Brant James
Tuesday July 5th, 2011

Daytona Power Rankings
They paired up, rode around for 140 laps, then raced hard for about 20, wrecked for about the final ten and in the Jenga game that is modern restrictor plate racing, David Ragan was the top piece when the pile imploded on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

Many drivers detest the new strain of two-car drafting required at Daytona and Talladega, and understandably so. Physics trump racing for much of the night, and the necessity to make a move for the front in the final laps again reduced those final frantic moments of actual competition to a demolition derby.

An interesting -- or maddening -- aspect of two-car drafting is the choosing of sides that begins weeks before the race. Whereas in the past freight trains of cars circled until their individual components made, then broke unions to suit their individual strategies, tandems tended to stay together for much of the race. And it often created some off partnerships, and new belles of the ball. David Gilliland, who has demonstrated to his peers an aptitude at plate track the past two years, said although he had no interested partners at the Daytona 500, he had 15 other cars on his radio on Saturday. He eventually joined forces with Tony Stewart.

Sights and Sounds: Coke Zero 400
Watch fans celebrate America's birthday and one driver shine under the lights of Daytona and capture his first career Sprint Cup Series victory.

With Talladega and Daytona each featuring asphalt surfaces early in their usage cycles and the current Sprint Cup car sporting a design conducive to nose-to-tail hookups, the current two-car draft is unlikely to change soon. Unless, NASCAR wants to, said team owner Jack Roush.

"You fix the front and the back of the car so if they have contact, there is an inclined angle that would drive the rear wheels off the ground to stop it," he said. "It's easy to stop it if NASCAR really wants to stop it.

"I thought in Daytona, I thought in February that we'd be happier having these cars paired up two at a time, and the drivers would be more in control of their circumstances and less likely to be involved in a wreck that wasn't their own problem. I think that it's about the same. I think when you come to these restricted tracks, there is such a premium on keeping your foot on the gas and maintaining your momentum that you're inclined to not use reason, sometimes, and get out of the gas and separate yourself from the risk that would be there for you. But it's exciting racing. Daytona and Talladega both have been known for the fast speeds and for all of the excitement that is unique to those two racetracks. And we've got something now that I think is no less exciting than it's been, and it's no more hazardous or less hazardous than when we had the 30 car drafts. I think that's what we'll have to deal with when it comes to Daytona or Talladega."

Now on to the power rankings:
Kevin Harvick
Wins: 3
Top-10s: 10
He led 16 laps and lurked during a green-white-checker finish, but was unable to swoop in for his now-expected late-race grab of the checkered flag. With points leader Carl Edwards struggling, though, he slowly reeled in the points lead for the first time this season.
Carl Edwards
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 12
A drafting mishap with Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle sent him into an interior wall and eventually out of the points lead for the first time in ten weeks. Edwards' No. 99 Ford sustained a "serious contamination" of noxious gases because of a damaged crush panel, said Roush, but Edwards slogged through 144 of 170 laps. He finished 37th for the second time in four weeks.
Kyle Busch
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 10
He avoided late trouble to finish fifth and make a two-spot jump to third in driver points.
Kurt Busch
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 9
He left Sonoma, Calif., with a victory and a boost in what has been an uneven and sometimes frustrating season. A 14th-place finish at Daytona won't be nearly as satisfying, especially for a driver who has raced so well without victory there, but his Penske Racing team has seemingly establish a toehold, becoming more consistent heading into the second half of the season.
Matt Kenseth
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 9
His dutiful push helped give Roush Fenway Racing teammate David Ragan his first Sprint Cup victory in 163 starts and perhaps did a great deal for the team's business affairs. UPS, one of a tiny group of 36-race sponsors left in Sprint Cup, must decide where to apply its allegiance and its millions next season and Roush -- beset by sponsor woes recently -- very much hopes they remain with his team.
Jimmie Johnson
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 10
He and the Hendrick fleet appeared to have the field flummoxed in the early stages of the race, breaking off in two two-car pods to lead by margins unseen in modern plate racing. A late pit stop separated the Talladega winner and draftmate Dale Earnhardt Jr., however, and Johnson finished 20th, dropping him two spots to fifth in driver points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Wins: 0
Top-10s: 8
He dislikes this current iteration of restrictor plate racing, but he excelled at it most of the night on Saturday, teaming with Johnson to lead, race mid-pack and "chill" for several laps of biding time. But he and Johnson could not make their way back to the front together in the final 15 laps, although Earnhardt Jr. raced as high as fourth with Jeff Burton after crew chief Chad Knaus opted to pit Johnson under the final caution. Earnhardt Jr. finished 19th after being involved in the final, seemingly predestined melee in the final stretch.
Jeff Gordon
Wins: 2
Top-10s: 7
He salvaged a sixth-place finish which was all the more remarkable considering that his No. 24 was pointing sideways off a turn with two laps left in the scheduled distance.
Denny Hamlin
Wins: 1
Top-10s: 6
A productive drafting relationship with Ryan Newman put the No. 11 Toyota on the lead for four laps on Saturday, but Hamlin settled for a 13th-place finish. He hovers three points out of tenth place and the Chase for the Championship boundary but currently holds one of two wild cards because of his victory at Michigan.
Ryan Newman
Wins: 0
Top-10s: 7
He led 25 laps on Saturday but was relegated to a 23rd-place result because of the late accident. He's finished 15th or worse in five of his last seven races, but clings to a playoff berth with nine races left.

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