Welcome back to Power Rankings for the 2019 Cup Series season. We’re never going to cut horsepower here.
1. Denny Hamlin
When you win the Daytona 500, finish 11th at Atlanta and are the points leader after the first two weeks of the season you get to be the top driver in Power Rankings. Hamlin also gets an extra boost for this pro move at the Charlotte Hornets game on Monday night. Notice how he blurred out the text messages on his phone in the photo.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) February 26, 2019
2. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski had enough speed to keep Martin Truex Jr. at bay over the final few laps of Sunday’s race at Atlanta. It’s worth wondering just how much dirty air hindered Truex’s ability to make a move on Keselowski after quickly cutting into Keselowski’s lead over the final five laps. Truex said after the race that he could have gotten to Keselowski sooner but he was held up by the dirty air from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a lapped car. If a lapped car was that much of a nuisance, it’s hard to think getting around the leader of the race would be any easier.
3. Kyle Busch
Busch had to start at the back of the field on Sunday because of a practice crash that damaged his primary car. The team elected to go to a backup instead of fixing Busch’s primary car and Busch drove through the field to finish sixth. If you watched Saturday’s Truck Series race, you would have seen Busch drive through the field with more ease. He won that race despite a mid-race pit stop to ensure that all of the wheels were tight on his truck. The victory was his 195th career win in NASCAR’s top three series.
4. Kevin Harvick
Harvick started 18th because of a power steering issue in qualifying. If it wasn’t for that power steering problem he probably would have started in the top five. His three Stewart-Haas teammates all started there.
The defending Atlanta champion and dominant driver of the previous two races at the track led 45 laps and finished fourth. He’s currently second to Hamlin in the standings after racking up some stage points before crashing at Daytona.
5. Joey Logano
Logano finished 23rd on Sunday after he was running second to teammate Brad Keselowski in the final stage. Logano had to pit for a loose wheel and ended up losing a lap in the process. If it wasn’t for that loose wheel and subsequent pit stop, Logano would likely be the guy at the top of the points standings.
6. Kyle Larson
Larson led the most laps of anyone (142) at Atlanta and finished 12th because of a speeding penalty on pit road between the end of stage 2 and the beginning of stage 3. Like it’s worth wondering about Truex’s ability to pass Keselowski thanks to the dirty air, it’s worth wondering if Larson would have gotten back to the front if there wasn’t so much downforce (and dirty air) on the Cup Series cars on Sunday. A car that leads over 60 percent of the laps in the first two stages being unable to get back into the top 10 after a penalty doesn’t seem like a common scenario.
7. Erik Jones
Say hello to Erik Jones, the guy with the second-best average finish in the Cup Series through the first two races of the season. Jones was third at Daytona and seventh at Atlanta on Sunday. In both races he was third among the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars. Only Kyle Busch (second and sixth) has a better start than Jones.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex was upset at the end of the race with Stenhouse, who he felt held him up over the course of the final 43-lap green flag run.
“They just have no respect for the leaders running for the win,” Truex said of the lapped traffic he dealt with in the final stage. “It’s completely uncalled for, ridiculous. It’s a shame. We lined up on that last restart behind all those guys that are a lap down and I know they were racing for the lucky dog, which is all good, but once they got strung out, [Stenhouse] had a straightaway on all of them and he just wouldn’t let me by. He just kept hugging the bottom, hugging the bottom, hugging the bottom and knew that’s where I needed to run.”
If you would have watched Sunday’s race on mute and had no awareness of NASCAR’s new rules for the 2019 season you wouldn’t have seen much different between the 2018 and 2019 races at Atlanta. That’s probably not a bad thing. But it’s clear that drivers saw and experienced a lot of different things behind the wheel on Sunday. And that includes the heightened effect of dirty air. Stenhouse had a fast short-run car. He qualified second. But you’d think Truex, who said he had the best car at the end of the race, would be able to get around him a little easier than he did.
9. Kurt Busch
Busch finished third in his second start in the No. 1 car. OK, I just wanted to type a three-two-one sentence. His performance on Sunday is a reason why he’s an upgrade for Chip Ganassi Racing and a pretty good bet to make the playoffs once again.
10. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer started third and finished fifth. That’s a pretty good day. Five Fords finished in the top 10, including all four of the cars from Stewart-Haas Racing. It was the first time that SHR had gotten all four of its cars in the top 10 since Sonoma in June.
11. Aric Almirola
Almirola started on the pole. It was just the second pole position of his career. He led 36 laps and finished fourth in the first stage on his way to an eighth-place finish. There’s still some work to be done for Almirola and his team to come close to consistently challenging the level of teammate Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 car, but there’s no reason to expect that Almirola won’t be in position for a win or two this season.
12. Chris Buescher
Buescher started 30th and finished ninth on Sunday. He was the only driver who started outside the top 20 to finish in the top 10 and one of only two drivers to finish in the top 20 who started outside of the top 23.
His fueler Anthony Pasut suffered a broken fibula and torn ACL (among other injuries) in his right leg when he got hit by BJ McLeod’s spinning car after McLeod got run into by Buescher’s teammate Ryan Preece on pit road.
Lucky Dog: Daniel Suarez got his first top-10 with Stewart-Haas Racing at Atlanta and his first Cup Series top 10 since he was ninth at the fall Martinsville race.
The DNF: Ryan Preece finished fifth at Daytona and ended up 35th at Atlanta after he hit McLeod on pit road.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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