With five different winners in five races, is it time to start wondering whether a victory still virtually ensures a driver entry into the Chase for the Sprint Cup? The answer is a resounding and definitive no.
In fact, five different winners to start the season isn’t an uncommon occurrence — it happened just last year. But by the time Richmond and the cutoff for the Chase rolled around, just 13 drivers had won a race and one of those (Brian Vickers) wasn’t playoff eligible, and in the Chase era the average number of winners is 12.4. So while it’s fun to speculate, the ethos in NASCAR is still “Win and you’re in,” which is exactly what Kyle Busch did Sunday.
1. Carl Edwards (Last week: 1)
Why does Edwards maintain his No. 1 ranking despite finishing 10th and never leading a lap? Well, like a lot of guys, he fought tire issues and still persevered to record his fourth top-10 in five races. Considering the circumstances that deserves commendation; besides, who else is worthy of being in the top spot?
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 3)
Earnhardt’s communications manager estimated the No. 88 car passed 126,422,755 cars Sunday. While that may be a slight exaggeration, it isn’t as much as you think considering Earnhardt had to twice drop to the rear with flat tires but each time stormed his way back to the front. It may just been a 12th-place finish, but it certainly felt like more.
3. Kyle Busch (LW: 11)
There simply is no better driver on restarts than Busch, who again proved as much Sunday. Lined up sixth on decisive restart, he wasted little time driving through the middle to get to third, then powered underneath brother Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart on the final lap to snatch the lead. From there he smartly stuck to the bottom in Turn 3 to stunt the momentum of Kyle Larson, and just like that Busch was in the Fontana winner’s circle celebrating for the second year in a row.
4. Matt Kenseth (LW: 5)
The No. 20 team has been knocking on the door to Victory Lane the past two weeks without success. Those knocks could be answered this weekend at Martinsville, where last October Kenseth led 202 laps and finished a close second to Gordon.
5. Jeff Gordon (LW: 4)
Was the final caution for Clint Bowyer’s spin a godsend for Gordon or was it continuation of the rotten luck he’s had the previous two years? The case for the former is that the 24 car had a left-rear tire going soft and there were no guarantees Gordon would have been able to nurse his car to the finish line. The case for the latter is that his lead over Bowyer and Busch was such he had enough of a cushion. Nevertheless, it’s a moot point now and it’s on to Martinsville where Gordon won last fall.
6. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 6)
Out front with a cozy lead with just two laps to go, it was all looking really good for the 48 team. Then, boom. Johnson’s left-front tire exploded and with it went any chance he had of winning his first race of the year. Of course, the six-time Cup champion will have a hard time getting anyone to feel sorry for him, but regardless it was a crushing way to lose a race that appeared he otherwise won.
7. Brad Keselowski (LW: 2)
If there was ever time when Keselowski should be delighted to have a beer company as sponsor, it would be this past weekend at Fontana. Three times he had tire issues during Saturday practice, and that carried over to the race, where he twice fell victim to a flat.
8. Kyle Larson (Unranked)
Gordon had his coming out moment when, as a rookie, he won his qualifying race, then backed that up with a fifth-place run in the Daytona 500. Kasey Kahne’s rookie moment came in just his second start when he finished runner-up at the demanding North Carolina Motor Speedway. This past weekend was evidently Larson’s coming out moment with a win Saturday in the Nationwide Series race followed by an impressive runner-up Sunday.
9. Jamie McMurray (LW:14)
It may have taken a few years longer than expected, but the evidence thus far suggests Chip Ganassi Racing has finally put the pieces in place to turn the No. 1 team into consistent challengers. McMurray finished sixth Sunday, his fourth top-15 finish of the year. And a 38th at Bristol is his only bad result of the season, but in that race he was running fourth before he got ran into from behind.
10. Austin Dillon (Unranked)
While his rookie counterpart has been grabbing the headlines, Dillon has quietly turned in a very fine start to his freshman campaign. Through five races he has three finishes of 11th or better and actually sits seven spots higher in the standings (ninth) than Larson.
11. Tony Stewart (Unranked)
What’s the best way to dispel the notion you’re not healthy enough and that your team is in a tailspin? Easy, finish in the top-five in consecutive weeks, which Stewart has done with a fourth at Bristol and a fifth at Fontana.
12. Kevin Harvick (LW: 7)
If there is an outfit that loves NASCAR’s new format for getting in the Chase, it is without question the No. 4 team. Because for the third straight week, Harvick had a car capable of winning, yet for the third consecutive race mechanical gremlins foiled his bid. Consequently, despite leading more laps than anyone else this season, Harvick is mired back in 25th in points, which means that win of his at Phoenix takes on even more significance.
13. Joey Logano (LW: 8)
For the second week in a row, Logano had one of the fastest cars on the track, but couldn’t take advantage due to circumstances out of his control. Which makes one wonder, if he fails to win a race somewhere along the way will Bristol and Fontana come back to haunt him later in the year?
14. Denny Hamlin (LW: 9)
You know what’s painful? Having a piece of metal in your eye, which is what forced Hamlin to the sideline Sunday. But despite missing the Auto Club 400, the Virginia native only fell to 11th in points and will be on the short list of favorites at Martinsville where he owns four career wins.
15. Brian Vickers (Unranked)
Back-to-back top-10s for Vickers and a strong run for Bowyer indicates there is life at Michael Waltrip Racing, which has been slow out of the gate this season. And Vickers’ surge should continue at Martinsville, where he has finished eighth and 11th in his previous two starts.