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NASCAR Cup Series Power Rankings

NASCAR Power Rankings — Las Vegas

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Each Tuesday, I’ll rank the top-16 positions for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR SPEED Facebook page.

1. Brad Keselowski

Keselowski was victorious in Atlanta and nearly won in Las Vegas again had it not been for a late mechanical failure. The Team Penske driver has the best average starting position in the series (4.3) and sits atop the points standings.

2. Martin Truex Jr.

Fresh off a win in Sin City, only Kevin Harvick has led more laps than the Furniture Row Racing veteran. Truex finished 13th at Daytona after nearly winning the 500 and eighth in Atlanta. It looks like the No. 78 team hasn’t missed a beat.

3. Kevin Harvick

Although he suffered a blown right front tire early in the Kobalt 400, the 2014 champion still shows up to the track as a threat to win every week. He’s led the most laps after three races (342), 190 more than second-place Truex.

4. Joey Logano

Logano is the only driver to have finished in the top 10 in each of the first three races. He’s also tied with Kyle Larson for the best average finish at 5.3.

5. Kyle Larson

After earning his first win at Michigan last summer, 2017 could finally be Larson’s breakout year. He’s finished runner-up in the last two races and sits one point behind Keselowski in the points standings.

6. Chase Elliott

Like Larson, it looks like the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott will have a strong season. The Daytona 500 pole sitter nearly won the race and followed it up with consecutive top fives in Atlanta and Vegas. 

7. Ryan Blaney

The ‘Young Guns’ are trending in NASCAR. The Wood Brothers Racing sophomore finished second at Daytona, and put together another great effort on Sunday, qualifying third and finishing seventh. Like Elliott, Blaney is knocking on Victory Lane’s door.

8. Kyle Busch

It’s been a strange start to the season for Busch. He had a blown tire and wrecked while leading the Daytona 500. Then never showed much speed at Atlanta. And most recently, swung fists with Logano after the Vegas race and finished 22nd when he could have finished in the top five had the two not made contact. 

9. Kurt Busch

His Daytona 500 win was arguably the greatest victory of his career. He followed it up with a seventh-place finish in Atlanta but finished 30th after suffering a battery issue in Vegas.

10. Kasey Kahne

The Hendrick Motorsports driver has one top five and two top 10s after three races. He’s also led seven laps this season — seven more than he led in all of 2016. It looks like things are going in the right direction for the No. 5 group.

11. Matt Kenseth

After finishing 40th in the Daytona 500, Kenseth has finishes of third and ninth. He turned 45 last Friday and is the oldest Cup regular, but age hasn’t slowed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver one bit — he has 14 wins since joining the organization in 2013.  

12. Jamie McMurray

McMurray led 13 laps in the Daytona 500, but his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Kyle Larson, has been stealing the spotlight with consecutive runner-ups. The driver of the No. 1 has been consistent, though, finishing eighth and 10th the last two weeks.

13. Jimmie Johnson

The seven-time champion is off to a sluggish start in 2017. He’s led only 28 laps this season and is yet to start or finish in the top 10.

14. Trevor Bayne

Bayne’s NASCAR career has been a work in progress, despite being the 2011 Daytona 500 champion. But he’s slowly and steadily improving and has three top 15s to open the season, including a 10th-place finish at Daytona.

15. Clint Bowyer

Bowyer is beginning to find his groove with his new Stewart-Haas Racing team. The No. 14 driver earned his first top 10 of the season at Vegas.

16. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin has been under the radar to start 2017 but got his best finish of the season on Sunday (sixth). The JGR racer is 15th in the standings. 

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Editorial

Power Rankings: The Fast 15

Each week during the season, Popular Speed Executive Editor Matt Weaver will provide a power rankings list for the top-15 drivers in NASCAR.

The Fast 15 is a list of intangible qualities, based on momentum, attention and overall success in NASCAR over the past several weeks, meaning that it’s entirely possible that an XFINITY Series or Camping World Truck Series driver appears over one of his Sprint Cup counterparts.

Don’t agree with the list? That’s okay! Just let Weaver know in the comments section at the bottom on this page.

After all, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Betrand Russell

Here are the updated rankings following a wet and cold weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

1. @KevinHarvick (LW: 3)

You can’t get much better than two seconds and a first after the first three races of the season … actually, don’t tempt the defending champions. They are on a ridiculous roll of six straight first or second place finishes dating back to November at Texas. That’s unreal.

2. @DaleJr (LW: 4)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just short of a winning car on Sunday at Las Vegas so new crew chief Greg Ives gambled by taking two tires instead of four on their final pit stop. The strategy ultimately failed to win them to the race but that was the sort of mentality that paid major dividends last season when Earnhardt was paired with Steve Letarte. This team will be just fine.

3. @JoeyLogano (LW: 1)

The 2015 season has the looks of a dream season in the making for Joey Logano who has three straight top-10s to open the year and added 47 laps led at Las Vegas for good measure.

4. @MartinTruexJr (LW: 5)

“Nitram’s” turnaround season continued at Las Vegas. Let’s recap: Eighth at Daytona, sixth at Atlanta and second Vegas. This team is the real deal and we might need to start talking about Richard Childress Racing affiliates including …

5. @AJDinger (LW: 12)

Another resurgent RCR affiliate team, AJ Allmendinger has driven the once middling JTG Daugherty team into fifth in the championship standings following two top-10s on intermediate tracks. It’s clear that the 47 are more than just road course warriors this season.

6. @JimmieJohnson (LW: 2)

Is it just me or does the No. 48 team seem to blow more tires than anyone else in the sport in races that demand conservation and management? In any case, Johnson appeared to have the car to beat, leading 45 laps but just wasn’t around at the finish after blowing two tires getting awfully intimate with the outside retaining wall at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

7. @DennyHamlin (LW: 11)

Joe Gibbs Racing is just a little off the pace — nowhere near as bad off as they were at this time last year. Out of their four teams, the No. 11 is the best of the bunch having led 18 laps this season and has been in the mix in all three races thus far. Now driver Denny Hamlin comes to one of his best tracks, at Phoenix, where he has to be seen as one of the major favorites.

8. @RyanJNewman (LW: NR)

Newman is doing that thing again. You know, where he just beats you to death with top-10s and climbs up the standings, like a ninja, not even making you aware that he’s there. Newman is doing real good work at RCR right now, maximizing his equipment like few others in the sport.

9. @KaseyKahne (LW: 7)

For the third race in a row, Kahne has a potentially race winning car. However, late contact with Carl Edwards negated his chance to chase down Harvick to see where he stood. Still, a year removed from one of his most frustrating seasons, and certainly his worst at Hendrick Motorsports, it’s time to start taking the No. 5 team seriously again.

10. Brad @Keselowski (LW: 13)

It’s not quite time to hit the panic button on the No. 2 team but it is curious how far from the front they have been after the first two downforce races of the season. With that said, his team, Logano, has results so it’s only a matter of time before they meet in the middle and pick up where they left off as a unit in 2014.

11. @MattKenseth (LW: 8)

Much like their 2014 efforts, the No. 20 team seems like a team that is on the brink, posting finishes of fifth in ninth in the first two intermediate races of the season.

12. @CJMearsGang (LW: 6)

Las Vegas will be remembered for one of two things for Germain Racing. Casey Mears’ 25th place finish will either be a return to form for the underfunded one car team or it will be just a blip on the radar after finishes of sixth and 16th to open the season at Daytona and Atlanta. The truth is somewhere in the middle as Germain is likely a 20th place car with the chance to impress on the abundance of short tracks that are soon coming up.

13. @GregBiffle (LW: NR)

Say what you will about the current state of Roush Fenway Racing but Greg Biffle is doing the absolute best he can with cars that just aren’t at the same level they used to be. This is what Biffle does. He takes rough cars and gets the best finish out of them, while avoiding DNFs, and is still 11th in the standings after three races.

14. Paul Menard (LW: NR)

Menard is starting to silently stalk the top-10 of the championship standings and is 12th after finishes of 13th and 12th in the first two downforce events, which is true to form for driver No. 27.

15. Carl Edwards (LW: NR)

The newly formed No. 19 team has an interesting start to its debut campaign. They have been fast everywhere but just haven’t been able to post the results. The latest culprit was contact with Kasey Kahne that he took blame for. Still, this is a team that looks capable of posting top-10s every week.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
Editorial

Instant Reactions: Kobalt 400 at LVMS

Kevin Harvick parked his Chevrolet in Victory Lane on Sunday at Las Vegas in a visual you had best grow accustomed to because the defending Sprint Cup champions look like a dynasty in the making.

Despite their early success together, including the 2014 championship, it’s entirely possible that the tandem of Harvick, crew chief Rodney Childers and Stewart Haas Racing are just now reaching their professional peak in Year Two of working together.

Harvick won five races last year but was in position to win at least 10 more over the course of the full campaign. Not much has changed after three races in 2015 as they have now added a victory to go along with the pair of runner-up finishes at Daytona and Atlanta for a ridiculous average finish of 1.6 to open the season.

In fact, Harvick has finished no worse than second dating back to Texas in November. Speaking of dynasties, the last time that happened was in 1996 with Jeff Gordon. The No. 4 team is onto something folks.

Team co-owner Gene Haas admitted that there were struggles early last season as everyone acclimated to their new roles but suggested that the team from the past five months, dating back to the Chase, is here to stay.

“I think when we started off with the 4 team last year, there was just a lot of unknowns,” Haas said. “Rodney and Kevin hadn’t been together. It was a brand new team, brand new crew and everything was new, so there were some missteps.

“His car was fast, they were doing good there, but I think we had a lot of problems at the beginning of the year. That fortunately sorted itself out near the end of the year… This year I think the team has had a lot of time to gel together and that’s showing itself.”

Translation:

The team that won five races last season, en route to the championship, doesn’t have near the chemistry and cohesion that this one does and that should strike fear into the hearts of the entire garage until otherwise disproven.

Perhaps it is their similar personality type, or the dichotomy between a driver and a mechanic at a similar age and point of their respective lives and career, but for whatever reason, Harvick and Childers have clicked and it is starting to take on the aura of Gordon and Ray Evernham or Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

Perhaps that’s a bold statement but we’re well past the small sample size counterargument when discussing Harvick, Childers and the looming No. 4 dynasty.

Here are some other things I found interesting about the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas…

Way Too Many Commercials

Las Vegas was the first NASCAR race I watched from home this season and the television coverage really made me regret it.

When NASCAR, FOX and NBC reached a landmark 10-year, $8.2 billion deal to air events starting in 2015, it seemed obvious that additional advertising and commercials would be required to foot the bill.

But what I witnessed on Sunday was absolute overkill and risks the alienation of the entire fanbase.

Televised green flag runs lasted no more than an average of 10 laps with the broadcast missing several pivotal moments of the race, including Jimmie Johnson making contact with the wall and at least half of the race-defining pit stops.

Based on social media commentary, it was extremely difficult for fans to enjoy the race with the constant interruptions. Most frustrating was the penultimate commercial break, which at least featured a side-by-side of commercials and live action, followed by the final break with no such feature inside the final 20 laps.

As a result, it will be interesting to see if the onslaught of commercials start to have a negative effect on the TV ratings, which have been up following the first handful events to open the 2015 season.

Childress Racing Alliance Showing Promise

Many within the sport were writing off Richard Childress Racing and its affiliate teams following a dreadful 2014 season that saw RCR, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Furniture Row Racing and Germain Racing combine for just a single victory.

But the alliance, which really gained steam with a strong Chase for the Championship effort from AJ Allmendinger and Ryan Newman, has really showed flashes of brilliance following the first three races of 2015.

Following Sunday’s race at Las Vegas, Martin Truex Jr. and Allmendinger are fifth and sixth in the standings with five combined top-10s. Meanwhile Casey Mears and Germain Racing are ninth, placing all three RCR affiliates higher in the standings than the actual Childress drivers in Newman, Paul Menard and Austin Dillon.

It’s early but don’t be surprised to see Furniture Row and JTG contend for playoff spots with Germain making a surprise run at the top-5 at Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond — their longstanding bread and butter tracks.

Categories
Editorial

Las Vegas: They Said What?

By Unique Hiram – Fuel mileage was the name of the game in Vegas. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte took a huge gamble, coming up one spot short of victory. In the end, Brad Keselowski was able to capitalize on that and take the checkered flag.

There were some entertaining and interesting tweets shared throughout this past weekend. Dale Earnhardt Jr./Kyle Larson, Krista Voda and The Orange Cone are featured in this week’s “They Said What?”

Who Knew? The Sprint Cup’s Most Popular Driver is a photographer.

photo 1

The Orange Cone shows off his LVMS Henna Tattoo.

photo 3

PHOTO BOMB ALERT: Clearly that dude either absorbed too much sun or had some serious liquid courage.

photo 2

The NASCAR Nationwide (Drive to Stop Diabetes 300) and Sprint Cup (Food City 500) Series head to Bristol, TN for some short track racing. These highly anticipated events will be broadcast on ESPN2 (March 15, 12:00 p.m. ET) and FOX (March 16, 1:00 p.m. ET), respectively.

EMAIL UNIQUE AT unique.hiram@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER@UniqueHiram

Categories
Editorial

The Mayor Makes His Season Debut This Weekend For MWR – And None Too Soon

By Vito Pugliese – To say that 2013 was a tumultuous year for Michael Waltrip Racing would be a bit of an understatement; tantamount to saying the Hindenburg experienced a bit of a backfire.

The team that was one of the brightest success stories of 2012 was suddenly walking the tightrope over the abyss as 2013 drew to a close. By the time the checkered flag fell as Homestead the team suffered the following:

–          Martin Truex, Jr. forcibly removed from The Chase

–          Clint Bowyer treated for itchy arm syndrome (IAS)

–          Flagship sponsor NAPA promptly departed

–          Brian Vickers hospitalized with a recurring blood clot issue

–          Mark Martin departing mid-season for Stewart-Haas Racing

–          Martin Truex, Jr. leaving to take over the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet

–          Rodney Childers leaving as crew chief of the No. 55 to join SHR

–          Chad Johnston leaving as crew chief of the No. 56 to join SHR

Had it not been for that 2012 season, 2013 very well could have seen MWR dry up and blow away like so much chafe in the wind. Survivor that he is, Michael Waltrip carried on, and has added a new stabilizing force within the team in Jeff Burton, who will make his first start of the season this weekend in Las Vegas, driving the No. 66 Let’s Go Places Toyota Camry. It will be the first start of the season for Burton who was replaced by Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing after nearly ten seasons of service.

This year hasn’t gotten off to the best of starts for the company, with Vickers and Waltrip wrecking in the Daytona 500 while Bowyer had an engine go south. This past weekend at Phoenix the No. 55 of Vickers slapped the wall after having a tire go down, while the No. 15 of Clint Bowyer was largely a non-factor leading just one lap and coming home 13th. Albeit third best among Toyotas and just one spot behind corporate compadre Matt Kenseth.

For Burton, it is an opportunity to race a limited schedule before he goes full-time TV guy next year with NBC Sports. This year, he essentially is filling the role vacated by his long-time friend Mark Martin, as the veteran presence on the team. Granted it is in a limited capacity, but having spent the last 18 seasons with two of the largest organizations in the sport with Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing, Burton is not a job hopper and knows what is required to make a team function. It also serves as a reunion of sorts with Scott Miller, competition director at MWR who was Burton’s crew chief during his most productive seasons at RCR.

So should we expect to see “The Mayor” on the pole this weekend? Probably not; give the guy a chance to knock the rust off first. However, with the knockout qualifying in its infancy, a year that has been slow to get going, it’s things in preparation and procedure that Burton can help identify and improve, as well as provide fresh feedback and perspective on car performance. It is a boon as well for NBC Sports, to have a driver still active in the series providing commentary this year on its “NASCAR America” show, and next season in the booth when he clambers out of the car to call the second half of the season. Most former driver commentators today haven’t been in competition for over five years; others a decade or more.

For Burton it’s a chance to remain involved in the sport and slowly back away, rather than going all-out with a farewell tour of sorts. After all, that’s not really his style, plus he has said he’s feared getting out too quickly after having talked to other former drivers, as he told MRN’s Dustin Long.

As he did with the other two super teams he has competed for, Burton will leave MWR in better shape than it was when he arrived. The same will be said for the broadcast booth when he straps into that seat full-time in 2015.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese