2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 9 Edition

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2014

2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 9 Edition

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    It's a close race at the top of the BR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings heading into Richmond.
    It's a close race at the top of the BR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings heading into Richmond.USA TODAY Sports

    Wins are everything this NASCAR Sprint Cup season. Just remember that.

    With the change in the way drivers qualify to get into the Chase for the Sprint Cup party that determines the season's champion over the final 10 races in the fall, where one sits in the points standings in April actually doesn't mean all that much until at least one win is earned to go along with it.

    Keep that in mind when perusing the Bleacher Report driver rankings.

    These are calculated by who is running up front most consistently and who has been able to translate that into getting to all-important Victory Lane. That takes more than simply driver skill. It also takes teamwork that stretches from the crew chief atop the pit box on race day to what everyone does back at the shop to how good the pit crew is on the money stops late in races. 

    See who's running up front in the rankings, taking all of that into account.

10. Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch has one win in his fire suit pocket, but the rest of his season has been so-so.
    Kurt Busch has one win in his fire suit pocket, but the rest of his season has been so-so.USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Ranking: 9

    Why He's Here: Well, he's currently 26th in the points standings. But he does have a win at Martinsville, and obviously wins trump all else this season.

    Key 2014 Stats: Other than the win at Martinsville and a third-place effort at Fontana, the older of the racing Busch brothers has struggled mightily in his first season at Stewart-Haas Racing. He finished 21st or worse in the other six races, including 31st or worse in four of those. He crashed out of the last two events, finishing 31st at Darlington and 39th at Texas.

    What's Next: Having already pocketed the all-important win that should punch his ticket into the chase, the pressure is not as great as it might have been to shake off the string of surprisingly disappointing finishes. But you know it galls him to look at the points standings and see that the man he essentially replaced at SHR, Ryan Newman, is well ahead of him and running much better overall.

9. Jimmie Johnson

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    It's hard to believe, but Jimmie Johnson has yet to win a race this season.
    It's hard to believe, but Jimmie Johnson has yet to win a race this season.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    PR: 5

    Why He's Here: It is somewhat difficult to comprehend the fact that the six-time Sprint Cup champion has yet to win a race this season. He let his greatest chance to slip away at Martsinville, where he dominated much of the day in his No. 48 Chevrolet but had to settle for second place behind Kurt Busch in the end.

    Key 2014 Stats: He led 34 or more laps in four consecutive races during one stretch, including a race-high 296 at Martinsville but had only the one top-five finish at the short track to show for it (he finished sixth at Las Vegas after leading 34 laps). That shows that his car has had great speed, but for the first time in a long time it appears that perhaps Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are struggling a bit to make the right in-race adjustments when it matters most.

    What's Next: He has won three times at Richmond and twice at Talladega in his career, so the next two venues on the schedule offer a great opportunity for "Six Time" to strike for the first time in 2014. It's only a matter of time until he does.

8. Matt Kenseth

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    Matt Kenseth's season so far has been steady but hardly spectacular.
    Matt Kenseth's season so far has been steady but hardly spectacular.Mike McCarn

    PR: 6

    Why He's Here: Kenseth is having more of a Kenseth-type season this year than last year when he won a career-high seven races and led 1,783 laps—651 more than in any other season in his 17-year cup career. This year he has been steady but not nearly as spectacular. He hasn't led a whole lot of laps and has yet to visit Victory Lane.

    Key 2014 Stats: He has six top-10 finishes in the first eight races, including the last four in a row and hasn't finished worse than 13th. That's why he's second in points right now, but this season that doesn't matter nearly as much if you don't have at least one win to go along with it. So far Kenseth's best finish has been fourth—which he has done twice, at Fontana and Darlington.

    What's Next: Kenseth is likely to win a race sooner rather than later, but there is no way he's going to come close to matching last year's totals. He has won once at both Richmond and Talladega, the next two tracks on the cup circuit.

7. Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon technically is the points leader, but in reality he needs to win a race to make that claim.
    Jeff Gordon technically is the points leader, but in reality he needs to win a race to make that claim.Mike McCarn

    PR: 8

    Why He's Here: There are those will will argue—loudly—that it is a grave injustice for Gordon, the current points leader, to be this low in the B/R driver rankings. So be it. In a season where wins mean everything, Gordon still lacks one. That makes the fact that he's currently leading the points almost irrelevant until he fills that hole in his 2014 resume.

    Key 2014 Stats: Gordon has led the grand total of 75 laps this season, 40 of which came in one race at Texas where he had to settle for finishing second behind Joey Logano. That's not much. He has been very consistent, finishing ninth or higher in six of the eight races run so far and never lower than 13th. In the old system, that would mean a whole lot more than it does in the new one.

    What's Next: With two career wins at Richmond and six at Talladega, the time is ripe for Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson to show the speed required to run up front more. Only then will they be able to consistently contend for wins—instead of just being consistent.

6. Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski has looked like a strong championship contender -- at times.
    Brad Keselowski has looked like a strong championship contender -- at times.Jeff Curry/Getty Images

    PR: 2

    Why He's Here: It has been a strange season so far for the 2012 cup champion. He began the year on a torrid streak that culminated in winning the third race of the season at Las Vegas—but since then, he's had a string of bad finishes that mostly can be attributed to even worse luck.

    Key 2014 Stats: He has led laps in every race but one—and that came at Martinsville when he tangled with eventual winner Kurt Busch early on pit road, badly damaged his car and ended up finishing 38th. Yet since beginning the season by finishing third in the Daytona 500, third the following week at Phoenix and winning at Las Vegas the week after that, he hasn't finished better than 14th in any race.

    What's Next: The win at Vegas gave BK and crew chief Paul Wolfe some house money to play with for the rest of the regular season, and they're playing with it by experimenting with high-risk, high-reward setups. But they would both like to see better results soon, and Talladega, where Keselowski has won twice, is the best bet for it to happen. He's not only never won at Richmond; he's never even finished in the top five there in nine career starts.

5. Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards is at the top of the class of Roush Fenway Racing at the moment.
    Carl Edwards is at the top of the class of Roush Fenway Racing at the moment.USA TODAY Sports

    PR: 3

    Why He's Here: Since winning at Bristol in the fourth race of the season, Edwards has maintained a top-three position in the points (he rose as high as first for one week and is currently third). But he's slipped in these rankings because his performance has been off somewhat over the last four races.

    Key 2014 Stats: Edwards led 78 laps on his way to Victory Lane at Bristol, capping a stretch of three races in a row when he finished eighth or higher and led at least one lap. Since then, he has failed to lead a single lap—out of the 1,420 he's completed over the last four races combined. His highest finish during that stretch is 10th, his lowest 14th. That's not good enough to contend for a championship over the long haul.

    What's Next: He has one win at Richmond and none at Talladega in combined 38 career starts. Obviously, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig need to find more speed in his No. 99 Ford—a common problem that has faced Roush Fenway Racing cars the last couple of years.

4. Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch simply needs more consistency, and more wins should follow.
    Kyle Busch simply needs more consistency, and more wins should follow.USA TODAY Sports

    PR: 4

    Why He's Here: The kid known as "Rowdy" has run well in each of the last four races, beginning with his victory at Fontana. After struggling through the first four events of the year, Kurt's little brother and his crew chief, Dave Rogers, appear to be finding their groove.

    Key 2014 Stats: After winning at Fontana, he started from the pole at Martinsville and led 22 laps before fading to 14th. But then he finished third at Texas and sixth at Darlington. He has led five or more laps in six of the first eight races—with his low of five laps led in that stretch, ironically, coming when he won at Fontana.

    What's Next: Like every other race team that has a victory in the books, much of the rest of the regular season will be spent getting ready for the 10-race chase. But there is a sense in this camp that the emphasis is on eschewing huge risks in favor of getting in the habit of more consistent finishes, which has eluded the Rowdy-Rogers tandem in past chases and short-circuited their championship hopes.

3. Joey Logano

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    Joey Logano won at Texas and now appears to be a legitimate championship contender.
    Joey Logano won at Texas and now appears to be a legitimate championship contender.USA TODAY Sports

    PR: 7

    Why He's Here: Logano finally looks and acts like the driver that everyone predicted he would be when he first burst onto the Sprint Cup scene at the tender age of 18. Now that he's approaching the ripe old age of 24 (his birthday is May 24) and already has one win this season, Logano appears poised to possibly challenge for his first Sprint Cup title.

    Key 2014 Stats: Yes, he finished 35th in his last race at Darlington. But that was because of a mechanical issue that came after he showed top-notch speed once again by leading 37 laps early in the race after qualifying second.

    The fact is that he's led laps in every race but one this season (at Fontana) and has taken advantage of the new qualifying rules perhaps better than anybody, allowing him to start inside the top 10 in every race where they have been implemented.

    Five times he has qualified inside the top four, including when he won the pole at Las Vegas and went on to one of his three fourth-place finishes on the season. His worst qualifying effort under the new system came at Texas, where he still started 10th and went on to lead a race-high 108 laps en route to Victory Lane.

    What's Next: He's never won at either Richmond or Talladega and has a total of just four top-five finishes in 20 combined career starts at the two tracks. So if he breaks through and does well, it could say a lot about where he's headed this season.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been all business this season -- and it shows.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been all business this season -- and it shows.Mike McCarn

    PR: 1

    Why He's Here: One slip-up, and it was pretty severe, has marred his otherwise terrific season. That came with a self-induced fiery wreck at Texas that led to a last-place finish in the 43-car field. Other than that, Earnhardt's season has been terrific since he opened with a stirring win in the Daytona 500.

    Key 2014 Stats: Since capturing the Daytona 500, he has finished second three times (at Phoenix, Las Vegas and Darlington) and third once (at Martinsville). But after the self-inflicted wound suffered at Texas when he ran off into the wet grass on the third green-flag lap of the rain-delayed race, causing him to destroy his No. 88 Chevrolet that day, coming back strong the next race at Darlington was imperative. He did so, finishing second to race winner Kevin Harvick on a night when no one was really a match for Harvick's No. 4 Chevy.

    What's Next: The schedule sets up nicely for Junior over the next two weeks. He has won three times at Richmond and five times at Talladega, although his last win at Richmond came in 2006 and his last win at 'Dega came in 2003 when he completed a streak of four wins in a row at the superspeedway.

1. Kevin Harvick

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    To the victor go the spoils, and twice already Kevin Harvick has celebrated in Victory Lane.
    To the victor go the spoils, and twice already Kevin Harvick has celebrated in Victory Lane.Chuck Burton

    PR: 10

    Why He's Here: It's simple. Harvick has won two races already. No other driver has. In the current system, it doesn't matter that technically he's 22nd in the points standings -- just as it doesn't really matter that Jeff Gordon is first in points but without a single win. Victories rule.

    Key 2014 Stats: In the two races he's won—at Phoenix and at Darlingtonhe has led the whopping total of 462 laps. That's nearly as many as he led in his last two seasons at Richard Childress Racing combined over a total of 72 races. (He led a total of 269 last season and a total of 256 in 2012). 

    What's Next: Harvick and new crew chief Rodney Childers, one of the best in the business, will continue to experiment in efforts to win more races and best position themselves for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. That could lead to a few more spectacular failures as well as race wins, but they know they'll need to be more consistent when it comes to the chase—and they've got plenty of time and all the resources they need to figure that out.