2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Rankings: Week 24 Edition
In the last two weeks, two more NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers joined the three-win club, suddenly making it quite crowded with a total of five drivers.
But after Jeff Gordon's win at Michigan and Joey Logano's victory at Bristol, where does that leave the B/R driver rankings?
Remember, this is based not only on race victories (although that is the No. 1 factor), but also on which teams have the most momentum (in the right direction or possibly in the wrong direction), the chemistry between drivers and crew chiefs and which drivers are poised to be at their best over the next two races before the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff field is set.
Certainly, Logano is on the move in the right direction, and he's rightly very excited about it. "What a year we're having," he said, via Tom Jensen of Fox Sports. "This has been so much fun. The past six or seven races have been unbelievable. We've been running up front, man. It's just so much fun."
As Bleacher Report's Jerry Bonkowski so aptly wrote immediately after Logano's latest triumph, "This isn't Little Joey anymore. This is a potential champion we're talking about."
Read on to see who else is moving in the right direction and who is not.
10. Kyle Busch
Previous Ranking: 5
Why He's Here: My, oh my, what is going wrong with Kyle Busch and his No. 18 team? At Bristol, for the second week in a row, they were involved in a wreck that ruined a promising night early. This time, it was preceded by a harsh exchange of words over the team radio between a frustrated Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers that seems to indicate their long-term relationship might be in trouble.
Key 2014 Moments: The really bad news for Busch is that his 36th-place run at Bristol was his best finish in the last four races. It was preceded by finishes of 42nd at Pocono, 40th at Watkins Glen and 39th at Michigan, resulting in Busch dropping like a rock from the top floor of a skyscraper in the points standings (from sixth after finishing second at Indianapolis to 17th). Not all of it is Busch's fault, of course. He got caught up in someone else's wreck at Bristol, but not before taking a penalty for speeding on pit road and arguing with Rogers over the team radio, leading us to understandably question Busch's focus and the state of his chemistry with Rogers as the Chase looms around the next few left turns.
What's Next: Rogers, to his credit, spoke with the media following the Bristol debacle and told Bob Dillner of Fox Sports that he and Busch already had talked it out. Rogers insisted to Dillner that the team remains "in a great frame of mind." We'll see.
9. Denny Hamlin
Previous Ranking: 10
Why He's Here: Busch didn't have a monopoly on frustration and anger Saturday night under the lights at Bristol. Denny Hamlin experienced plenty of both after Kevin Harvick clipped him while he was leading the 500-lap race on Lap 161. The incident led to Hamlin climbing from his No. 11 Toyota and flinging his HANS device at Harvick's No. 4 Chevrolet when it subsequently passed his destroyed car under caution.
Key 2014 Moments: Like Busch, Hamlin has one victory this season, so at this point, both know they'll be included in the 16-driver Chase field. Unlike Busch, Hamlin was coming off of a decent seventh-place finish at Michigan and appeared to possibly have the car to beat at Bristol. Then, in an instant, Harvick (who immediately accepted blame for the accident) took Hamlin out. "I was just so mad," Hamlin said, per Jay Pennell of Fox Sports. "I'm trying to think of when I've been that mad in the past. Maybe never."
What's Next: There is hope ahead if Harvick can stay out of Hamlin's way. Hamlin has one win in 14 career starts at Atlanta and two wins in 16 career starts at the Virginia native's home track in Richmond, where he has led nearly 1,400 laps—more than he's led at any other track.
8. Matt Kenseth
Previous Ranking: 9
Why He's Here: Kenseth did all he could to win the Bristol race, conspiring with crew chief Jason Ratcliff to stay out on old tires when most of the field pitted late in the race. It almost worked. But in the end, he could not hold off the Team Penske duo of Logano and Brad Keselowski and was forced to settle in for third behind them.
Key 2014 Moments: Kenseth still has not won a race after going to Victory Lane a career-high seven times last year, his first year driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. But he has been consistent enough that it now appears he will qualify for the Chase via a points total that currently is the highest of all drivers who have yet to win.
What's Next: Even though Toyota executive David Wilson said, via Tom Jensen of Fox Sports that engine help is on the way for JGR and all teams who race Toyotas, it's doubtful it will arrive in time to salvage a championship run this season for Kenseth or any other Toyota driver. Plus for the immediate future, Kenseth isn't all that great at the next two tracks he'll visit. He's never won at Atlanta in 25 career starts, and he has one win in 29 career starts at Richmond.
7. Carl Edwards
Previous Ranking: 8
Why He's Here: Listen, under the circumstances, Carl Edwards is holding up pretty well. Despite the fact that he's already made it official that he's leaving his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team to join Joe Gibbs Racing at season's end, Edwards is hanging in there.
Key 2014 Moments: Obviously, the key moment for Edwards, even over his two race victories in the spring Bristol event and on the road course at Sonoma, was making the decision to switch organizations and teams for next year and beyond. That immediately threw him into the proverbial lame-duck situation for the remainder of this season. But so far, he and the team he is leaving seem to be making the best of it. He finished seventh at Bristol after a disappointing 23rd-place run at Michigan, a track where RFR used to dominate but now seems to struggle.
What's Next: Edwards keeps insisting that he's focused on trying to win a championship this season, but it seems to be a real long shot considering his lame-duck status and the fact that Roush Fenway's Fords simply haven't been able to match the speeds of the top teams, like Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske, on the bigger tracks all season long.
6. Kevin Harvick
Previous Ranking: 6
Why He's Here: Harvick accepted the blame for wrecking Denny Hamlin at Bristol, but he didn't apologize for going on to finish a respectable 11th, at least partially as a result of the incident. The finish followed a strong second-place run at Michigan that seems to indicate perhaps Harvick's No. 4 Chevrolet team is beginning to rediscover the swagger that led to two dominating wins earlier in the season at Phoenix and at Darlington.
Key 2014 Moments: The two wins remain Harvick's finest moments, but he's also finished second a series-high five times. Wins and runner-up finishes are likely to go a long way in the Chase for the Sprint Cup's new elimination format.
What's Next: Harvick has won once at Atlanta, and he is always a threat at Richmond, where he has won three times. It's still very possible that he and crew chief Rodney Childers will get on a roll at just the right time and mount a very strong challenge for this championship, but they do need to be more consistent.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Previous Ranking: 3
Why He's Here: Dale Earnhardt Jr. shouldn't be penalized for his dismal 39th-place finish at Bristol, as it wasn't his fault at all. He simply got caught up in the aftermath of a wreck that started when Kevin Harvick got into Denny Hamlin. Earnhardt was coming off of a fifth-place run at Michigan and has been solid all season.
Key 2014 Moments: Junior is one of five drivers tied for the series lead with three victories, having followed up his season-opening win in the Daytona 500 by sweeping the two Pocono races. Unfortunately, he hasn't won anywhere else, and neither of those tracks will be in the upcoming Chase. He does have three second-place finishes this season, however, and one of those did come at a Chase track in Phoenix (the other two came at Las Vegas and at Darlington).
What's Next: This remains a season where all seems possible for Earnhardt. None other than Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip recently wrote in a column on FoxSports.com that he believes Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte, in their final season together before Letarte bolts for the NBC broadcast booth, are on a mission to win a championship and are fully capable of doing it. As for the next two tracks, Earnhardt has won once at Atlanta and three times at Richmond in his career.
4. Jimmie Johnson
Previous Ranking: 4
Why He's Here: Is the slump over for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team? They certainly hope so after respectable finishes of ninth and fourth at Michigan and Bristol, respectively. That ended a string of five consecutive finishes outside the top 10, including four finishes of 28th or worse. The fourth-place run at Bristol was especially impressive when you consider that Johnson overcame two pit road speeding penalties to do it.
Key 2014 Moments: Yes, Johnson drove the wheels off to get back up to fourth after two speeding penalties at Bristol. But it also raises the question, what in the world caused the six-time Sprint Cup champion to make that same uncharacteristic mistake twice? Lack of focus? Trying to get too much on pit road, which would indicate a lack of patience? Was crew chief Chad Knaus at least partially to blame? It's difficult to say, but Johnson and Knaus know that such mistakes during the upcoming Chase could spell doom in their defense of their title. JJ remains one of five drivers currently tied for the series lead with three victories, so it's obvious he can still get it done.
What's Next: The next two races will be key and show whether Johnson is building momentum for the Chase. He owns three career wins at both Atlanta and Richmond and has finished in the top five in half of his 22 Atlanta starts.
3. Brad Keselowski
Previous Ranking: 2
Why He's Here: Not only is Brad Keselowski one of the five current members of the three-win club, but he nearly ran Logano down at Bristol for what would have been win No. 4. As it was, he was pretty pleased with a one-two Team Penske finish, telling FoxSports.com, "I wanted to win for everybody on this team. But a Penske one-two is something to be proud of."
Key 2014 Moments: Keselowski finished a respectable eighth at Michigan, so he has been running well. He just hasn't run as well as his Team Penske teammate in recent weeks, so he's fallen just a bit behind Logano. You can rest assured that Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe will accept the challenge to catch up over the coming weeks, though, making the competition in the garage and on the track fierce not only between the two teams but also the rest of the Chase for the Sprint Cup field.
What's Next: In a combined 15 career starts at Atlanta and Richmond, Keselowski has never won and has only one top-five finish at each track. So he and Wolfe have their work cut out for them over the next two weekends.
2. Joey Logano
Previous Ranking: 7
Why He's Here: Logano not only won the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol, but he did so in impressive fashion, with a spectacular pass of the veteran Kenseth late in the race that displayed his patience and maturity as a driver. Kenseth perhaps offered the best compliment afterward by saying that Logano set him up exactly as he would have if their situations had been reversed, per Jay Pennell of Fox Sports.
Key 2014 Moments: Logano not only has three wins—tying him with Gordon, Johnson, Junior and Keselowski for the series lead—but he appears to be gathering momentum and developing winning chemistry with crew chief Todd Gordon at precisely the right time. Logano's win at Bristol was his fifth consecutive finish of sixth or better, including third-place runs at Pocono and Michigan. That's the kind of consistency that could win the driver his first championship.
What's Next: It will be interesting to see what Logano does over the next two races. He has never won and has only one finish inside the top 10 in seven career starts at Atlanta, but it came when he finished second in the Labor Day weekend race last year. He owns one win in 11 career starts at Richmond, and that came earlier this year.
1. Jeff Gordon
Previous Ranking: 1
Why He's Here: Let's be honest: As good as Gordon has been recently, he's hanging on to this No. 1 spot by the barest of threads, as Logano is charging hard for the top spot. Gordon retains the spot by virtue of two wins in the last five races, plus the fact that he's led 17 or more laps in each of the last six races.
Key 2014 Moments: Gordon's recent win at Michigan was his first at that track since 2001, which also happens to be the same year he won his last championship (his fourth). That was yet another indication that something special is happening with this No. 24 team and with the chemistry between Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson. When you lead 17 or more laps in six consecutive races, for a total of 236, you are a threat to win at any time and on any type of track—and that's what it is going to take to win a fifth title.
What's Next: Gordon owns five career wins at Atlanta and two at Richmond, but his focus now is on the Chase. When the Chase commences, he and his team will have to avoid trouble like everyone else (and like they experienced when a battery hookup failure led to a 34th-place finish at Watkins Glen when the car arguably was fastest in the field). If they can avoid those type of calamities, look out. Gordon seems ready to turn the clock back and party like it's 2001.
Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.