Power Rankings: The Empire Strikes Back

A new year means a new set of Power Rankings! After every race, we'll opine about who we think is at the top of the Sprint Cup heap and how and why they got there. Remember, this isn't scientific, as our formula is the perfect blend of analytics and bias against your favorite driver. So let's get on with it, shall we?

1. Jimmie Johnson. Well hello there, Mr. Vader. Have you ever been to the top before? It's quite nice, isn't it? Have a seat right there, we'll take you on a tour. That was some power move by JJ on the race's final restart, you guys. He was fortunate enough to be leading at the time the caution flag flew so that he had lane choice with six to go and held off the rest of the field. Side note: with the evidence that Johnson and team filed a "Harlem Shake" video on the Daytona infield after the race, it raises an important question: Will NASCAR ever NOT beat a pop culture trend into the ground long after the fad has passed?

2. Danica Patrick. OHMYGODWHYDIDYOUPUTHERHEREHOWCOULDYOU? YOUAREJUSTDOINGTHISFORPAGEVIEWSAREN'TYOU? Look, if you watched the race on Sunday and you were putting these rankings together, you'd be a fool to leave Patrick out after the race she ran. And had she not been freight-trained by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap, she'd be no lower than third on everybody's boards. Besides, it's not like she's going to be in here in a month or so, right? Right?

3. Brad Keselowski. Speaking of power moves, what kind of message would that have sent had Keselowski held off the field for the final 20 laps with not only a taped up car, but one that had suffered significant trackbar damage to boot? Side note v2: What does Keselowski think of Instagram now that we know Chad Knaus has recently taken an interest in it?

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. If the man had another lap... Instead, this was the first Daytona 500 in four races that didn't go to extra laps and Junior nabbed his third second place finish in those four races. The low line's lack of momentum off the corners doomed Junior off turn four on the final lap, but anyone who doubted his restrictor plate prowess can't do so anymore after watching that move down the backstretch on the final lap.

5. Mark Martin. Nice move to go with Junior there on the final lap for the 54 year-old driver of the No. 55. After the race, Mark glowed about how truly grateful he was for the opportunity to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing and work with the team. Which is also what he said after every race last season.

6. Greg Biffle. Second year, second place on the second-to-last lap, second time he didn't finish second. One of the things we were sure about going in to Sunday's race was that the second place car would have to make a move long before the finish line. Biffle never got close enough to Johnson to make that move and by the time the field was in turn three for the final time, the imperative switched from catching Johnson to fending off the field.

7. Ryan Newman. On Friday, Tony Stewart made a point in his press conference to reinforce the fact that Stewart-Haas Racing had three cars and that Newman drove for the team. Until Friday, we were unaware of that fact. Since Newman finished in the top 5, not only can you get that free Bloomin' Onion, but you also have a chance to get a free month's mortgage from Quicken. Odds of Newman keeping all his promotions straight the entire year: 1,000,000,000 - 1.

8. Regan Smith. The man who led Saturday's Nationwide race off turn four bounced back nicely on Sunday with a top 10 run. Dude's going to be a championship contender in NASCAR's No. 2 series this year and he'll be in many more 500s to come.

9. TIE. Michael McDowell and JJ Yeley. Score one for perseverance, eh? McDowell's first Cup Series top 10 came in his 115th Cup start and it was the first time that Yeley finished in the top 10 since 2008 at New Hampshire. It was a great moment for two guys who have spent most of recent history starting and parking in the Cup Series. We know Tommy Baldwin wants to let Yeley race as much as possible, hopefully the same can be said for Phil Parsons Racing.

11. Denny Hamlin. Score one for being the lone standing Joe Gibbs Racing car, I guess. Hamster led 33 laps and gave JGR a chance of having a first and worst weekend. Alas, he went backwards over the final laps of the race and finished 14th. Better than having a blown engine though.

12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. We had to get Danica and Ricky in Power Rankings so that they could immortalize this, print it out, frame it and potentially show it to any future Stenicas that there's room in the From the Marbles Power Rankings for both of them.

Dropping Out: Dude, it's the first one of the season.

Lucky Dog: Aric Almirola. Not too often that you can bounce back from a pit road speeding penalty under green and come back to finish 13th.

DNF: Carl Edwards. Got in his fifth crash of Speedweeks. Honorable mention goes to Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick. They all finished outside the top 30 too.

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