NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The 10: NASCAR Cup Series Power Rankings After Atlanta

We are two races into 2018, and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series landscape looks… confusing.

Ford has the oldest chassis, yet it dominated the first intermediate track race of 2018. The young guns looked impressive at Daytona International Speedway, but at Atlanta Motor Speedway? Nowhere to be found. Kevin Harvick ran roughshod over the field, notching one for the 40-something crowd. But behind him, Jimmie Johnson was the only car who wrecked; he has fewer points than anyone who’s run two races this season.

The points leader, Joey Logano, didn’t even make the playoffs last season. Hendrick Motorsports, if the season ended today, wouldn’t even have a single driver who would qualify for the 16-driver field

What in the world is going on? Let’s do our weekly NASCAR power rankings to sort some trends out.

1) Denny Hamlin

Toyota, used to trouncing the field these past two seasons, has started off the year 0-for-2. Hamlin, at one point in position to win the Daytona 500, has caused more off-track headlines than anyone else. First, there was the Barstool Sports Pardon My Take where Hamlin said, pardon me, 70 percent of the driving corps is taking Adderall.

Then, it was the drama of whether or not Darrell Wallace Jr. could still play basketball with the NASCAR cool kids. His crime? Claiming Denny “should have taken some Adderall for that one” after slamming into his No. 43 as they crossed the start/finish line at Daytona.

That, of course, led to this lovely confrontation. (Parental discretion advised).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5x14VEi4w4

So why is Hamlin No. 1 after all that? His personality produces an opinion, water-cooler debate NASCAR sorely needs.

And oh, he’s the only one with back-to-back top-five finishes to start 2018. That type of consistency is what he needs to earn a Championship 4 spot at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

2) Kevin Harvick

A closer look at the numbers shows Harvick dominated Atlanta the way he did ISM Raceway in recent years (915 laps led his last five starts). The No. 4 car just wasn’t able to close the deal on Victory Lane until Sunday, delivering an Oscar-level performance for best 500-mile race. Had a late caution not come out for Trevor Bayne’s blown engine, it’s probable Harvick would have lapped everyone but the top-five finishers.

Those memories, of course, hearken back to 2001 and one of the great Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series finishes of all time. Sit back and enjoy Harvick’s first Cup win in just his third start in the former No. 3, replacing Dale Earnhardt. No wonder why Sunday’s win was so emotional (and can you believe it’s been 16 years?!).

3) Brad Keselowski

Keselowski was the bridesmaid at Atlanta and he’s sitting behind Logano in points. Third man on the totem pole Ryan Blaney has led the most laps at Team Penske thus far this season (118).

But don’t be fooled; Keselowski is still the best this group has to offer. Winner of the 2018 Advance Auto Parts Clash, he could reach Victory Lane again as quickly as Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekendl; Keselowski has won twice in the last four years at the track. His outspoken nature continues to both attract (and annoy) parts of the NASCAR fan base. That includes his now-public habit of popping up in the infield to surprise NASCAR campers.

Remember, too, that this team is coming off a Championship 4 appearance in what was otherwise an off-year for this group. It’s due for a big year.

4) Joey Logano

Logano seems to have left an ugly 2017 in the rear-view mirror. Runs of fourth and sixth have him leading the points, and the team has already battled through adversity (see: Daytona pit penalty). Despite one lap led at Atlanta, it looks like the goal is to build an early cushion of stage bonuses and solid finishes. That means that even if there’s no win, there’s no worries about making the playoffs this year.

5) Kurt Busch

Who leads the 2018 stage points race? Who would have guessed Busch (22 points), a guy who led 16 laps all of last year? Busch has already blown away that total for 2018, leading 68 laps while putting himself in position to win both Daytona and Atlanta. Up next? Busch’s hometown track of Las Vegas, where the veteran is always ready and willing to put on an encore performance up front.

There’s some chatter that 2018 could be the final year for Busch with Stewart-Haas Racing; Cole Custer is making his Cup Series debut this weekend at Las Vegas. Perhaps his mindset matches sponsor Monster Energy, which is still deciding whether to renew as NASCAR title sponsor for 2019 and beyond.

But if this year marks the last Busch has with a top-tier operation, expect him to go down fighting. Off-season crew chief swaps seem to be sparking SHR overall; all four cars finished inside the top 13 at Atlanta.

6) Martin Truex Jr.

Why are so many people calling the defending champ a chump after just two weeks? Truex fought from the rear, the victim of losing his car chief to failed pre-qualifying inspection, and finished Atlanta inside the top five.

Sure, the No. 78 team has taken a back seat so far in 2018, leading just five laps, but remember 2017? Truex started with runs of 13th and eighth while leading just two circuits at Daytona and Atlanta. Seems like the rest of the year worked out really well.

Las Vegas, of course, will be a true test of where Truex stands. He’s the defending champ of the race, leading 150 of 267 circuits last year, and now, Sin City has added importance with a second date that serves as the first race of the 2018 NASCAR playoffs.

Let’s also remind the people that Truex magic has already worn off on some of his other favorite teams. Is there more left in the tank for this year?

7) Ryan Blaney

Blaney, Blaney, Blaney. Poor Chase Elliott must be all Brady Bunch Marcia’d out over seeing his top rival get all this publicity and fan support to start 2018. Seems everywhere you turn, the young driver is doing a public appearance either in front of the camera or on the radio, pushing either NASCAR or Star Wars to a national audience.

On the track, Blaney was underwhelming at Atlanta. But”underwhelming was still plenty good enough for 12th, a solid sign as the No. 12 is only in its second race on the Cup circuit. Keep in mind, too, that Blaney didn’t earn a top-five finish through the first 10 races of last season. Just one would label him an overachiever with a program set up to do some long-term damage atop the Cup Series.

8) Aric Almirola

Danica Patrick? Who’s that? It’s a new era at the No. 10 team, and Almirola is leading the way with runs of 11th and 13th to start the year. That gives him two top-15 finishes in two races; it took Patrick half the season to reach that number in 2017.

BOWLES: ALMIROLA RUNNING CIRCLES AROUND DANICA EARLY ON

Bonus points here for Almirola handling that Daytona 500 last-lap contact so well. It may be over a week old at this point, but controversial finishes never really fade. What if that’s his only chance at winning the sport’s big race? Mark Martin knows the feeling.

9) Austin Dillon

Butt tattoos and Daytona dreams come true can only last for so long in this sport. Seven days later, Dillon crashed to earth as just another driver Harvick rocketed past at Atlanta.

But the overall body of work doesn’t matter. NASCAR’s quirky playoff system, granting spots to 16 winners, almost certainly means Dillon is set for September. That leaves the next six-plus months a test session for a 10-race playoff in which the middle-class Richard Childress Racing team is a major underdog.

Can Dillon step up and put forth some regular season numbers worth looking at? Keep in mind he has just 30 laps led over the last 75 races. History shows us Dillon will be out of this top 10 as soon as next week after a mediocre run at Las Vegas.

He needs to turn that Daytona 500 momentum (and congrats) into something positive over the long run.

10) Clint Bowyer

How about Bowyer, running third Sunday? It’s his first top-five finish on a 1.5-mile oval since Homestead in November 2013. To give you an idea of how different the NASCAR world was that day:

  • Jimmie Johnson entered the race with five titles, not seven.
  • His teammate, Martin Truex Jr., ran fourth that day despite being on the verge of losing his sponsor (and job) at once-formidable Michael Waltrip Racing.
  • Mark Martin, not Tony Stewart, was running the No. 14 and finished 19th. It would be his final Cup Series start.
  • The Championship 4 was just some awkward name of a high school tournament somewhere.

Now, the question is if Bowyer can be anything more than a one-week wonder. His fall from playoff grace, painful to watch last year, has been well documented. A second straight slump may mean Custer’s future Cup ride may include kicking Bowyer out of the No. 14 Ford.

Honorable Mention: Jimmie Johnson

Johnson has had just an awful start to the 2018 Cup season. Today’s Cup Series horror movie was brought to you by the word “wreck,” as in Clash, wreck; Duels, wreck; Daytona 500, wreck; and Atlanta, wreck. How can it get much worse?

Seems like no one has told Johnson to hang his head in shame, though. Tweets like these are why you can never count out the sport’s seven-time champ.

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