Brant James
Tuesday August 31st, 2010

NASCAR Power Rankings

Labor Day Weekend. Charred meat cooked outdoors. One last good sunburn and relaxing poolside before the sweaters go on. And then there's the race before the race before the Chase for the Championship at Atlanta. Here are some racing laborers who've got something to show for their work so far this Sprint Cup season, and some who need a little OT. Have a comment? Send to siwriters@simail.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/brantjames

1Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick
Three wins, 11 top-5s, 16 top-10s in 24 races and a 279-point lead with two races left until the Chase begins. The points lead will vanish with the reseed after the final regular-season race at Richmond, but his consistency -- and the expectation of it -- should remain.
 
2Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson
The four-time defending series champion has had an uneven first 24 races. His five wins ties for the series lead with Denny Hamlin, but his recent spate of problems -- a finishing average of 23 since winning consecutively at Sonoma and Loudon, N.H. -- underscore both the difficulty of what he has accomplished since 2006 and his potential vulnerability. Still, he'll begin the Chase in position to challenge for another title.
 
3Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon
A break might have done well for the other four-time series champion at Hendrick Motorsports. Just a little mental cleanser. He's second in points, but since missing out on four legitimate chances to win earlier this season, he's seen his career-long winless streak extend to 53 races. Tony Stewart (2005) is the only driver to win a championship in the Chase era without a victory in the playoffs.
 
4Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin
The pre-season pre-ordained challenger to the Johnson juggernaut will -- barring victories by either -- start the playoffs tied atop the standings with the four-time defending series champion. He's been slogging recently -- 34th or worse in two of his last three, but second at Michigan -- so a reset will be appreciated. Having the regular season finale at his home track helps, also.
 
5Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch
He became the first to sweep all three top-tier national series two weekends ago at Bristol, then won another truck race at Chicago last weekend. It's a shame he didn't try to talk himself into IndyCar while he was there. Third in Sprint Cup points, he appears to be fully limbered at just the right time of year.
Drivers who have a lot more work to do:
1Mark Martin
Mark Martin
Maybe the preseason gene-splicing of some of Martin's top team members -- including his lead engineer -- was ultimately fatal to what seemed to be one of his best potential championship runs in 28 years at NASCAR's top level. Maybe the speculation about his future -- when it became public knowledge Kasey Kahne would replace him in the No. 5 Chevrolet in 2012 -- was a distraction. Maybe the garage has caught up to Hendrick Motorsports and Johnson and Gordon where the only drivers capable of separating themselves in such a competitive climate. Whatever the reason, he's followed a five-win 2009 and runner-up points finish with a winless campaign and fleeting shot at even qualifying for the Chase, at 14th in the standings, 101 points out.
 
2Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Yeah ... who knows?
 
3Jamie McMurray
Jamie McMurray
He's crushed the majors, winning the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, and threatened to claim another in the holy trilogy by finishing third in the Bristol night race. Now 13th in the driver standings, but a hefty 100 points behind Clint Bowyer, McMurray must finally find consistency in an incredibly uneven campaign.
 
4Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya
His fourth full Sprint Cup season was much-anticipated after he finished eighth in driver points last year, but he has mostly missed out on a glorious year for owner Chip Ganassi. That's not to say he hasn't raced well. He was in position to win at Indianapolis and seal Ganassi's historic capture of the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season before a pit stop left his car unruly and preceded a late crash. Squabbles with crew chief Brian Pattie reportedly over a disagreement at Indianapolis haven't helped either. He needs to build on his 19th-place points position in preparation for 2011.
 
5Clint Bowyer
Clint Bowyer
The third Richard Childress Racing driver in the Chase has ascended past Martin's wreckage despite middling results. Now he has to defend the post two more weeks.
Cities that should host Sprint Cup events:
1Montreal
Montreal
Canada's capital of bohemia has been a worthy Nationwide market since 2007 and deserving of a chance to host Sprint Cup on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Hearing the participants butcher the French language is merely a bonus.
 
2Austin
Austin
The promoters of the planned United States Grand Prix Formula One race in the hip heart of Texas hope to add other events to absorb days and defray costs for the pricey venue they hope to construct. NASCAR has been floated as a hopeful future tenant. Texas Motor Speedway is only 187 miles away, but there's plenty of room for everyone under those big and bright stars.
 
3Jamie McMurray
Phillip Island, Australia
The 2.762-mile, 12-turned Phillips Island Grand Prix Circuit was the home of the original Australian Grand Prix and features a picturesque vista of the Bass Strait beyond sweeping Turn 3. The place already hosts Moto GP and V8 Supercars, the series which currently satisfy the Australian thirst for "tintop" racing. NASCAR, specifically Sprint Cup, is a natural fit. The series already has an emissary in Tasmanian Marcos Ambrose. It would be an incredibly expensive road trip, but we still owe Australia for the Hoodoo Gurus. Do it.
 
4New Orleans
New Orleans
There is that minor matter of desiring/financing/building a race track, but, hey, just think about the after party. Could the Superdome hold a short track?
 
5Clint Bowyer
Nashville
NASCAR has gone to great lengths to diversify its image and appeal to more than a country music crowd. Country music crowds love NASCAR. It's a cool town. Go there.

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