2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 22 Edition
Not only did it break the tie Gordon had with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for most NASCAR victories ever at the famed 2.5-mile track, but it also moved Gordon into a tie with Formula One's now-retired Michael Schumacher for most wins at the track in any racing series. It was enough to make Gordon admit he was emotional in the closing laps.
"It's such a big race, such an important victory, a crucial moment in the season and the championship. The emotions take over," Gordon told Fox Sports.
But what did it do for Gordon in the B/R driver rankings? Is his second win of 2014, coupled with remarkable season-long consistency, enough to put him over the top of guys such as Johnson and Brad Keselowski, who are tied with a series-high three wins apiece on the season?
Is Gordon's chemistry with his No. 24 Chevrolet team and crew chief Alan Gustafson at an all-time high? And which other top drivers are gaining in momentum and overall team strength as the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup moves closer? Read on to find out.
10. Denny Hamlin
Previous Ranking: Not Ranked
Why He's Here: Like the rest of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Denny Hamlin appears to be coming on strong as the JGR shop catches up with the rest of the top teams after struggling through much of the first part of this season to stay up to speed. His third-place finish in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis was his third consecutive finish of eighth or better, even though it came at a price when his car was discovered to have issues during post-race inspection.
Key 2014 Moments: He won at Talladega in May. In addition to his recent third registered at Indy, he has over his last eight races also finished fourth at Pocono, fifth at Dover, sixth at Daytona and eighth at New Hampshire, respectively. That means the No. 11 Toyota his team is putting under him is starting to become consistently faster at all types of tracks, which is always a good sign.
What's Next: He's always one of the favorites to contend for the win at Pocono, where he has visited Victory Lane four times in 17 career starts. Then it's on to Watkins Glen International, the road course where he has never led a single lap and has just one top-five finish in eight career starts. He'll have to go to both venues without crew chief Darian Grubb, who was suspended for six races on Tuesday when Hamlin also was docked 75 points for the rules violations discovered post-race at Indy, per Fox Sports' Jared Turner.
9. Matt Kenseth
Previous Ranking: 9
Why He's Here: No, Matt Kenseth hasn't won a race yet. But His fourth-place effort at Indy completed a two-three-four sweep for JGR and gave him his eighth top-five finish of the season. Only Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski have more with nine apiece, and those two drivers have scored five wins between them.
Key 2014 Moments: He's finished fourth in each of the last two races, also doing so at New Hampshire. In fact, he seems to have a thing for finishing fourth this season—having also done it at Fontana, Darlington and Kentucky, respectively. He also finished third in back-to-back races at Charlotte and Dover, and those are his best finishes of the season to date. Kenseth's total of 13 top-10 finishes is impressive, too. Only points leader Jeff Gordon and, again, Earnhardt Jr. have more with 14 each.
What's Next: These next two races usually aren't very kind to Kenseth. He's never won at either Pocono or Watkins Glen in a combined 43 career starts—with a total of only three top-five finishes at Pocono (and none at WGI).
8. Carl Edwards
Previous Ranking: 8
Why He's Here: Carl Edwards' two wins have helped him overcome a lot—most notably a consistent lack of speed on the big tracks in the No. 99 Ford he currently drives for Roush Fenway Racing. Despite the struggles brought on by that, he's still eighth in the points.
Key 2014 Moments: Edwards' wins on the short track of Bristol and the road course at Sonoma loom large and have locked him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup that will determine this season's champion. But it was revealed how much Edwards truly thinks of his current RFR program when it was announced at Indy that he won't be returning—to a Ford team or RFR. That means he's almost certainly headed in 2015 to drive a fourth Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, which currently fields only three cars.
What's Next: He owns two wins, five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 19 career starts at Pocono, where he obviously could be a threat. But he finished 41st there earlier this year after getting caught up in someone else's wreck. And he proved at Sonoma that you can't count him out on a road course—even one he's never won at previously. The key could be how the team reacts to him now that it's confirmed he's leaving at season's end.
7. Joey Logano
Previous Ranking: 7
Why He's Here: The winner of two races in a three-race stretch earlier in the season, Joey Logano's fifth-place finish at Indy was his best in nine races—since finishing fourth at Kansas two weeks following his last win at Richmond. So he's been solid of late, but hardly spectacular.
Key 2014 Moments: In addition to winning at Richmond, he also won at Texas. He has been as high as fourth in points, but now sits ninth and obviously is looking to rediscover some of the earlier magic he displayed behind the wheel of his No. 22 Team Penske Ford.
What's Next: He scored the second Cup win of his career in a rain-shortened race at Pocono in 2012. He has never won or led a single lap in five career starts at Watkins Glen.
6. Kevin Harvick
Previous Ranking: 5
Why He's Here: No one has been more dominating in single races than Kevin Harvick was in the two wins he registered earlier this season at Phoenix and Darlington. But problems with his pit crew appear to have adversely affected team chemistry to the point that his eighth-place finish at Indy was his best in a month, since finishing seventh at Kentucky in June.
Key 2014 Moments: Harvick has led 100 or more laps in four different races, including 224 en route to his win at Phoenix and 238 on his way to Victory Lane at Darlington, perhaps the toughest track on the Sprint Cup circuit. But he and the entire team need to get over the earlier pit mishaps that may have cost him a shot at winning at least two other races (when he finished second at Kansas and Charlotte, respectively...and then second again a few weeks later at Michigan).
What's Next: He has one career win at Watkins Glen in 13 career starts but is 0-of-27 in his career at Pocono Raceway.
5. Kyle Busch
Previous Ranking: 6
Why He's Here: The youngest of the racing Busch brothers finished second for the third time in the last four races at Indy. While frustrating, it's another sign that Joe Gibbs Racing is closing in on the rest of the top-tier pack of teams led by Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske.
Key 2014 Moments: His lone win to date came at Fontana in the fifth race of the season, so he's due. And both he and crew chief Dave Rogers know it. Rogers told Fox Sports after the race at Indy that "we're happy with the direction we're going. We're not quite happy with where we're at, though."
What's Next: Kyle is 0-of-19 in his career at Pocono with only four top-five finishes, but he's really good at The Glen. He's won twice at the road course and had four top-five and eight top-10 finishes in nine career starts while leading a whopping total of 188 laps there.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Ranking: 3
Why He's Here: Fourth? Johnson? The six-time champ who also happens to be the defending Sprint Cup champion? Yeah, well, the Chase for the Sprint Cup hasn't commenced yet and so maybe Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are experimenting a little, or holding back, or whatever. But they haven't been very good over the last month.
2014 Key Moments: Since capping a stretch in which he won three of four races by going to Victory Lane at Michigan in mid-June, Johnson's best finish on an oval track was a 10th at Kentucky. He and Knaus have plenty of time to get it back together and no doubt will, but it has been an odd stretch to say the least.
What's Next: His career numbers at Pocono are very good: three wins, 10 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in 25 career starts, with his last win coming in the first Pocono race of 2013. He's 0-of-14 in his career at Watkins Glen but does have four top-five and seven top-10 finishes.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Ranking: 2
Why He's Here: Hold on, Junior fans. Don't send the hate mail yet. Yes, Earnhardt has slipped one spot since the last rankings—even though he fought his way to a respectable ninth-place finish at Indy in the only race that took place during that stretch. But look who jumped ahead of him!
2014 Key Moments: Earnhardt opened his 2014 season by winning his second career Daytona 500, which is the race that likely will be remembered most by him and everyone else years from now. But if he goes on to win his first Cup championship, it might be his second win of the season at Pocono in June that does more to get him there. It's a track where he had traditionally struggled before, oftentimes marking the beginning of a summertime swoon that swamped his season. This time he conquered it, and it gave his season a whole different feel.
What's Next: Pocono is next, as a matter of fact. And Earnhardt is excited about going there, telling Jared Turner of Fox Sports:"It seems like guys that run well there can sort of sustain it. I've seen guys sweep (the season's two races) there, or at least have opportunities to sweep and come close." He's never won at Watkins Glen, and the last of his two top-five finishes there came when he finished fifth in 2004, a full decade ago.
2. Brad Keselowski
Previous Ranking: 1
Why He's Here: With three race wins, he's tied with Johnson for most in the series. But neither he nor Johnson—nor even Earnhardt—has been as consistent as Jeff Gordon. Keselowski badly wanted to deliver the first NASCAR Indianapolis victory to Team Penske owner Roger Penske, but he labored to a 12th-place finish instead after he and crew chief Paul Wolfe obviously missed the mark on their setup.
2014 Key Moments: Keselowski had good reason to be optimistic heading into Indy, where owner Penske has won 15 Indy 500s on the open-wheel side but never visited Victory Lane on the NASCAR side. Keselowski had won two of the previous three races in dominating fashion, leading 199 laps en route to his win at Kentucky and 138 on his way to the victory at New Hampshire.
What's Next: He owns one win in nine career starts at Pocono and has come ever so close to winning at Watkins Glen, staging spectacular duels to the finish with Marcos Ambrose and Kyle Busch while finishing second in each of the last three races there.
1. Jeff Gordon
Previous Ranking: 4
Why He's Here: Finally, Gordon has made it to the top of the 2014 B/R driver rankings. While there are those who would contend that's nothing more than an oversight since he's led the points standings most of the season, it wasn't until he won at Indianapolis that he truly stamped this season as a special one. Now he has two wins to go along with all those other top finishes.
2014 Key Moments: The win at Indy was historic, as it was the fifth of his career. That broke a tie with Hendrick teammate Johnson for most in a career at the storied track and tied Gordon with former Formula One great Michael Schumacher for most in a career in any racing series at the 2.5-mile oval. That's heady stuff. He also won at Kansas earlier in the year and is tied with Earnhardt for most top-10 finishes on the season with 14.
What's Next: Speaking of records, now Gordon goes to another track where he owns more victories than anyone else in NASCAR. That would be six. Then it's off to Watkins Glen, where Gordon's four wins are only one shy of the NASCAR track record of five held by Tony Stewart. Look out.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.