NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Drivers Coming Out of California

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IMarch 29, 2011

NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Drivers Coming Out of California

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Jimmy John's Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilto
    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    I've never been a fan of NASCAR racing at the Auto Club Speedway. The 500-mile races are too long and the weather is, for some reason, always terrible. That may work for some racing series, but it sure doesn't for Sprint Cup.

    But with his last-lap pass of five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick brought some badly-needed excitement to a racetrack that's still struggling to find its niche in the sport.

    The cars and stars of Sprint Cup now head out of the super speedway at Southern California to the polar opposite of both: the paper-clip short track of Martinsville. Who's hot heading to NASCAR's oldest track? Read on.

1. Carl Edwards

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Aflac Ford, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Edwards is starting to get into the double digits with his lead right now. That means that folks are either going to need to finish 10 or more positions ahead of him, or win and take a lot of bonus points. And if he keeps finishing where he has, that's not too easy to conceive.

2. Ryan Newman

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Ryan Newman, driver of the #39 U.S. Army Chevrolet, makes a pit stop during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Remember in 2003, when Newman won eight races but lost the title to Matt Kenseth, who won only a single event very early in the season? Well, Newman looks to be trying out the Kenseth strategy this year. It could very well work if a certain someone slows down.

3. Kyle Busch

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, and Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot Toyota, drive during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, Califo
    Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    Folks are saying that Rowdy still lacks the maturity to win a championship. I'm not so sure. His change in demeanor this season has been nothing short of mercurial, going from a bad boy to a media darling. The married life must be calming him down.

4. Jimmie Johnson

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Jimmy John's Chevrolet, passes Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, on the last lap of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana,
    Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    I used to think that Johnson owned this track. Now I'm not so sure. Kevin Harvick just might have dislodged the horseshoe from JJ's rear bumper on the backstretch during that last lap.

5. Kurt Busch

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Southern California AAA Dodge, greets fans during driver introductions for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Todd Wa
    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Consistency is key. Like last year, Busch seems likely to start hot and drop down the standings the further he goes, given the 17th place finish on Sunday. But he's been consistent enough to maintain a top-three points position for most of the season.

6. Kevin Harvick

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Jimmy John's Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Tom Pennington
    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Pundits have been calling Harvick "the best closer in the business." I wonder if San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson, whose team was once affiliated with the minor-league squad in Harvick's hometown of Bakersfield, was paying attention to that. I also wonder if Harvick is a baseball fan.

7. Tony Stewart

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 26:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 26, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw
    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    After slipping from second to 13th in the late stages of the race, and then refusing to talk with any reporters after getting out of the car, this may have been the only happy photo taken of Smoke all day. No doubt, he thought he could win that race.

8. Juan Montoya

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 26:  Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 26, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Victor Dec
    Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    With the level of consistency he's been showing thus far this year, think of Montoya as your Chase-sleeper candidate. Remember, he's done this sort of thing before, and when he finally made it there, he started tearing the circuit up. Don't be surprised if it happens again; staying cool and collected early may be the recipe for success for the normally fiery Montoya.

9. Paul Menard

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 25:  Paul Menard, driver of the #27 Serta/Menards Chevrolet, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 25, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Gett
    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    It finally looks like Richard Childress Racing got the four-car concept right. Menard's really been surprising thus far this year. Then again, we said that at this point last year, when he drove for Richard Petty Motorsports, and look what happened.

10. Kasey Kahne

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Kasey Kahne, driver of the #4 Red Bull Toyota, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    I wonder if Team Red Bull is going to ask corporate to send money from Austria so they have a shot at buying out Kahne's contract with Hendrick Motorsports next year. Stranger things have happened. Remember the whole Jamie McMurray-signing-two-years-in-the-future fiasco of 2005?

11. Matt Kenseth

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 26:  Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Crown Royal Ford, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 26, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Hey, uh, Matt, anytime you want to lead laps and win a race, I'll start moving you up the rankings. Sure, two top fives are nice, but you remember what Ricky Bobby said: "If you ain't first, you're last."

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 25:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, stands on pit road during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 25, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Qualifying 30th? No big deal, we'll just finish a respectable 12th...and lose three spots in the standings. That's the one thing I dislike about this year's points. I feel like we're going to see these position changes more frequently than ever.

13. Clint Bowyer

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, leads Clint Bowyer, driver of the #33 Ronald Regan Foundation Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in
    Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    Clint had the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Centennial on the hood this weekend and the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma on the quarter panels. The same organizations will pair to sponsor owner Richard Childress' grandson, Austin Dillon, in his Sprint Cup debut later this season. One piece of advice: Please make the quarter-panel decals legible next time. It looks to me like Clint's driving for free.

14. Mark Martin

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 25:  Mark Martin, driver of the #5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, poses with celebrity fitness trainer Jillian Michaels prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 25, 2011 in Fontana, Califo
    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Mark got to meet fellow GoDaddy.com spokesperson Jillian Michaels at the race this weekend. I think the two would make a great pairing for an ad, Michaels as a famous TV physical trainer, Martin as a well-known fitness buff. It'd be better than simply putting together Martin and Joan Rivers simply because they're both old.

15. Martin Truex Jr.

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #56 NAPA Toyota, makes a pit stop during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Fly the blimp? Too much hot air. Race announcer? Same thing there...oh, sorry. I have no idea where Truex finished on Sunday.

    I decided that the more important thing to take from the race was that I've now seen this year's NAPA Know How commercial 100 times. You know, if he gained a position in the race results every time they showed that, he'd probably be outrunning Carl Edwards.

16. Jeff Gordon

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, greets fans during driver introductions for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Todd W
    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    We found out this week that Ella Gordon, Jeff's young daughter, wants to be a race car driver. OK, we're at least 10-to-15 years too early to put any real thought into this, but how cool would that be? As for the current racing Gordon, he hasn't had a top 10 since winning at Phoenix. Hmmm.

17. Denny Hamlin

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 26:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Toyota, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 26, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Gett
    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    That Joe Gibbs Racing engine department has some serious work to do this season. Hamlin is not performing like he did for the majority of last season. You know the ability is there. It's just a matter of when everything comes together.

18. Bobby Labonte

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Bobby Labonte, driver of the #47 Little Debbie Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    He may have crashed out on Sunday, but you have to admire what Labonte has done with JTG Daugherty Racing. Here's a former champion whose career has been somewhat left for dead and a team that lost its rising star in Marcos Ambrose.

    Right now, Ambrose's move looks lateral, as the two are even in points, but for Labonte, it's been a huge step forward.

19. Greg Biffle

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 25:  Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Ford, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 25, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images for N
    Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    Biffle hasn't done much smiling this season. He had a rough start at Daytona and he spent time in the 30s in points. While the former Fontana winner didn't do much to assert himself with an 11th place run on Sunday, he did propel himself up the standings three positions to 20th. One good finish, plus a few bad ones for the right opponents, could have him in the top 15 next week.

20. Brian Vickers

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    FONTANA, CA - MARCH 27:  Brian Vickers, driver of the #83 Red Bull Toyota, makes a pit stop during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 27, 2011 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR
    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    That eighth-place finish marked Vickers' second top 10 of the season, the most of any driver currently out of the Chase.

    It also facilitated a seven-spot jump in the standings to 24th, the best jump of any full-time driver (tied with Clint Bowyer). Is he all the way back? Not yet. Is he getting there? No doubt.

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