immediately as they are made. He noticed immediately that the move he made on Busch was late, and he's said as much, plenty of times. Favre, on the other hand, looks like he's playing NFL Blitz in real life, and doesn't really seem to recognize that he's making poor on-field decisions. Gordon may be one of the sport's elder statesmen now, yes, but at least he knows what's up.
6. Carl Edwards
Weekly suggestion of irrelevance: Despite Edwards' solid eighth place finish at Martinsville, Getty Images, our photo provider here at Bleacher Report, did not take a single shot of the No. 99 on race day.
Yes, even the Chase for the Sprint Cup renders some of the sport's top competitors irrelevant fairly quickly. Go figure!
7. Jeff Burton
Here's a picture of Burton where he spent most of his time on Sunday - in front of everybody else. For the second time this year, Burton dominated a Martinsville event, only to fall short of victory once again. This time, the Mayor finished a respectable ninth, but at this point, racing for pride and victories due to a 200-plus point deficit in the standings, it had to be a bittersweet run.
8. Tony Stewart
Raise your hand if you truly thought that Ken Schrader, making his first Sprint Cup start in nearly two years for a team that's struggled to make races all year, was going to post a better finish than Smoke this weekend.
Now raise your hand if you're shocked that it happened.
I just saw a whole bunch of hands shoot up.
9. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth is slowly working his way up these power rankings, not by performing particularly well on the racetrack, but simply by surviving while his other lower-tier Chase competitors falter. He finished 15th on Sunday. He was the last car on the lead lap. That's really all I've got.
10. Kurt Busch
Busch received a standing ovation from Martinsville fans after putting Jeff Gordon into the wall on Sunday. His own fans didn't have much more to cheer for, as he finished a so-so 16th, the first car one lap down. Busch has faltered to ninth in the standings, especially disappointing given his team's earlier strong performance on 1.5-mile tri-ovals, which make up a good amount of Chase events.
11. Greg Biffle
Qualified: third. Final practice rank: first. Race finish: 33rd. What else is there to say?
12. Clint Bowyer
Teammate of the Year Award: "You tell Jeff Burton if he needs anything, and I mean anything, to let me know." Meanwhile, Burton and Kevin Harvick, also teammates, end up beating and banging on one another during the race. There's something even more poignant about Bowyer's comment given that circumstance. Yeah, we all look down on team orders in Formula One, but there's something to be said for a driver who steps up as a team player on his own. Bowyer is the kind of guy you want on your side.
That's all I've got for this week. Enjoy the Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega!