NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Drivers Heading into Richmond

Luke KrmpotichContributor IISeptember 7, 2011

NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Drivers Heading into Richmond

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    Jeff Gordon made history with his 85th career Cup win at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Tuesday afternoon. He held off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson in the AdvoCare 500 to move into sole possession of third place on NASCAR's all-time win list, breaking a three-way tie with Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.

    Gordon dominated the rain-delayed event, leading a race-high 146 of 325 laps. Johnson may have been slightly faster at the end, but Gordon did what he needed to do in holding off his protege and the five-time defending champion of the sport.

    Was his impressive victory enough to move Gordon into the top spot in the Power Rankings? Read on to find out.

1. Jeff Gordon

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    Ladies and gentlemen, meet one of the top two contenders for the Sprint Cup championship.

    Jeff Gordon beat Jimmie Johnson in a thrilling battle over the last 10 laps at Atlanta. The remaining question is whether he can beat Johnson over the 10 weeks of the Chase.

    Gordon and new crew chief Alan Gustafson are hitting their stride at exactly the right time. Gordon has three wins in 2011 and will start the Chase with at least nine bonus points. The Drive for Five has never looked more alive, and only a fool would discount Gordon's chances at dethroning his protege Jimmie Johnson.

    Gordon has the experience, the equipment, the crew chief, the confidence and the motivation to earn his first title since 2001. He has as good a chance of anyone in the garage to hoist the championship trophy at Homestead-Miami in November.

    Atlanta: Winner, 146 laps led

    2011 Standings: 5th, three wins

2. Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson has been running in the top five for several weeks now but hasn't quite been able to break through for a victory that would give him valuable bonus points heading into the Chase.

    After his runner-up finish at Atlanta combined with Kyle Busch's struggles, Johnson has taken over the points lead.

    That lead will be erased after Richmond when the Chase begins. However, the ability to run top-five week in and week out will start to pay off during the Chase, as Johnson has repeatedly proven over the last five years. If he can keep it up he'll undoubtedly reach victory lane at least once and probably multiple times before the 2011 season is over.

    Atlanta: Runner-up, 29 laps led

    2011 Standings: Leader, one win

3. Kyle Busch

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    Although he failed in his bid to win the Sprint Summer Showdown, Kyle Busch looked like he had a car with which he could contend for the win at Atlanta. However, an on-track mishap derailed his chances for a victory.

    Busch lost the points lead after his 23rd-place finish, but is primed to assume the points lead when the Chase begins due to his four victories this season. The No. 18 team has been the best at times in 2011, but Busch will need to show greater consistency during the Chase and avoid results like Atlanta if he hopes to win his first title.

    Atlanta: 23rd, 19 laps led

    2011 Standings: 2nd, four wins

4. Carl Edwards

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    After a few rough races this summer, Cousin Carl is back in form after ripping off a couple of top-10 finishes at Bristol and Atlanta.

    Edwards is back up to third in the standings but still has only one win on the year. He'll need to find consistency in the Chase if he hopes to contend for the title. A couple of good races in a row is nice, but if Edwards is to be a serious challenger he'll need to stay away from the bad luck which plagued him for much of the summer.

    Atlanta: 5th, 14 laps led

    2011 Standings: 3rd, one win

5. Matt Kenseth

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    Mr. Consistency looked like Mr. Dominance for a good part of the race on Tuesday, but faltered near the end and wound up a mediocre ninth.

    Still, Matt Kenseth is looking like a legitimate contender for the first time in a few years and feels good about his chances in the Chase. His No. 17 team seems to be in top form heading into the Chase, and Kenseth will be one of the top seeds based on his two wins in 2011.

    Atlanta: 9th, 64 laps led

    2011 Standings: 4th, two wins

6. Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick has had a rough patch this summer, but he got things back on track with a solid seventh-place run at Atlanta.

    Despite his three wins, Harvick hasn't been as consistent this season as he was last season, when he finished with a career-high 26 top-10s. Harvick has only 11 top-10s so far this year, fewest of any driver in the top eight in the standings.

    That's not what it takes to win the Chase, and Harvick and the No. 29 bunch will have to really step it up for him to have a shot to take the title.

    Atlanta: 7th

    2011 Standings: 6th, three wins

7. Brad Keselowski

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    The hottest driver these days in NASCAR again found a way to score a top finish at a track where he'd never previously finished in the top 10.

    Brad Keselowski remains stuck in 11th in the points, thanks to 10th-place Tony Stewart finishing ahead of him at Atlanta. Therefore, his three 2011 wins won't be turned into bonus points for the Chase.

    However, with an average finish of 2.6 over the last five races, Keselowski won't need bonus points if he can keep that type of performance going. He's still a long shot for the championship, but I'd rate him with the top five or six contenders based on his incredible performances over the past month.

    Atlanta: 6th, two laps led

    2011 Standings: 11th, three wins (first wild card)

8. Kurt Busch

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    At Atlanta, Kurt Busch finally found a way to beat his Penske teammate Keselowski. Like several other top drivers, Busch has endured a difficult summer, but he appears to be turning it around just in time for the Chase.

    Whether or not he can suddenly start consistently running in the top five every week like Johnson, Keselowski and Gordon have been doing lately is another matter, however. I don't think Busch will be a factor for the championship when all is said and done.

    Atlanta: 4th

    2011 Standings: 7th, one win

9. Ryan Newman

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    Ryan Newman had a tough day at Atlanta. After starting inside the top 10, Rocketman ran towards the middle or back of the pack for most of the afternoon.

    Newman and crew chief Tony Gibson need to figure out how to run more consistently from race to race.

    Five times in 2011 the No. 39 team has finished in the top 10 in consecutive races, but only once have they scored a top 10 result the following week. They'll need to do better than that if they want to win a championship.

    Atlanta: 20th

    2011 Standings: 8th, one win

10. Tony Stewart

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    Tony Stewart showed us at Atlanta why he's still a top-level driver in the Sprint Cup Series.

    Smoke drove from eighth to third in the final 25 laps, and in so doing helped strengthen his position in the top 10 with just one race to go before the Chase field is set.

    He should make the Chase, but as with his teammate Newman, Stewart needs to figure out how to run consistently with the leaders if he wants to make a bid for a third career Cup title.

    Atlanta: 3rd

    2011 Standings: 10th

11. Denny Hamlin

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    Denny Hamlin is one race away from squeaking into the Chase.

    He's 11th in points and 11 and 12 points ahead of winless A.J. Allmendinger and Clint Bowyer. Even if one of them were to win the final race before the Chase, Hamlin could still get into the Chase by finishing in the top eight at Richmond, one of his best tracks.

    Making the Chase is nice, but 2011 has been nothing like the 2010 season, which saw Hamlin win eight races and lose the championship in the season finale.

    To say that this year has been anything but a disappointment for the No. 11 team would be a massive understatement.

    Atlanta: 8th, six laps led

    2011 Standings: 12th, one win (second wild card)

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Like Hamlin and Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking like a safe bet to sneak into the Chase.

    However, his No. 88 team is in worse shape right now than probably any of the 11 teams he'll be competing against for the crown.

    Junior has just one top-10 in the last 11 races and has led only eight laps during that time. After climbing as high in the points as third earlier this summer, it's been a struggle just to remain in the Chase zone.

    Dale Jr. will make his first Chase since 2008, but he'll be lucky to be in the top 10 by season's end.

    Atlanta: 19th

    2011 Standings: 9th

13. Clint Bowyer

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    After hitting the wall in the latter stages of the Atlanta race, all hope is gone for Clint Bowyer to race his way into the top 10.

    There's still an outside chance that he could make the Chase. A previous Richmond winner, Bowyer isn't about to give up hope that he could snatch the second wild card position away from Denny Hamlin.

    However, even if Bowyer were to win at Richmond, he'd have to hope for Hamlin to have a bad race in order to pass him in the standings.

    Odds of all that happening? Next to zero.

    Atlanta: 36th, eight laps led, 82 laps down

    2011 Standings: 14th, 12 points behind Hamlin

14. A.J. Allmendinger

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    With a tenth-place finish at Atlanta, A.J. Allmendinger did what he needed to do in order to stay within striking distance of the Chase.

    But what Allmendinger really needs to do is win, something he's never done in his Cup career.

    The driver of the famed No. 43 will need to wait at least another year to make the Chase.

    Atlanta: 10th

    2011 Standings: 13th, 11 points behind Hamlin

15. Paul Menard

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    Paul Menard may not have won the Sprint Summer Showdown, but at least he still has an outside shot at making the Chase.

    To do so, he'll have to win at a track where he hasn't led a lap or even finished on the lead lap since 2007.

    Menard has started inside the top 10 in the last two Richmond races, but winning the race will prove too tall an order for the Wisconsinite.

    Atlanta: 18th

    2011 Standings: 20th, one win

16. Marcos Ambrose

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    Like Menard, Marcos Ambrose could make the Chase by winning at Richmond.

    And unlike Menard, the affable Tasmanian has some good history on his side at the Virginia short track.

    In this race last year, Ambrose scored an impressive top-5 result. He has two additional finishes of 11th or better. Can he do better than that on Saturday night and earn his first Sprint Cup oval win?

    Possibly, but I wouldn't count on it.

    Atlanta: 21st, one lap down

    2011 Standings: 21st, one win

17. Greg Biffle

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    Greg Biffle has an outside shot at making the Chase following a mediocre Atlanta run.

    But truth be told, his best shot at making the Chase slipped away at Michigan last month, where Biffle had the dominant car but failed to even finish in the top 15.

    Don't look for a Richmond miracle for Biffle. The Roush Fenway driver hasn't even finished in the top 10 there since 2006.

    Atlanta: 12th

    2011 Standings: 15th, 28 points behind Hamlin

18. Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne won the pole for the AdvoCare 500, a nice start to the rain-extended NASCAR weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

    In the end it didn't matter, as Kahne ran into trouble and finished the race 56 laps off the pace.

    At this point, it would take a miracle for Kahne to make the Chase. Not only would the lame-duck Red Bull driver need to win at Richmond (where he hasn't won since 2005), he would need Hamlin to finish nearly dead last at one of Hamlin's best tracks. It's not happening.

    Atlanta: 34th, 15 laps led (won pole), 56 laps down

    2011 Standings: 17th, 42 points behind Hamlin

19. Martin Truex Jr.

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    A two-tire gamble for track position didn't pay off for Martin Truex Jr., who finished a nondescript 14th at Atlanta.

    Truex Jr. has two Richmond top-10s and has led laps in four different Richmond events. However, with 33 points and a win separating the No. 56 from making the Chase, this team is already thinking about preparing for 2012.

    Atlanta: 14th, 3 laps led

    2011 Standings: 16th, 33 points behind Hamlin

20. David Ragan

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    After running in the top five and top 10 for much of the race, Ragan's day ended early when his engine blew with 76 laps to go.

    His Chase hopes are pretty much gone, as well. Even if 23rd-place Ragan were to somehow win at Richmond it's unlikely he could make up the 20 points separating him and 20th place in order to make the Chase.

    It's technically possible that Ragan could make the Chase, so he makes the Power Rankings, but it's a near impossibility.

    Atlanta: 35th, 76 laps down

    2011 Standings: 23rd, one win, 20 points behind 20th