Friday October 3rd, 2014

NASCAR’s high-stakes, musical chairs-style playoff is now four drivers lighter after last week’s elimination race at Dover. Our power ranking follows that pace going into Sunday’s withering 1½-mile tri-oval race at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET, ESPN). Also, in keeping with the Chase for the Cup’s improvisational tradition, this ranking reserves the right to make a few tweaks along the way. So this week we’re inverting the grid to build up the suspense about our ace driver. But before you read on, consider this disclaimer: The tension herein is snowflake-sized compared to the avalanche of title hopes that will be gathering during the next two Sundays as Chase drivers scramble to book their spots in the Elimination round ahead of the mother of all elimination races—Talladega. 

HOW THEY STACK UP
 
  • 16

    16Ben Rhodes
    Actual rank: 1 (640 points)
    In addition to the Chase cut-off race, Dover also played host to the K&N Pro Series East finale. Rhodes, 17, didn’t win the event. (That distinction goes to 20-year-old Austin Hill.) He placed 15th—not great but, in his case, plenty good enough to claim the series championship. Prior to his Monster Mile start, Rhodes had recorded a whopping nine podium finishes this season, a staggering five of which came on the top step. The K&N Series East has fed a number of its prodigies to NASCAR’s national series, among them: current Chase frontrunner Joey Logano and Nationwide series points leader Bill Elliott. Rhodes, who captures this title in his rookie season, appears to be in that class, too.

  • 15

    15Courtney Force
    Actual rank: 2 (2314 points)
    With a victory last week at an event in St. Louis, the 26-year-old funny car driver lurched closer to claiming her first NHRA title. The man just ahead of her in the standings? Her 65-year-old father, John—a 16-time champion. She has two more events to catch up with daddy dearest (who’s clinging to a 30-point lead) before the Nov. 13-16 season finale in Pomona, Calif. A series crown would not just give Force bragging rights over her old man, but also over her older sister Ashley, an accomplished former drag racing phenom who now presides over the entertainment division of her father’s eponymous racing firm.

  • 14

    14Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
    Actual ranks: 28/27 (597/613 points)
    She has notched top-20s in three of her last four races. He finished 19th at Dover. They’ve been pretty low-key about their relationship, but that figures to change at Talladega—where they could really prove themselves to be NASCAR’s power couple. In 2014 Patrick scored two of her top-10s at superspeedways, and Stenhouse scored one of his top-fives. So they’re more than good enough on the big tracks to keep a Chaser out of the Elimination round, but better together than apart. Let that be a lesson to all you lovebirds out there.

  • 13

    13Kasey Kahne
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    At Dover, Kahne benefitted hugely from Kevin Harvick’s bad fortune, rallying from two-lap deficit to finish 20th. In the process, he knocked out another Chase contender—Kurt Busch, who never got a grip on his poor-handling car. Kahne will need to show more of that guile and gumption to stay up front and in the Chase game. As luck would have it (again), he’s heading to a track where he finished third in May and rates among the slicker passers.

  • 12

    12Carl Edwards
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    With his season somewhat on the line at Dover, Edwards rebounded from an 18th-place start to finish 11th—his highest placement in three weeks. Still, he’d be wise not to wait long before locking up a spot in the next round, where the idea of mounting a rally at Talladega is about as far-fetched as life on Venus—the planet, not the tiny Missouri town that’s about a 90-minute drive southwest from Edwards’s native Columbia, Mo. His average K.C. finish of 10.5 inspires some confidence, but not much.

  • 11

    11Kyle Busch
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    With his older brother, Kurt, eliminated from title contention at Dover, it now falls to Kyle to do right by the family name. That will be a tough order for him at Kansas. It’s not that he just doesn’t do well there. He’s crashed out of there three times in his last four outings. For a driver who has more DNFs (three) than top 10s (zero), this is a disconcerting development indeed.

  • 10

    10Ryan Newman
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    Of his many steady performances in 2014, Newman’s effort at Dover might’ve been the most impressive. After qualifying in 20th place, too close to fellow first-round cellar dwellers Aric Almirola (P21) and Kurt Busch (P22) for comfort, Newman incrementally drove his way off the bubble until he finished the race in eighth place—his 11th top-10 finish of the season. That said, he could have some trouble keeping that momentum going at Kansas. His average finish there, 18.7, is only better than those of Logano and Busch—two drivers who are riding much stronger tailwinds.

  • 9

    9Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    We talkin bout practice? Again? Yes, sadly. But how could we not after Junior broke his steering wheel at Dover during Saturday practice? The snafu didn’t appear to hurt him—he clocked the eighth-fastest practice time while posting a consecutive 10-lap average speed (151.933) that ranked behind only Harvick’s (152.293). But while Harvick managed to convert his speed into a start on the pole, Earnhardt started 25th and ran as high as 15th before finishing 17th. One would think that with slightly improved track positioning, Junior could make better use of his passing skill. But then again, in May, he started 22nd at Kansas and finished fifth. Whatever shape the car is in, it seems, he’ll make it work. The notable, and rather funny, exception is the “new” KITT, of Knight Rider fame.

  • 8

    8Denny Hamlin
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    His 12th-place showing at Dover, a result that rescued his season, is a testament to the team dynamic in racing. Last Sunday the biggest stars on the No. 11 Toyota team were the guys in the pits. Their average service time, just 41.011 seconds per stop, wasn’t just the fastest in a field that includes the estimable crews of Joey Logano (42.059 seconds), Jeff Gordon (42.353) and Carl Edwards (42.248). It was sweet redemption for a disastrous New Hampshire outing that saw the No. 11 alternate from being parked on pit road to propped up inside the garage. If Hamlin’s crew keeps up its Dover pace and finds more speed in that Toyota, Hamlin could pivot from one of the weaker drivers in the Chase to one of the strongest.

  • 7

    7Kyle Larson
    Actual rank: 17 (859 points)
    For the second straight week Larson is the lucky dog. (Super lucky in this ranking’s format!) But he’s making his own good fortune, rounding off a pair of top-three finishes in the Chase’s first two races with a sixth-place showing at Dover. He should be even better this week at Kansas, as he brings an uptick of experience and confidence to a car that qualified fifth there back in May. And now with the biggest wild card race of them all looming two weeks down the road at the next cutoff point, the Chasers have to respect the Cup series’ top rookie more than ever. After Dover, he quipped: “Hopefully, I can be the guy that wins Kansas and Charlotte so all the Chase guys can be nervous going into Talladega.”

  • 6

    6Matt Kenseth
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    Kenseth started out with a 14th-place car at Dover, but over the course of 400 mercifully incident-free laps, a welcome turn of fortune for the Gibbs group, he wrung every possible ounce of power from his ride en route to a fifth-place finish. The effort landed Kenseth squarely back into a Chase hunt that he did not seem long for heading into Dover, when a mere 12 points separated him from the first round’s first out—Aric Almirola. Look for Kenseth to bring it again at Kansas. Aside from Jimmie Johnson, no driver in the grid has a higher rating there than Kenseth’s 107.4—a distinction boosted by the No. 20 Chevy’s back-to-back victories at Kansas at the end of 2012 and the beginning of ’13.

  • 5

    5Jimmie Johnson
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    Johnson wasn’t his usual dominant self at Dover, but his third-place finish there is nothing to sniff at. It suggests that he might be getting closer to getting a handle on a No. 48 car that has left him numb of late. Don’t be surprised if he gets that loving feeling back at Kansas. There, Johnson not only lays claim to the highest rating among active drivers (117.4), but his 586 laps led are likewise second to none.

  • 4

    4Joey Logano
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    Logano might be down a spot from last week, but our faith in his ability to go the distance hasn’t wavered. How could it, when Logano has run so well during the last 10 weeks? Consider: Since his 40th placing at the first Loudon race, Logano has posted an average finish of 4.75, including his checkered flags at Bristol and the second Loudon race. That last result only further underscores his growing reputation as the king of the restart. This makes Logano as much a favorite at Kansas as Kevin Harvick or Jeff Gordon. Like his rivals, Logano wielded a fast car the last time out. With it, he started second, finished fourth and led 63 laps—which trailed only Harvick’s 119 laps-led for the race high.

  • 3

    3Kevin Harvick
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    The Monster Mile was as good as his until the entire left front end of his car collapsed on him 252 laps into a race where his No. 4 team was far and away the mightiest. The mechanical issue at the crux of his bad day, a broken stem valve in his tire that resulted in a flat, mirrored the trouble Harvick endured in Dover’s June race. Where is all this bad luck coming from? It could be from the strange woman who was spotted in front of his Dover garage stall before the race on Sunday flaunting a monkey skull emblazoned with his car number. Or it could be coming from the dark cloud that’s been hovering over him all season. He’s led more laps and miles than anyone in ’14, and yet he only has two victories and five runner-up finishes to show for it. Still, you have to pick him as a big favorite again at Kansas. In his last two trips there he started on the pole and, a year ago this time, cruised to Victory Lane.

  • 2

    2Jeff Gordon
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    We could tell you that last week’s big winner at Dover caught a massive break when race leader Kevin Harvick blew a tire while dominating the field. Or we could tell you that we told you that Gordon would capture his fourth victory of the season. Well, we sorta did. Last week’s ranking noted Gordon’s 2014 flare for turning finishes of 20th or worse into checkered-flag runs the very next week. This week, though, we wonder: How strong is Gordon coming off of a win? Answer: quite strong. In each of his races following triumphs in ’14, he has finished seventh, sixth and 16th at Charlotte, Pocono and Bristol respectively. Now, some might be skeptical of that trend holding at KC, given that Gordon picked up his first win of the season there just four months ago. But, remember: Harvick was in control of that race too. It’s tough to see his team letting another golden opportunity slip again. But if he does, you best believe the ever-ready No. 24 car will be poised to capitalize again.

  • 1

    1Brad Keselowski
    Actual rank: T1 (3000 points)
    Keselowski could’ve quite easily used Dover to catch his breath, given that he had punched his ticket into the Contender round two weeks earlier at Chicago. Instead, he started fourth, led the third-most laps (78) and finished in second place. That sharpness of focus and execution, typical of the No. 2 Ford team in 2014, figures to serve them well at Kansas (where Keselowski last won in the summer of 2011) and far beyond. KC is one of four 1½-mile tracks remaining on the schedule. (Homestead is another.) Three of Keselowski’s series-leading five wins have come on tracks that size. Suddenly, this untried playoff format is playing right into his blistered hands.

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