NASCAR Power Rankings: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch grab top spots

Monday August 5th, 2013

Driver Marcos Ambrose is currently 22nd in the point standings, but could secure a wild card berth.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

We present the wildest of wild cards. A preposterous proposition that, surprisingly, is not quite as far-fetched as it might initially seem.

Could Marcos Ambrose still make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship?

Wait, what? Marcos Ambrose? The driver who currently sits 22nd in the point standings? The driver who has a total of three top-10 finishes all year (which is one less than semi-retired Mark Martin has managed in six fewer starts)? The driver who hasn't finished better than seventh in a Cup race this season? That Marcos Ambrose?

Granted, this scenario definitely is unlikely to occur. But there is a slight chance, and it stems primarily from the fact that the Sprint Cup Series is heading to Watkins Glen International this weekend for the second of the circuit's two annual road-course races.

Ambrose, an Australian native who is in his fifth full season of Sprint Cup racing (and his third driving for Richard Petty Motorsports), has not made much of an impact during his time in NASCAR. But the one place where he has consistently shined has been at Watkins Glen.

Ambrose has won each of the past two Cup races at WGI, to go along with a second-place finish and two third-place runs in his other three starts at the track. That gives him a ridiculous average finish at the Glen of 2.0. The active driver with the second-best career average at WGI is Tony Stewart at 7.93. Ambrose already has more top-five finishes at the track than Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have combined in a total of 38 career starts. In addition, Ambrose won three straight Nationwide Series races at Watkins Glen from 2008 through 2010.

So if Ambrose can make it to Victory Lane once again on Sunday, and also pick up the meager seven points he needs to get into the top 20 of the standings (a requirement for being eligible for a wild card berth), he would have a shot at making the Chase.

The problem is, the two wild cards go to the drivers with the most victories in positions 11 through 20 in the standings, with ties being broken by a driver's position in the standings. There currently are three wild card-eligible drivers with one victory each, and the one closest to Ambrose in the standings -- Ryan Newman -- is 75 points ahead of him. That's probably too much to make up in only five races before the Chase field is set.

But what if Ambrose wins at Watkins Glen, and then somehow picks up a second victory before the Chase? Again, it's an unlikely scenario but not completely out of the question. Last year, Ambrose followed up his WGI victory with consecutive fifth-place finishes at Michigan and Bristol. With a little luck, he could certainly turn a top-five run into a win.

And it's not as if Ambrose is some sort of hack driver merely turning in laps. Over the past six races, his average finish of 17.8 places him between Chase contenders Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle during that span. Last Sunday at Pocono, Ambrose was in 19th place on a restart with eight laps to, then worked his way into the top 10 with two laps left before finishing 12th, one spot ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

Step one, of course, is to win at the Glen. If Ambrose can do that, then there is a long-shot chance that this year's Chase lineup could get a little wild.

Power Rankings

1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- Start in him last place, saddle him a slow final pit stop or -- as happened Sunday at Pocono -- have him blow a tire and hit the wall. It doesn't matter what is thrown at Johnson this season, he seemingly always comes away with a decent finish. Johnson rallied for a 13th-place showing at Pocono, his worst result in six races, though it still seemed like a good day.

2. Kyle Busch (4th) -- Busch moves into the runner-up spot in the Power Rankings thanks partly to the struggles of the two drivers who were ranked ahead of him last week (Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth). But Busch also appears to have shaken off the inconsistency that plagued him through the first 12 races of the season. His 8th-place run at Pocono was his seventh top-10 in the past nine races.

3. Kasey Kahne (9th) -- Kahne takes a big jump in the rankings following his victory at Pocono. Kahne was floundering less than two months ago and appeared to be in danger of not making the Chase. In the six races since then he has finished worse than 11th only once, and that occurred when he got caught up in a wreck with five laps to go while battling for the lead at Daytona.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6th) -- Like a steadily dripping faucet, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is slowly wearing us down with his unrelenting consistency. His fifth-place showing at Pocono gives Earnhardt an average finish of 9.5 over the past six races. Only Johnson has been better during that span.

5. Matt Kenseth (3rd) -- For a driver who has four victories this season, Kenseth sure seems to have a lot of bad luck. His car sustained damage on the second lap Sunday during an incident between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Kenseth was never a factor after that. He has finished outside the top 20 six times this season, and four times in the past nine races.

6. Kevin Harvick (2nd) -- Harvick takes a tumble after failing to crack the top 15 for the second consecutive week. Since winning at Charlotte over Memorial Day weekend, Harvick has led for a combined total of three laps over the past nine races.

7. Tony Stewart (7th) -- It was a solid day for Stewart at Pocono, but nothing special. He remains in a precarious situation in the point standings and could miss the Chase, especially if either Brad Keselowski or Kurt Busch is able to win a race in the next few weeks.

8. Clint Bowyer (5th) -- Bowyer's streak of consecutive top-20 finishes has reached 16. Unfortunately for him, his streak of failing to crack the top 10 has reached three. Bowyer might win the award for most consistent driver, but at this rate, he is not going to win the championship.

9. Jeff Gordon (unranked) -- Gordon nearly stole the victory at Pocono away from Kahne, who deserved to win, and had to be content with a runner-up finish. Gordon remains winless this season, but he has posted five top-10s in the past six races.

10. Carl Edwards (8th) -- It is tempting to give this final spot to Kurt Busch, who came in third at Pocono and has four top-10s over the past six races. Edwards, meanwhile, has only one top-10 in his past five starts (though he was 11th at Pocono). But Edwards is still third in the point standings, so it is hard to leave him out of the Power Rankings entirely. Keselowski and Ryan Newman also are contenders for this spot.

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