Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin, the 11 at 1

It's a new season, and that means a new year of Power Rankings. Each week throughout the season, we'll size up who's rising and who's falling, based on current standings, behind-the-scenes changes, expected staying power, recent history and general gut feelings. It is not scientific, nor is it meant to be. And remember, whoever your favorite driver is, we're biased against him and like someone else better. So let's begin with a guy we haven't seen around here lately ...

1. Denny Hamlin: There's plenty of poetic justice to be had in Hamlin's win at Phoenix; not only is it the place where he effectively saw his championship dreams vanish in 2010, it marks the first win with new crew chief Darian Grubb. Starting fast in NASCAR: always recommended.

2. Matt Kenseth: He didn't have a particularly interesting day at Phoenix, but so what; dude is the reigning Daytona 500 champ, and his Roush Fenway Ford ran the best of anyone at the beach. Plus, he outjoked Jay Leno (granted, a low bar to clear). Kenseth is carrying through on the momentum of last season, and this year there's no Brian Vickers to derail the ride. Yet. 

3. Greg Biffle. If Biffle has a bounceback season after riding on the Rose Bowl parade float with all those surfing dogs and whatnot, expect there to be some calls to agents at the end of this season. The idea of Kurt Busch riding on a float with a bunch of unruly dogs brings a smile to my face. 

4. Kevin Harvick: He hasn't yet won, but let's be honest: If Harvick hadn't run out of gas on the final laps at Phoenix, he'd have passed Hamlin like he was standing still. And Harvick was in the hunt right into the final laps at Daytona, too. Just keep that in mind as we move forward through the season; it's looking like he's entering the prime of his career. 

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Phoenix didn't turn out so well, but Junior raced at Daytona exactly like his most ardent supporters thought he would. No, he didn't get the win, and he's now up to something like five thousand races without a victory, but so what. He's competitive, and yes, that's like giving a trophy to everyone in Little League who plays, but we're taking incremental steps here.

6. Kyle Busch: We expected more out of him at Phoenix, and at Daytona for that matter, but nonetheless he's doing everything he needs to right now. Busch will always have the Chase failures and the looming threat of a tantrum over his head, but for now, all is right with him. 

7. Tony Stewart: Can we blame Stewart's engine failure at Phoenix on him? No, but we will anyway, because we're like that. Last year's champion started out Speedweeks well enough, but hasn't quite put it together in the regular season. Of course, that's not exactly a surprise; Stewart generally doesn't even get out of bed before, oh, June or so. No worries, Smoke fans. He's fine.

8. Martin Truex Jr.: When you're in a contract year, it pays to start fast and run strong. And it's pretty much impossible to start any stronger than winning the halfway bonus of the first race of the season. Truex followed that up with a solid run at Phoenix. Michael Waltrip is happy to take all the credit, and is contractually required to appear in every single photo of Truex ever. Don't tell him about this one.

9. Carl Edwards: He snagged the pole at Daytona, but a red-flag penalty killed his chances of winning. This week at Phoenix, he didn't qualify quite as well, and never could get rolling. If you're the nervous-99-fan type, you could worry about that a bit; last year he never had much trouble carving his way through the field. If you're of a more sane mindset, however, you'll realize it's a long season.

10. Jimmie Johnson: Yes, Johnson only has 18 points at the moment. Yes, he's ranked 37th. But if you think for even a second that he's not, at this moment, one of the top drivers in NASCAR, you're just a hater. And the kids say that haters are just awful. Well, the kids probably have some other term for it now, but if I use it, I run the risk of getting fired by my superiors who haven't caught up with the latest slang. And I ain't getting fired for Jimmie Johnson. My name isn't Chad Knaus.

11. Mark Martin: All along, Martin has insisted he'll take the David Pearson approach to driving, showing up when he feels like it to the races he wants to run. (Also known as my technique during my senior year of college.) But look at this: He's running exceptionally well. Think he'll change his mind if he gets a win or two?

12. Brad Keselowski. So far @Kes has drawn more attention for his tweeting than his wheeling, but hey, you do what you can to get noticed. And if you're good enough to have Jimmie Johnson trading paint with you, you've pretty much arrived.  Last season's ending ranking: NR.

Lucky Dog: Regan Smith. Sure, he faded to 20th, but Regan ran almost all of the Phoenix race within sight of the leaders. That's quite an achievement for him and his team, and that's the kind of run that gets you a promotion. Just remember your friends, Regan. Like us.

DNF: Kasey Kahne. Sure, he had the best car of the field coming into the race, but not even the best car can stand a full-speed side-slap of the wall. Kahne's charge to the front of the Hendrick stable will have to wait another week.


More coverage from Phoenix:















Next up: Vegas! The bright-light city's gonna set your soul on fire! Send your comments to us via Twitter at @jaybusbee, via email by clicking here, and via Facebook. Go!

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