Welcome to Power Rankings. As always, Power Rankings are far from a scientific formula. In fact, it’s the perfect blend of analytics and bias against your favorite driver. Direct all your complaints to us at email@example.com and we’ll try to have some fun.
1. Kyle Busch (LW: 1): Welcome back, NASCAR. Following Sunday night’s race at Darlington, the Cup Series races 11 times in 11 weeks and 10 of those races are playoff races. Weren’t we just starting the season at Daytona?
Anyway, Busch was a bit of a surprise second-place finisher at Darlington. An afterthought to the battle for the lead with Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., Busch snuck in and finished second after Truex’s issue.
“I certainly wish that we could have kept pace with [Hamlin] a little bit longer,” Busch said. “We were right there with him for a long time – longer than we had all night long in that final stint – but he got through a couple lap cars a little quicker than I did and then they got side by side and then I got sucked into the fence and after that it just wasn’t the same.”
2. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 2): Truex is a Cup Series champion.
OK, there’s a big “regular season” caveat in there, but with his stage wins in the first two stages Sunday night Truex clinched the regular season title. The title itself is unimportant. The 15 playoff points that come with it are quite important.
Coupled with his 37 points for stage wins (17) and his four wins (20), Truex has 52 playoff points to carry through the first nine races of the playoffs. And he could keep adding to that total with his wins and stage wins. This man is the favorite for the 2017 title and he’d potentially have five more points if his right front tire would have made it to the end of the race.
“Yeah, I mean, it was definitely a bittersweet night for us to come up just two laps short there, blow a tire at the end after having no issues with tires all night and having such a good race car,” Truex said. “I don’t know if that last run was the longest one we made all night. I’m not really sure to be honest. I was kind of out there caught up driving my guts out at the end trying to hang on.”
3. Denny Hamlin (LW: 4): If Truex is the favorite and Busch is No. 2, is Hamlin the third favorite? It’s not a crazy thought after Hamlin got his second win of the season Sunday night.
Hamlin is fifth in the points standings and currently has just the seventh-most playoff points of any driver. But he’s on a hell of a run — as we’ve noted in this feature previously.
If we play the fun with arbitrary end points game, Hamlin has 10 top-10 finishes in the last 14 races. Two of those are wins and just one of the top 10s isn’t a top five. In that span he’s gone from 11th in the standings to fifth.
Of course, Hamlin entered last season’s playoffs on a heck of a run and didn’t make the final round. Maybe it’ll be different this year with the playoff points.
4. Matt Kenseth (LW: 5): We’ve got ourselves a cluster among the three drivers currently in the playoffs without a win.
Kenseth finished sixth, and is now two points behind Chase Elliott and a point ahead of Jamie McMurray among those three drivers. This is important, because if a driver like Joey Logano or Clint Bowyer or Erik Jones wins at Richmond on Saturday night, then the driver last among Elliott, Kenseth and McMurray isn’t in the playoffs.
Kenseth’s on the best run of the three and he won at Richmond in the fall of 2015. Maybe he’ll do it again.
5. Kyle Larson (LW: 3): Larson finished 14th and could even fall to fourth in the points standings after Richmond. He could also end up second behind Truex, too. Larson is currently in third, nine points behind Kyle Busch for second and 17 points ahead of Kevin Harvick in fourth. That’s a potential three-point swing. The driver in second gets 10 bonus points, third nets eight and fourth is worth seven.
6. Erik Jones (LW: 6): If there’s a winless driver going to win at Richmond, Jones seems like the best bet. He’s running the best of any driver without a win, and it’s not a coincidence that he’s in a Toyota. The manufacturer has been the fastest of the three all season.
In April at Richmond, Jones crashed out four laps into the race because of a flat tire.
7. Kevin Harvick (LW: 7): Harvick started first and finished ninth. His 22 laps led were the first time he’d led laps since Daytona, eight races prior. The seven races Harvick went without leading any laps between Daytona and Darlington was the longest such stretch he’s had since 2012 when he was at Richard Childress Racing.
8. Jamie McMurray (LW: 8): McMurray finished a spot behind Harvick in 10th. McMurray was a spot ahead of Chase Elliott, who finished 11th, but he gained eight points on Elliott thanks to NASCAR’s stage points system.
9. Chase Elliott (LW: 10): Elliott said after the race that Hendrick Motorsports “really struggled” Sunday night. He was the team’s highest-finishing driver, a spot ahead of Jimmie Johnson while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne finished outside the top 20.
“I thought we made the very most of what we had and somedays that’s all you can do,” Elliott said.
10. Kurt Busch (LW: 12): Busch finished third and was a driver hoping for a late caution. The race went over 100 laps to the checkered flag without a caution.
“If there was a yellow with 30 to go, we were a really good car on short run speed,” Busch said. “That was the longest run at the end and those guys caught us on their fresher tires, but just to be in position to win the Southern 500 is great.”
11. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 11): Johnson’s 16 top 10s in 2016 — his seventh title season — were the fewest of his career. To match that mark this year, he must get top-10 finishes in nine of the remaining 11 races.
12. Brad Keselowski (LW: 9): Keselowski finished 15th Sunday night in the best-looking car on the track.
The Lucky Dog: Austin Dillon finished fourth. It was his first top-five finish since winning at Charlotte.
The DNF: AJ Allmendinger and Trevor Bayne
Dropped out: No one
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