Thursday September 25th, 2014

After a lengthy garaging, the crib sheet that truly puts the power in power rankings is rumbling back out into the daylight. Per custom, this a grid dominated by Sprint Cup drivers, but that’s not to say you won’t find stars from other series weaving through. However, with the first elimination race of the Chase coming up this Sunday at Dover (2 p.m. ET, ESPN), who knows how much longer some of these Cup drivers will be able to hang on to their spots? When the checkered flag drops at the Monster Mile, four names on this list will definitely find themselves out of title contention.

How they stack up
 
  • 1

    1Jimmie Johnson
    Actual rank: 4 (2080 pts)
    No disrespect to the Team Penske pilots (or disregard for the wins that automatically got them into Round 2), but who could bet against the reigning Cup champion as the Chase steers right into his wheelhouse? The man has absolutely been a monster at the Monster Mile, leading all drivers who’ve raced there in laps (2,976) and wins (nine). Two of those victories have come in the last three races and include a start in June. To this point in the Chase, Johnson has driven defensively, mostly out of concern for on-track adversities that had the potential to be compounded. (At New Hampshire last week, there were many.) But this week, look for JJ to reassert himself as king of the Chase.

  • 2

    2Brad Keselowski
    Actual rank: 1 (2097 pts)
    The Michigander’s unperturbed march through the playoffs has been a marvel to watch. Last week at Loudon the challenges rushed at him once again like bugs to a windshield—none more troubling than his spinout into the wall on lap 195. And yet he worked his way back from 22nd place to move toward the front and nearly finished the race where he started, in first place, until Kevin Harvick (on fresher tires) beat him on a lap 268 restart. Now, Keselowski hasn’t been great at Dover, finishing, on average, around 14th place in his nine career starts there. But he’s been on such a roll this season and in such a hurry to notch wins, one expects that he’ll be tangling with Johnson down the stretch on Sunday.

  • 3

    3Joey Logano
    Actual rank: 2 (2096 pts)
    A scriptwriter would struggle to draft a superior narrative to the one that played out for Logano last week. New Hampshire, the place where the Connecticut-born driver attended his first NASCAR race and made his maiden Cup series start, was the perfect setting. His team’s decision to bring his No. 22 Ford in for a late off-schedule pit to swap in four fresh tires made for great tension. Logano’s effort to bump teammate Keselowski ahead on a late restart was a heartwarming moment that turned unexpectedly dramatic when Logano’s act of kindness landed him at the front of the grid. And to finish with a win, well, that allowed everyone at Penske to go home happy. Sure, the box office returns were modest for the day (just $290,581). But Logano has proved to be such a reliable earner this season that, on Thursday, Penske announced it had inked him to a multiyear extension—in only Logano's second year with the team. (In the deal’s big reveal, owner Roger Penske said Logano, 24, has been “everything we hoped he would be.”) Like Keselowski, Logano isn’t the strongest at Dover. But that hasn't damaged Penske's confidence in his ability to engineer a sequel to last week's success. When a driver produces as well as Logano does—four wins now after scoring just three in six years of Cup racing!—who needs to see a script?

  • 4

    4Kevin Harvick
    Actual rank: 3 (2090 pts)
    Harvick is a hard driver to figure. At times, he can seem like a long-distance runner who secretly knows he’s stronger than the pack. So he sets an unreasonable pace for it to follow. Then just when everybody thinks he’s as tired as they are, he goes full on Mo Farah. (Case in point: Harvick has led at least one lap in every race but eight this season, which is only two behind series pacesetter Keselowski’s all but six.) But then there are other times when Harvick looks far more vulnerable, like when he was grousing about Logano’s gamesmanship on that last restart at New Hampshire—a key moment that resulted in Harvick’s third-place finish. Another close-but-no-cigar performance at Dover should be more than enough to get him to the next round. But will it be enough to get him to Homestead?

  • 5

    5Kyle Larson
    Actual rank: 17 (821 pts)
    Seriously. How much does it grind your gears that this kid didn’t make the Chase? Since his mathematical elimination at Richmond, all he’s done is finish third at Chicago and second at New Hampshire—where he again started from the back row and surfaced as a late challenger to the Chase pacesetters at the front of the pack. In fact, he and teammate Jamie McMurray have really found their stride during these past couple of weeks. And yet it’s the junior driver who looks more likely to pick up a win over the next eight weeks. And when he does, it’ll raise another, more pertinent question: Which Chase driver will that hurt the most?

  • 6

    6Jeff Gordon
    Actual rank: 7 (2070 pts)
    If Dover is Johnson’s house, then Gordon is more like a seasonal tenant. He’s second behind his Hendrick teammate among active drivers in laps led (2295), and tied with fellow Chaser Ryan Newman for most poles (four). Even though a late flat cost Gordon a chance at another high finish at New Hampshire last week, our friends at Fansided say that could be a good sign heading into the weekend. The last three times Gordon finished outside of the top-20 in 2014, he won the very next week.

  • 7

    7Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    Actual rank: Tie 5 (2070 pts)
    A month ago, no car was hotter than the No. 88. But since Earnhardt picked up his third and final victory of the regular season, at Pocono, he’s finished 11th or worse in five of his last seven events. Still, there is good news for him, and it’s twofold: 1) He hasn’t hurt himself during the Chase, placing 11th and ninth in the first two races; 2) He’s coming to a track where he finished ninth in June and led 80 laps a year ago. If this turns out to be the week that the No. 88 meets his challenge to step it up in practice, look out.

  • 8

    8Carl Edwards
    Actual rank: Tie 8 (2057 pts)
    Edwards was great at Dover once upon a time—ironically, in the Car of Tomorrow. Behind its wheel, he placed fifth there on average. But since he was forced by NASCAR edict to abandon that flying brick for the current Gen 6 car? Throw out a fifth-place showing here in September of 2012, and Edwards’ average finish in the three races since then plummets to 22.3. He’ll have to do better than that to give himself a fighting chance of making it out of this round. Edwards might be ranked eighth, but he only has a 12-point cushion over last-place Chaser Aric Almirola.

  • 9

    9Kyle Busch
    Actual rank: Tie 5 (2077 pts)
    The M&M’s on his yellow Toyota looked as if they had gone from smiling to screaming after all the punishment the No. 18 car took at New Hampshire last week. At one point, you could’ve argued that the makers of duct tape had as much claim to being the car’s main sponsor than the confectioner. And yet even after suffering all those blows, Busch somehow rallied to bring his car home in eighth place and keep his title hopes on course. At Dover, he’s as much a threat to win as anybody. Before he DNFed out of the June race with engine trouble, he qualified second. Before that, his last three finishes there were fifth, fourth and seventh.

  • 10

    10AJ Allmendinger
    Actual rank: 10 (2056 pts)
    Allmendinger, a road course expert for one of NASCAR’s smallest teams, looked like one of the easier outs when the Chase began. But so far he’s acquitted himself well. After a less-than-stellar outing in the playoff opener at Chicago, he rebounded at New Hampshire—where he started 27th (or 11 spots lower than he did the previous week) and climbed all the way to ninth before finishing 13th. Now, he hasn’t been the best at Dover lately, finishing outside of the top 20 in his last two outings. But if Allmendinger can bring the same mistake-free driving approach that he did to New Hampshire, it could be enough to get him into the next round—which would be a massive accomplishment for him and his team.

  • 11

    11Kurt Busch
    Actual rank: 15 (2047 pts)
    After stalling out of the gates in 2014 with a spate of mechanical issues, Busch righted his season at Dover, finishing 18th there in June. What’s more, he’s one of the few drivers to disrupt Johnson’s recent run of the place, claiming the checkered flag there in 2011. No, Busch isn’t in the best spot points-wise at the moment, but he is vastly more talented than his fellow cellar dwellers. If there’s a driver who can work his way off the bubble, it’s the guy who won the inaugural Chase in 2004.

  • 12

    12Matt Kenseth
    Actual rank: Tie 8 (2057 pts)
    The best driver not to record a regular-season victory was running well going into the Chase. But once he sewed up his spot in the regular season’s penultimate race, at Atlanta, the 2003 Cup series winner has experienced a drop in performance—but not from lack of effort. After triggering the aforementioned crumple line that dinged up Kahne, Kenseth found himself all the way up to third place until a collision with Paul Menard 31 laps from the finish dropped him down to 25th. Kenseth has the talent and a good enough ride to get to the next round. He just needs to steer clear of trouble—which, alas, he has had a knack of finding for his Gibbs team lately.

  • 13

    13Kasey Kahne
    Actual rank: Tie 11 (2055 pts)
    Like Edwards, Kahne does not have much of a cushion on Almirola—just 10 points. What’s worse, he hasn't placed higher than 15th at Dover during the last two years. So this is crunch time for the No. 5 car—and that’s not meant as an allusion to the rolling crumple line he got caught up in during a lap 187 restart that cost him valuable positioning at New Hampshire. If Kahne has any Atlanta-type moves left in him, now would be the time to make one or more of them.

  • 14

    14Ryan Newman
    Actual rank: Tie 11 (2055 pts)
    When he raced for Roger Penske, Newman was as dominant as Johnson at Dover. Between 2003 and ’04 he claimed victory in three of four races; between ’03 and ’07 he landed on the pole a record seven times. Now two teams removed from his rookie outfit, Newman hasn’t been nearly as quick. In his last seven starts, he’s posted an average finish of 22.1 and has said that consistency will be what separates the drivers who are racing for a title at Homestead from the drivers who aren’t. But at this rate, his championship run could be over by suppertime on Sunday.

  • 15

    15Greg Biffle
    Actual rank: 13 (2049 pts)
    Biffle hasn’t led a lap at Dover since May of 2009, when he was in front for 41 and finished third. That said, the Biff does have a few things going for him: 1) His career driver rating at Dover (101.6) is higher than his career rating overall (98.9); 2) He seems less vulnerable to up-and-down days than his Gibbs teammates, which could be consistency enough to skate through to Round 2.

  • 16

    16Cole Custer
    Actual rank: 23 (Truck, 246 pts)
    Last weekend, the teen became the youngest winner ever—at 16 years, seven months and 28 days—to win a race on one of NASCAR’s three national series. After falling back into a field he had led for almost 140 laps, Custer got a beat on race leader Matt Crafton on the last restart and never trailed again. Even more incredible: Custer might be an even bigger obstacle for Crafton, the series leader, if the teen were old enough to race on tracks longer than 1.25 miles. (There, the age limit is 18.) He'll be going into this weekend's K&N Pro Series East race at Dover looking for his second checkered flag of the season.

  • 17

    17Denny Hamlin
    Actual rank: Tie 13 (2049 pts)
    More so than Kyle Busch, Hamlin personified the Gibbs teams' bad luck at New Hampshire. He watched a chance to regain an early lead slip away on pit road, where a fuel line issue kept him parked for what felt like an age. Then he was rendered a spectator again when a later collision with David Ragan punched a giant hole where his right front wheel arch should be, effectively ending his afternoon. The day doesn’t figure to go much better at Dover, where Hamlin has averaged a 19.6 finish in 17 career starts. Anything short of a W might not be enough to get him in to the next round.

  • 18

    18Aric Almirola
    Actual rank: 16 (2045 pts)
    Just when it seemed as if he might be steering one of the best Fords not piloted by a Penske, Almirola suffered an engine failure late in the Chase opener at Chicago that robbed him of a potential top-10 finish. That fictive result, combined with his sixth-place finish at New Hampshire last week—his second best ever showing there—could’ve put him in great position to advance to the next round, even with his 15.4 career average at Dover. Instead, he could well end up the first Chase casualty.

  • 19

    19Sebastian Wheldon
    Actual rank: N/R
    Well, he’s not ranked yet. Like his IndyCar racing father, who died in a season-ending race at Las Vegas in October of 2011, Sebastian is a keen racer. He also five years old, which means he can only drive go-karts for now. Last Saturday he led a field of 13 current and former IndyCar drivers around a road course in New Castle, Ind., to kick off the second annual Dan Wheldon Pro-Am, a sprint race that raises money for Alzheimer’s research. After 15 minutes Tony Kanaan, Wheldon’s longtime friend and teammate, claimed victory.

  • 20

    20Michael Waltrip
    Actual rank: 45 (48 pts)
    No, the owner-racer didn’t make the Chase. But he’s still gunning for a mirrorball trophy on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. With moves like these, though, one wonders for how much longer—especially with Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air dropping this gauntlet to open the dance competition. Waltrip survived the show’s most recent elimination round by a fender. For him to further, it'll take more than a few of his NASCAR fans stuffing the digital ballot box.

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