Week two is now in the books as drivers and teams begin to get accustomed to NASCAR’s 26-race regular season.
For many teams, the second race of the season is the first true test for their organizations to see where they stack up against the competition. And a new performance package, which was tested in the winter months, made Sunday’s race that more important. Designed to further tighten the competition and permit more passing opportunities, this new rules package produced more positives than negatives on Sunday.
Despite a lack of lead changes, Sunday’s race at Phoenix produced solid side-by-side action throughout the day. The new rules package also allowed drivers like Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards to move from mid-pack starting spots to the front of the field throughout the race. If you were to also add the exciting double-file restarts, it’s fair to say that Sunday’s race was a good one.
Now, every time NASCAR introduces a new generation car or rules package, some teams hit the set up from the get-go, while others look lost in its early stages.
Sunday’s race showed this premise to be true once again.
But who are these teams?
This week’s Power Rankings will shed light on who has it and who does not:
1. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. — +/-0
For some teams, winning the Daytona 500 can be a huge distraction as the celebration and media time that comes with winning NASCAR’s biggest race consume a large amount of the week. Yet this week was not a distraction for Earnhardt, Jr. Less than a week after winning The Great American Race, Earnhardt qualified in the 5th spot for the race and ran in the top 5 virtually all day. He moved into 2nd place with less than 100 laps to go and seemed to be the only car that could maintain with Kevin Harvick in the second half of the race. Off to a near-perfect start, Earnhardt, Jr. and crew might give a lot of people fits this season.
At Las Vegas: Statistically, Las Vegas has been an average track for Earnhardt. In 14 starts, Earnhardt has no wins, two top 5s and seven top 10s with an average finish of 15.6. But in his three races with Steve Letarte, Earnhardt has finishes of 8th, 10th and 7th, respectively. With the way Earnhardt performed at the downforce tracks last year and coupled with the momentum he has this season, expect him to be a contender this weekend.
2. Jimmie Johnson — +/-0
While he has not set the world on fire in the first two races, it is also unfair to say that Johnson has struggled out of the gate. With finishes of 5th and 6th to start the season, Johnson is off to good start as he sits 5th in points. Don’t expect him to falter this weekend either, especially with the track record he has in “Sin City.”
At Las Vegas: There has not been a better driver at Las Vegas than Johnson. In 12 starts, Johnson has four wins, five top 5s and seven top 10s with an average finish of 9.5. In addition, he has the best driver rating at the track at 112.3 – simply stout. Expect him to be a front runner this weekend as well.
3. Jeff Gordon — +2
Contrary to his last two seasons, Gordon is off to a strong start. After starting 17th on Sunday, Gordon worked his way through the field and into the top 5 in the first 60 laps. He then hovered between 5th and 7th throughout the middle part of the race, until he was trapped a lap down by an ill-timed caution flag. Still, Gordon charged his was from 14th to 5th in the race’s final 35 laps. Gordon’s hot start could be a bad sign for the field. The last time Gordon finished in the top 5 in the first two races was in 1997 when he won 10 races and his second title.
At Las Vegas: Gordon’s track record at Las Vegas has been up and down. In 16 starts, Gordon has one win, six top 5s and seven top 10s with an average finish of 15.4. His driver rating is at 103.8 – second only to Johnson’s. But his last three trips there have been poor. Finishes of 36th, 12th and 25th – all with crew chief Alan Gustafson – should make fantasy owners hesitant with Gordon. Which Gordon will show up on Sunday? We’ll have to wait and see.
4. Brad Keselowski — +3
Hard to believe you can start the season with back-to-back 3rd place runs and not be leading the points. But it’s easy to see when Earnhardt Jr. does one better. Still, Keselowski is off to a terrific start to his season. If he keeps running the way he is, a win will arrive sooner rather than later.
At Las Vegas: The 2012 champion has had limited success at Las Vegas. In five starts, Keselowski has no wins, one top five and one top 10, which came last year after finishing 3rd. His average finish of 25th doesn’t make him look like one of the favorites, but momentum from the first two races could change Keselowski’s luck at Las Vegas.
5. Kevin Harvick — +6
For the second-straight week, the best car won the race, and Harvick proved that by his driving on Sunday. After starting 13th, Harvick marched his way into the top 5 in the first 20 laps of the race. He then took the lead shortly after lap 70 and was nearly untouchable the rest of the way. In the end, Harvick led a race-high 224 laps en route to his 5th win at Phoenix. He and new crew chief Rodney Childers have apparently gelled well in the early part of the season. Time will tell if they can consistently put up those type of performances.
At Las Vegas: Vegas has been a good track for Harvick. In 13 starts, Harvick has no wins, three top 5s and five top 10s with an average finish of 12.7. With momentum from the Phoenix win, expect Harvick to be a factor this weekend.
6. Joey Logano — +3
Logano is another driver that is off to a strong start. After starting 2nd on Sunday, Logano led over 70 laps and ran in the top 5 almost all race. His 4th place finish also moved him to 6th in the points which gives the 23-year-old driver confidence in the early stages of the season.
At Las Vegas: While Logano hasn’t set the fire in his career at Las Vegas, he has been consistent at the track. In five starts, Logano has no wins, no top 5s and one top 10, but he has solid average finish of 14th. Expect another solid week from Logano and the No.22 team this weekend.
7. Kyle Busch — -1
While he did run in the top 15 all race and got himself a top 10 by the end of the day, Busch was never a factor for the win at Phoenix. As a result, he drops one spot in this week’s standings. Still, Busch made a decent rebound from his Daytona troubles and now heads to his home track.
At Las Vegas: Vegas has been a good track for Busch. In 10 starts, Busch has one win, four top 5s and five top 10s with an average finish of 14.7. Last year he made up a lost lap to lead 27 laps and finish in 4th place. Expect a strong weekend for the hometown hero.
8. Denny Hamlin — -5
After a strong week at Daytona, Hamlin completely fell off the map at Phoenix. Hamlin struggled all race with an ill-handling racecar and finished in 19th – the worst of the Gibbs cars. Look for Hamlin to have a better run at Las Vegas than he did at Phoenix.
At Las Vegas: Vegas has been a solid track for Hamlin. In eight starts, Hamlin has no wins, one top 5 and four top 10s with an average finish of 13.1. Hamlin closed last season with a win at the last downforce track of the year. Can he start this season by winning at the first downforce track on the schedule?
9. Matt Kenseth — -5
Like his two teammates, Kenseth did not represent the Gibbs’ stable that well last Sunday. Although Kenseth ran between 7th through 13th most of the race, he was never a serious contender for the win. Kenseth came home 12th at the finish, a big improvement for him considering the debacle that occurred in the fall race last year. Kenseth and the No. 20 team were one of the best teams at the downforce tracks last year. With that said expect him to be one of the favorites this weekend.
At Las Vegas: Few drivers have hit the jackpot better at Las Vegas than Kenseth. In 14 trips to the track, Kenseth has three wins, six top 5s and seven top 10s with an average finish of 11.6 – which includes a 43rd place result in 2009. He is also the defending winner of this race, so fantasy owners better not leave Kenseth off their team this weekend.
10. Carl Edwards — +/-0
Sunday was a solid showing for Edwards. After starting 23rd, Edwards slowly worked his way through the field and eventually moved up as high up as 6th mid race. Once Edwards reached the top 10, he basically stayed there and finished in 8th to move up to 9th in the standings.
At Las Vegas: Edwards has also been a driver who has also hit the jackpot more than once in Las Vegas. In nine starts, Edwards has two wins, four top 5s and five top 10s with an average finish of 9.7. His last three finishes at the track have been 1st, 5th and 5th, respectively. With those numbers, expect more of the same from Edwards this weekend.
11. Jamie McMurray — +5
McMurray’s solid start continued at Phoenix. After qualifying 3rd for the race, McMurray backed it up with a 10th place showing to move up to a tie for 11th in the standings. With momentum and Hendrick engines once again, expect a solid showing this weekend McMurray and crew.
At Las Vegas: Vegas has been a hit or miss track for McMurray. In 11 starts, McMurray has no wins, one top 5 and four top 10s with an average finish of 18.2. Once again, Hendrick power should help McMurray and his team improve on their performance.
12. Kasey Kahne — +/-0
The only Hendrick car to not be in the top 5 in this week’s Power Rankings was the only Hendrick car that failed to record a top 10 at Phoenix. After qualifying 11th last Sunday, Kahne struggled in the first half of the event as he battled a loose racecar. After significant adjustments throughout the race, Kahne got back on the lead lap in the final 100 miles and salvaged an 11th place finish. Expect a huge improvement this weekend for Kahne and the No.5 team.
At Las Vegas: Vegas has been a strong track for Kahne throughout his career. In 10 starts, Kahne has no wins, three top 5s and five top 10s with an average finish of 14th. Last year, he led 114 laps and battled Kenseth for the victory late. In end, Kahne had to settle for 2nd – one of five 2nd places finishes he had at downforce tracks last year. Expect Kahne to be a strong contender again.
13. Greg Biffle — -5
Contrary to his teammate Carl Edwards, Biffle could not be found during the race. After starting in the top 10, Biffle fell back from the onset. He ran between 15th and 20th most of the day, eventually ending the day in 16th. After a strong showing in the Daytona 500, Biffle and his team looked average, at best, last Sunday.
At Las Vegas: Vegas has a been a good track for Biffle in the past. In 10 starts, Biffle has no wins, two top 5s and six top 10s with an average finish of 13.8. This weekend will be the first true test to see if the Roush cars fixed their aerodynamic issues – a problem that plagued them for most of last year.
14. Clint Bowyer — -1
Like Biffle, Bowyer could not be found during most of Sunday. Bowyer hovered between 15th and 20th nearly all day before making a brief peak into the top 10 in the late stages. Bowyer, however, failed to maintain a top 10 spot at the end and faded to 13th. Still, a big improvement from his 42nd place result at Daytona.
At Las Vegas: Vegas has not been too kind to Bowyer. In eight starts, Bowyer has no wins, one top 5 and three top 10s with an average finish of 17.1. Last year, Bowyer started from the outside pole, but fell like a rock. He finished 27th, two laps down – not a good sign for this weekend.
15. Casey Mears — +3
The little team that could continues to impress. After a great 10th place showing in the Daytona 500, Mears and his No.13 team performed again Sunday at Phoenix. Mears hung around the top 25 all race and eventually got back on the lead lap with less than 100 laps to go. Once on the lead lap, Mears made the best of it and came home in 14th place to move to a tie for 11th in the standings.
At Las Vegas: When he’s in good equipment, Mears produces results at Las Vegas. In 10 starts, Mears has no wins, no top 5s but has three top 10s with an average finish of 20.2. His three top 10s came from 2004 to 2006 when he was driving for Chip Ganassi. And while Mears hasn’t had a top 15 finish since 2008, expect a big improvement this weekend now that this team is running RCR engines.
16. Ryan Newman — +3
After a disappointing 22nd place finish in the Daytona 500, Newman rebounded with a solid 7th place finish at Phoenix. Newman ran around the top 15 all race and was in contention for a top 5 late until contact between him and Jimmie Johnson allowed Jeff Gordon to pass both of them for the 5th spot. Still, 7th is a good result for Newman.
At Las Vegas: Vegas has been feast or famine for Newman. In 13 starts, Newman has no wins, three top 5s and six top 10s with an average finish of 18.1. With he and his new team still trying to gel, don’t expect too much from Newman this weekend.
17. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. — -2
After an impressive 7th place showing in The Great American Race, Stenhouse was a non-contender at Phoenix. After starting 21st, Stenhouse hung around 25th through 30th most of the afternoon with a ill-handling racecar. Stenhouse eventually got the free pass late in the race and was able to salvage an 18th place result, but the finish was not indicative of how poorly he and his team performed last Sunday.
At Las Vegas: Stenhouse has only one Sprint Cup Series start at Las Vegas which was last year. He finished 18th in the race. Expect a similar result this time around.
18. Austin Dillon — -1
Like Stenhouse, Dillon was not on the radar at all last Sunday. After starting 24th, Dillon fell back to the mid 30s and got lapped early in the race. He was never able to make up his lap and finished 24th – not a good showing for the rookie.
At Las Vegas: Dillon also has one start at Las Vegas which came last year. He finished 21st driving for Phoenix Racing.
19. Kurt Busch — -5
Busch seemed to be on his way to top 10 result last Sunday until he dropped a valve mid race, which eventually caused him to finish a disappointing 39th. Busch has not gotten off to the start that he and his new team had expected. This weekend will be a big week for Busch to see if he rises from adversity or crumbles in defeat.
At Las Vegas: Like Kyle Busch, Las Vegas is Kurt’s hometown. But unlike his brother, Busch has had limited success at his home track. In 13 starts, Busch has no wins, one top 5 and three top 10s with an average finish of 21.8. With Busch riding to Vegas with a new team, it’s a toss up on how he will fair this weekend.
20. Tony Stewart — +/-0
It may not have been a win or a top 10, but a 16th place finish had to have felt good “Smoke.” Still not 100 percent recovered from his leg injury, Stewart grinded out the 312-lap event and hung between 10th and 15th almost all race before ending the day in 16th. Again, don’t expect to see Stewart setting the world on fire in the early parts of the year. As his leg heals, everyone will see progression in his performance and results.
At Las Vegas: Historically, Vegas has been a great track for Stewart. In 15 starts, Stewart has one win, six top 5s and nine top 10s with an average finish of 12.7. If Stewart does get comfortable in the car early in the weekend, don’t be surprised to see him run in the top 15 all race.
Notables: Dropped out – none.