NASCAR Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Where Each Driver Stands at End of 2013 Season
It's no secret that Jimmie Johnson ruled the NASCAR Sprint Cup roost this season, wrapping up his sixth championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But the rest of NASCAR's top powers are a little more surprising, in light of the season finale and culmination of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Who finished this season strongest while positioning himself for an even brighter 2014? Who is poised to best challenge the six-time champ heading into next season, as several of the contenders move to new teams or simply look to build on what transpired this season?
Don't forget that there are a number of drivers who finished outside the top 12 this season who will be putting on a big push to get back in the championship battle next season, including guys like three-time champ Tony Stewart and Homestead race winner Denny Hamlin, both of whom will be coming back from injury-shortened seasons, as well as 2012 champ Brad Keselowski, who failed to even make the Chase as he struggled to defend his title in 2013.
12. Greg Biffle
Previous Rank: 10
Why He's Here: Biffle wasn't terrible this season. He just wasn't that good, either. He began the season with a sixth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 and spent most of the year mired between seventh and 10th in the point standings.
2013 Highlight: His lone win of the season came in the Sprint Cup circuit's first visit to Michigan, but he never could generate any real momentum off it. It was one of only three races all season where he had enough speed to lead more than a handful of laps (he led 48 that day and 28 during the second visit to Michigan, plus 39 during the first Phoenix race—but no more than five in any other event).
2014 Outlook: It's no secret. The Roush Fenway Racing organization has to find more speed in its Fords going forward. Most of what happened in terms of the so-so season registered by the No. 16 team in 2013 had to do with RFR not getting the job done back at the shop prior to getting to the track.
11. Ryan Newman
Previous Rank: 11
Why He's Here: Newman has been solid, but not spectacular, throughout the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Considering his lame duck status at Stewart-Haas Racing—which he will be leaving at the end of the season for a new ride at Richard Childress Racing—the fact that his 10th-place finish at Phoenix marked his sixth top-10 finish in the first nine Chase races, after being a late addition to the playoff field, was quite impressive.
2013 Highlight: Winning at Indianapolis any year would be special for Newman, a native of Indiana who earned his Vehicle Structure Engineering degree from Purdue University. Winning there after being told he would not be returning to Stewart-Haas next season made it even more satisfying for Newman last July.
2014 Outlook: It might be a stretch to think he'll be in a more competitive car at RCR next season. But he certainly will be motivated to make his former boss, Tony Stewart, regret letting him go. Qualifying for the Chase again should be a reasonable goal; anything more would be a surprise.
10. Kurt Busch
Previous Rank: NR
Why He's Here: The elder Busch brother exceeded everyone's expectations in his one and only season at Furniture Row Racing, the little single-car operation out of Denver, Colo., which overachieved and allowed Busch to resurrect a driving career that was in serious trouble only two years ago. Give Kurt credit: He kept his well-known temper in check and drove his rear end off, earning himself what could develop into one of the top rides in the Sprint Cup garage next season at Stewart-Haas Racing.
2013 Highlight: Making the Chase as a single-car team clearly was the single most impressive highlight. He didn't win a race, but did finish second twice—in the regular-season finale at Richmond and in the Chase race at Kansas. Those two runner-up finishes indicated that Busch and his team kept getting better as the season progressed.
2014 Outlook: Expectations will be high as he moves into a top-quality ride at what will now be a four-team operation at Stewart-Haas. Sharing information on a daily basis next season with the likes of new SHR teammates Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick should bear big dividends and put him back in the Chase, this time with a chance to win it all.
9. Carl Edwards
Previous Rank: 8
Why He's Here: Like Biffle, his teammate at Roush Fenway Racing, Edwards would be ranked higher if the cars he drove were faster on a more consistent basis. They did start finding more speed in his No. 99 Ford toward the end of the season, and he should have won at Phoenix in the next-to-last race, but he ran out of gas with less than two laps remaining. It was that kind of up-and-down, mostly frustrating, year.
2013 Highlight: He won the first Phoenix race near the beginning of the season and was the controversial winner of the regular-season finale at Richmond when he appeared to jump the final restart. The win at Richmond was the most satisfying; coming at a time when it appeared it might help Edwards make some noise in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
2014 Outlook: Edwards knows how to drive a race car. He needs the RFR engineers and veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig to put a faster car under him more consistently next season if he hopes to seriously contend for the Sprint Cup championship. Otherwise, another so-so season seems in store.
8. Joey Logano
Previous Rank: 7
Why He's Here: Logano seemed to improve as the season progressed. It wasn't surprising that it took a little time for him to adjust during his first season driving a Ford for Penske Racing after years of driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Consistency started to be his hallmark late in the year, and that's what it takes to contend for a Sprint Cup title.
2013 Highlight: He started from the pole and won the second Michigan race, validating a season that included 11 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes through Phoenix. He also had three finishes of fourth or better in the first nine Chase races.
2014 Outlook: Logano finally looks as if he's transferring the considerable talent he displayed at the Nationwide Series level to Sprint Cup. If teammate and 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski can get back to the Chase next season, as Keselowski should, Logano and Keselowski could form a dynamic duo for Penske Racing.
7. Kasey Kahne
Previous Rank: 9
Why He's Here: At times Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis had one of the fastest cars on the track. But they lacked consistency, and they still need to get better at coaxing decent finishes out of their No. 5 Chevrolet in the races when the car isn't at its best.
2013 Highlight: The first of his two wins on the season came at Bristol Motor Speedway, which is like the Wrigley Field of NASCAR and is always special. He also won at Pocono later in the season and registered a pair of second-place finishes in the Chase for the Sprint Cup—at Charlotte and at Phoenix.
2014 Outlook: You've got to believe that the longer Kahne and Francis are together with Hendrick Motorsports firepower behind them, the better they'll get. But again, they need to take a page out of Jimmie Johnson's championship handbook and learn to do a better job of taking 15th-place cars and finding ways to finish in the top 10 with them. Then he'll contend for a championship.
6. Jeff Gordon
Previous Rank: 4
Why He's Here: Gordon was trending higher after winning a Chase race at Martinsville, but he wasn't able to sustain the momentum to seriously challenge Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson for the title. It was still a decent Chase for a guy who was the last man added to the playoff field because of the fallout of Clint Bowyer's alleged intentional spin in the regular-season finale at Richmond.
2013 Highlight: Nothing topped his only win of the season at Martinsville, the short track where he earned his eighth career victory while snapping a 32-race winless streak. It gave him brief hope that he might be able to challenge Johnson for another title, although a wreck the following week at Texas all but eliminated him.
2014 Outlook: The chemistry between Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson seemed shaky most of the season, fueling speculation that a change might be in order. The magic they conjured up at Martinsville and Gordon's overall strong showing in the Chase might entice owner Rick Hendrick to give them one more season together. But there is a sense that 2013 might have been the 42-year-old Gordon's last, best chance to win a fifth title.
5. Kyle Busch
Previous Rank: 6
Why He's Here: For a while during this year's Chase, it looked as if this might actually be the year the younger Busch brother contended for a title all the way until the end. Then it fell apart on him again. He and crew chief Dave Rogers still need to learn to deal with adversity better.
2013 Highlight: Of his four race victories, none was more satisfying than the one he registered on the road course at Watkins Glen. He held off Brad Keselowski to win and atone for two near misses the previous two Cup races at The Glen. His other trips to Victory Lane came in the first races of the season at Texas and Atlanta, respectively, and also at Fontana.
2014 Outlook: It's the same old story. The No. 18 Toyota team led by Rogers seems to have all the tools to win a championship, including its talented driver. But it needs to eliminate mistakes, especially during the Chase. Next year could finally be the No. 18 team's year.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Rank: 3
Why He's Here: Earnhardt started the season strong and ended it on an upbeat note as well. It has been well documented that he needs to take the next step and start winning races more frequently, but he came closer more often this season than he has in years. That's a step in the right direction.
2013 Highlight: He finished second in the season-opening Daytona 500, the first of five runner-up finishes he registered through the first 35 races of the season. And he closed the season strong with three second-place runs in the first nine Chase races.
2014 Outlook: If Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte are ever going to actually contend for a title, they've got to at least turn some of the second-place runs into trips to Victory Lane. Unfortunately, they have yet to prove they can do that. Next year might be their last chance to do so, or else owner Rick Hendrick could look to make a crew chief change on the No. 88 Chevy team.
3. Kevin Harvick
Previous Rank: 5
Why He's Here: Harvick defied all odds to win four races during a season when he was a lame duck driver for Richard Childress Racing, having announced prior to the campaign that he was headed to Stewart-Haas Racing at season's end. He won two Chase races to remain mathematically in the hunt for the Sprint Cup title all the way to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
2013 Highlight: Winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, in RCR's backyard at a 1.5-mile track where he used to struggle mightily, rated as his top highlight. But winning his second Chase race at Phoenix to keep his title hopes, at least mathematically, alive heading into Homestead had to rate as a close second. His other wins came at Kansas, during the Chase, and in the spring at Richmond.
2014 Outlook: Harvick is excited to see what he can do at SHR next season, and he should be. He'll be part of a powerhouse driver lineup that also will include Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch (as well as the less-accomplished Danica Patrick). Unlike this season, it will be no surprise if he's battling for the championship down the stretch in 2014.
2. Matt Kenseth
Previous Rank: 2
Why He's Here: Kenseth's first season at Joe Gibbs Racing was a rousing success by all standards, even though he fell just short of a championship. He scored a career-high seven race wins and led much of the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when he needed to score maximum points to put as much pressure as he could on eventual champ Jimmie Johnson.
2013 Highlight: You never forget your first win for a new organization. Kenseth's came at Las Vegas in just the third event of the season. Of all his wins, it ranked as the most special of the season and set the tone for all that was to come in his best season since capturing the last non-Chase championship a full decade earlier.
2014 Outlook: It figured to take Kenseth some time to settle in at JGR after spending his entire Cup career at Roush Fenway Racing. It took him three races. That makes him one of the favorites heading into next season, but he'll have to avoid the all-too-familiar next-season swoon that has cursed other runner-up Chase finishers in recent seasons.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Rank: 1
Why He's Here: Even when he went through one of the most difficult four-race stretches of his stellar career just prior to the start of the 10-race Chase, even when Matt Kenseth won the first two Chase races, Johnson always seemed poised to rise to the top for his sixth championship in eight years. He did what he needed to do in the season finale at Homestead, finishing well ahead of where he needed to clinch his latest title.
2013 Highlight: He began the season by winning the Daytona 500, NASCAR's biggest race. He ended it by celebrating his sixth title. So the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet team for Hendrick Motorsports was the best at the beginning and the end and for a whole lot of the time in between. Not much else needs to be said.
2014 Outlook: Now his sights are set on tying the all-time record for championships held jointly by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. With crew chief Chad Knaus atop his pit box, there is no reason they can't do it next season. There is no doubt they will be focused more than ever with that goal in plain sight, which makes Johnson the driver to beat again in 2014.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz
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