2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 7 Edition
With six different winners in the first six races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, it's tight at the top both in the actual point standings and in the latest edition of the Bleacher Report driver rankings.
Last week's race at Martinsville Speedway will be remembered for the possible beginning of a feud between former teammates in Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch almost as much as Busch's terrific battle for the win with six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
There was plenty of beatin' and bangin' at the Martinsville short track and at the Bristol Motor Speedway bullring before that. Now it's onto 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway and a track like no other in 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway, with its egg-shaped layout and high-banked turns that test a driver's skill and patience for a full 500 miles.
Who is on the move up or down in the rankings has to do with more than just the drivers, however. Are their crew chiefs making the right calls? Are their pit crews flawless on the money stops? And can everyone keep their heads on straight when adversity inevitably rears its ugly head?
See who is poised to put it all together in the coming weeks.
10. Kevin Harvick
Previous Ranking: 5
Why He's Here: It's hard to believe Harvick is 25th in the point standings, and of course he's not too happy about it. But the fact is that he's had a boatload of bad luck and has run much better than the standings reflect as he feels his way through his first season with a new organization at Stewart-Haas Racing, a new crew chief in Rodney Childers and an entirely new No. 4 Chevrolet team. Still, they've led laps and won the second race of the season at Phoenix in dominating fashion.
Key 2014 Stats: He's led 23 or more laps in three of the six races so far, including 224 of 312 during the win at Phoenix. What have dragged him down in the point standings were consecutive finishes of 41st at Las Vegas, 39th at Bristol and 36th at Fontana.
What's Next: Unfortunately for Harvick, he's never won at Texas or Darlington, the next two tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule. In fact, in a combined 39 career starts at the two venues, he's managed a total of only six top-five finishes. Fortunately, he's won a race, and Childers is a fine crew chief, so his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup is all but guaranteed. Plus, they've got plenty of time to turn it around.
9. Kurt Busch
Previous Ranking: NR
Why He's Here: Like Harvick, he's down in the points, lagging in 20th. But also like Harvick, he's now won a race after outdueling none other than Jimmie Johnson in an epic finish at Martinsville to render his place in the point standings virtually meaningless, as the win will get him in the Chase. He's also adjusting to new surroundings at Stewart-Haas Racing, but he's led laps in four of the six races this season.
Key 2014 Stats: After beginning the season with four consecutive finishes of 21st or worse, including a 39th at Phoenix and a 35th at Bristol, he finished third at Fontana before winning at Martinsville. His earlier issues were largely mechanical and not of his doing.
What's Next: He's won once at Texas in his career but has no wins and only two top-five finishes in 17 starts at Darlington. More importantly, he'll need to sort out his sudden feud with Keselowski, which cropped up after Busch ran into Keselowski on pit road at Martinsville and escalated when Keselowski later rammed Busch's No. 41 Chevy several times on the track during green-flag racing in what Busch called "a punk-a** move," according to FoxSports.com.
8. Jeff Gordon
Previous Ranking: 6
Why He's Here: Although fourth in the point standings, Gordon has fallen off a bit the last two races after opening the season with four consecutive top-nine finishes. And not only hasn't he won yet, but he's led a significant number of laps in only one race thus far.
Key 2014 Stats: He led 23 laps at Fontana and was in position to win but faded to 13th by the finish when he got burned by a late caution due to Clint Bowyer blowing a tire. That's bad luck. But he started fifth at Martinsville, never led a single lap and finished a so-so 12th at a track where he frequently contends for the win. That's just a case of the driver and his team needing to find a way together to do more.
What's Next: He's won once at Texas but really has Darlington circled. He's won seven times there and has the remarkable total of 19 top-five finishes in 33 career starts.
7. Joey Logano
Previous Ranking: 3
Why He's Here: Logano has yet to win a race and sits eighth in points, but he's one of only three drivers with three or more top-five finishes registered already this season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a series-high four, and Logano's Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski also has three.
Key 2014 Stats: It seems only a matter of time until he starts winning races, as he's led laps in five of the first six events. He led 74 at Phoenix, 44 at Las Vegas and 39 at Martinsville before finishing fourth at all three places. The first step to winning multiple races in any season is proving you can run up front consistently, and he's doing it.
What's Next: The sample size is small because he hasn't been around the Sprint Cup Series all that long, but he's never won at either Texas or Darlington. In his five career starts at Darlington, he has yet to finish in the top five. He does have three top-five finishes in 11 starts to his credit at Texas.
6. Matt Kenseth
Previous Ranking: 7
Why He's Here: OK, so he's currently second in the point standings, trailing only leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. But he hasn't finished higher than fourth yet in a race (it's his only top-five finish) and really has threatened to win only one. Remember, this season it's all about the wins and not the points over the first 26 races because of NASCAR's change to the Chase qualifying format.
Key 2014 Stats: His missed opportunity to win appeared to come at Bristol, where he led a race-high 165 laps and was the leader coming out of a three-hour, 19-minute rain delay. He was still running second when Timmy Hill slammed into him from behind after failing to slow quickly enough when a caution flag came out. Kenseth was fortunate to finish 13th after that, which represents his worst finish of the season.
What's Next: He definitely should be a factor at Texas, where he has won twice and finished in the top five in 13 of 23 career starts. He's won once at Darlington—last year, in fact, so he'll be the defending race champion. That bodes well, but he has only one other top-five finish at the Lady in Black in 20 career starts—a third in 2006.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Ranking: 4
Why He's Here: What? The six-time Cup champ has yet to win a race this season? As unfathomable as that may seem, it's true. It looked like he let one slip away on one of his favorite tracks at Martinsville, where Kurt Busch outdueled Johnson at the end, and Six Time had to settle for second.
Key 2014 Stats: Forty-eight lovers, don't worry; 48 haters, beware. He led 104 laps at Fontana and was in position to win when he had a tire go down late. He led a race-high 296 laps at Martinsville. He's led 15 laps or more in five of the six races and 34 or more in four of them. He's finished sixth or better in four of the six races, and that doesn't include Fontana where the tire issue cost him dearly, relegating the No. 48 Chevy to a 24th-place finish that wasn't indicative of how good the car was.
What's Next: The last time it took Johnson this long to win a race in a season was 2012, when in the 11th race of the year he won at Darlington. So if he gets to Darlington without a win this time around, look out. But he's tough in Texas, too, having won there three times and piled up 10 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 20 career starts.
4. Kyle Busch
Previous Ranking: 10
Why He's Here: Kyle, Kurt's younger brother, is sixth in points but has a win at Fontana and has led five or more laps in five of the season's first six races—including 19 or more in four of them. He appears to be on the cusp of going on a serious roll.
Key 2014 Stats: He led only five laps at Fontana and won. He led 73 laps at Bristol but finished 29th, led 52 at Las Vegas and finished 11th, led 22 at Martinsville and finished 14th and led 19 in the Daytona 500 and finished 19th. His only top-10 finish outside of Fontana came at Phoenix, where he finished ninth despite that being the only race thus far in which he has failed to lead a lap.
What's Next: He has one win at each of the next two tracks and is a threat to lead laps and win races just about anywhere cars line up. But he and crew chief Dave Rogers need to find ways to get better, more consistent finishes on the days when he doesn't win.
3. Carl Edwards
Previous Ranking: 8
Why He's Here: Edwards is third in points and won at Bristol, where he led 78 laps and completed an impressive three-race stretch that began with an eighth at Phoenix and a fifth at Las Vegas. He backed that up with a solid but unremarkable 10th at Fontana that gave him the points lead for one week, but Bristol is really the only track so far where he's been able to run up front with the leaders for long.
Key 2014 Stats: Other than at Bristol, he's led more than one lap in only one other race this season. That was when he led just eight in the season-opening Daytona 500 before finishing 17th after getting involved in a last-lap wreck. That indicates he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig are getting the best finishes they can, but that Roush Fenway Racing's engineering department still appears to be lagging behind NASCAR's other top organizations in finding more speed for Edwards' No. 99 Ford and the cars of RFR teammates Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
What's Next: He traditionally runs well at Texas, where he's won three times. He's never won at Darlington but has finished in the top 10 in seven of 10 career races, with three top-five finishes.
2. Brad Keselowski
Previous Ranking: 2
Why He's Here: Keselowski joins Team Penske teammate Joey Logano and points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. as one of only three drivers with three or more top-five finishes already this season (Earnhardt has four). That's why he was so ticked off when Kurt Busch plowed into him on pit road at Martinsville, essentially ruining his day before it got started. He conceded Busch is one of NASCAR's most talented drivers but also called him "one of the dumbest," according to FoxSports.com, and threatened to get even soon.
Key 2014 Stats: He was first in points after winning at Las Vegas and surviving Bristol, where he started second and finished 14th. The mishap at Martinsville was costly, dooming him to a 38th-place finish that was his worst since a 37th last September at Dover (13 races ago, dating back to last season). But he and crew chief Paul Wolfe have been clicking and consistently putting fast cars on track, as evidenced by the fact that he led laps in each of the first five races—the only exception being Martinsville.
What's Next: In the past, you would say Keselowski needs to be careful with Kurt Busch, and vice versa, as settling their dispute on the track would be too costly in terms of the points that might be at risk. But now that both have won a race, who knows? Keselowski hasn't been great at either Texas or Darlington, with no wins and only one top-five finish at each track in a combined 16 career starts.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Ranking: 1
Why He's Here: Earnhardt Jr. slipped back into the points lead by running third at Martinsville to earn his fourth top-five finish in the first six races. No other driver has more than three. Throw in his win in the season-opening Daytona 500, and no one has been better overall this year.
Key 2014 Stats: He's led 25 or more laps in three races—including 51 at Las Vegas and 54 at Daytona. Considering he also led 25 on the short track at Martinsville, that seems to indicate that crew chief Steve Letarte and his driver have figured out how to get the most they can on superspeedways, 1.5-mile tracks and short tracks. That about covers the spectrum of what a team needs to do to challenge for a championship.
What's Next: He hasn't won at Texas since scoring the first Cup win of his career there in 2000, but he did finish second in the race at TMS last fall. He's never won at Darlington, a place dripping with the kind of history that makes Junior salivate. He would love to check off winning there on his bucket list.