1. Tony Stewart.
The reigning champion gets all kinds of latitude in the early season Power Rankings; Stewart could have showed up at the Bud Shootout, taken a nap in the seat and still held on to the top spot based on his exceptional run last year. As it turns out, he came within a hundredth of a second of winning the race. Yeah, that's a good showing. Last season's ending ranking:
2. Carl Edwards.
And Edwards, last year's bridesmaid, also picked up exactly where he left off, hammering down the pole position for the Daytona 500 with an outstanding qualifying run. He'll be tough right from the drop of the green flag on Sunday, and with a teammate beside him, he could be even tougher. Last season's ending ranking
3. Kyle Busch.
You can love him or hate him, and most of you hate him, but you cannot deny that Kyle Busch is one hell of a wheelman. He had two, maybe three incidents in the Bud Shootout that would have taken out a lesser driver, and he not only salvaged his car, he managed to win the doggone race. That's some skill right there, friends, like it or not. Last season's ending ranking
4. Jeff Gordon. How wild was that Gordon wreck on Saturday night? Gordon said it was actually reasonably comfortable (relatively speaking) once he started flipping. The NASCAR Hall of Fame needs to have a wreck-simulation machine. You'd have to sign away your life in waivers, but it'd be worth it to feel what these guys feel. Last season's ending ranking: 9.
5. Jimmie Johnson.
Well, well, well ... looks like Johnson, Chad Knaus and the conspiracy theorists are all in midseason form already, yes? The C-post confiscation
has set off the usual round of theories, which have to compete with the "Rick Hendrick gave Tony Stewart Jimmie's awesome cars" theories. We need a conspiracy scorecard. Last season's ending ranking:
6. Kevin Harvick. Harvick's Bud Shootout ended a bit early in the Logano/Truex wreck, but there's no denying he's one of the series' top drivers right now. (We picked him to finish first, matter of fact.) So until we have more data, we won't hold a low finish against him. Yet. Last season's ending ranking: 5.
7. Greg Biffle.
Just as you can't take much from a low finish in the Bud Shootout, you can't take much from a high finish, either; anybody who was on the lead lap finished in the top 10. Still, Biffle was one of only three drivers (with Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski) who escaped any wreck damage. Plus, he ended up on the front row at Daytona, so good on him. Last season's ending ranking:
8. Brad Keselowski
. We've already passed the "wow, this kid is running with the big dogs!" point in Keselowski's career; it just seems now like he belongs with the lead pack. Which brings its own set of pressures, but hey ... it's better than hanging on by your fingernails, or not. Just ask Brian Vickers. Last season's ending ranking
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Plenty of reasons for Junior fans to be hopeful this year are already evident. The strong qualifying run, the solid-until-wrecked performance in the Bud Shootout ... good stuff. Of course, delivering on the track is more important, and Junior himself has said he thinks he has a better chance of winning at Phoenix, but still, this is a good beginning. Last season's ending ranking:
10. Matt Kenseth. While Kenseth is the reigning champion of dry wit on Twitter, that doesn't translate quite so well to either sponsor interest or media coverage. He'll need to have a strong early season run, but there's every indication he will, and the fact that his Ford/Roush teammates own the front row is a very good sign indeed. Last season's ending ranking: 4.
11. Kasey Kahne
. We've got to give Kahne a little bit of latitude as he settles into his new digs at Hendrick, but outside of the top two, there was no driver hotter than Kahne in the Chase. We expect good things from him instantly and will be satisfied with nothing less than three wins to start the season. We don't think that's unreasonable. Last season's ending ranking
12. Marcos Ambrose.
With the usual caveats about the Bud Shootout results meaning less than nothing, Ambrose's third-place performance is still impressive. A "keeping your head while everyone around you is losing theirs" strategy might just be the way to win the Daytona 500 on Sunday. And Ambrose was as slick as anyone at avoiding problems on Saturday night. Last season's ending ranking
Next up: Daytona! And we can use some real race results to create this craziness. Send your comments to us via Twitter at @jaybusbee, via email by clicking here, and via Facebook. Go!