Like every other NASCAR landing page on the web, Athlon Sports has a little fun each week ranking the drivers and teams of the Sprint Cup circuit. Our rankings go beyond how each finished the weekend prior and/or where they sit in the official championship standings.
The rankings you’ll see here represent what we (read: I) think are the strongest overall teams on tour, from top to bottom, based on performance, resources, strength of team/organization, overall talent of driver and, yeah, a tip of the cap to a job well done if they won the last race Think of it as Athlon’s NASCAR version of the college basketball Top 25.
Keep in mind these are subjective, and often done somewhat tongue-in-cheek (depending on my mood), so have some fun with them and take them for what they are: a weekly spin around the circuit, highlighting the best teams and their drivers.
Oh, and our rankings have a cooler name … why no one thought of “Horsepower” Rankings before we did is beyond me. That said, kick back for five minutes of leisurely reading that require no real thought on your part:
1. Carl Edwards After ending last year with back-to-back backflips, the driver many picked as the one with the best chance to knock Jimmie Johnson off point starts the season strong, with a second-place run in the Daytona 500.
2. Kurt Busch Won the Bud Shootout, his Gatorade Duel race and looked like he had the 500 dead to rights ... until Edwards and David Gilliland drafted by on the last lap, preventing Busch’s run.
3. Kyle Busch How he managed to salvage an eighth-place showing in a roller-coaster of a day is bewildering … and he was singing with delight over his team’s radio most of the way.
4. Clint Bowyer A popular pre-race favorite (ahem, ours), Bowyer was in position late in the day until he fell victim to an accident not of his making. He’ll remain a darkhorse title favorite in the Horsepower Rankings most of the season, though.
5. Jimmie Johnson Speaking of title favorite, Johnson’s continued run of Daytona disappointment — he’s averaged a 31.8-place finish the last five years — hasn’t bothered his No. 48 team one bit. After all, a Daytona 500 win makes a career, not a season.
6. Mark Martin The Daytona 500 futility continues. When Martin, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte all lined up in the top 5 on a late-race restart, you felt someone might break his drought. Not so.
7. Jeff Gordon Handpicked Trevor Bayne to be his drafting partner in the Duels, proving to the rest of the field that the 20-year old was worthy. It paid off on raceday — for Bayne, not Gordon.
8. Denny Hamlin A bad Speedweeks stayed bad for Hambone in the 500. But sunnier days lie ahead, as the circuit visits Phoenix this weekend, where Hamlin dominated in November before he was called to pit road for a splash of gas. Something tells me he still wants to strangle Mike Ford for that one.
9. Kevin Harvick Maybe the biggest disappointment of the day on the beach. Entering Daytona with his usual plate-track swagger, Harvick staggered home when the engine went “ka-put” before the driver even broke a sweat.
10. Trevor Bayne OK, so maybe he should rank higher after the 500 win, but honestly, the teams listed above are a notch ahead of his. Let’s see what this Tennessee good ol’ boy has for ’em in Phoenix.
11. Tony Stewart Zero wins in the Daytona 500, but three in July and six in nine February Nationwide Series races. That’s gotta be tough to swallow.
12. Ryan Newman Led a race-high 37 laps before joining Bowyer in the backstretch wall.
13. Jamie McMurray Defending 500 champion’s motor went south late in the race, otherwise he looked like he had a strong mount once again.
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Had three cars trashed in Speedweeks, though none were really his fault.
15. Juan Pablo Montoya Gave Kurt a nice push on the white flag lap, but was felled by another duo of drafters.
Just off the lead pack: Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, David Ragan
A wide-eyed kid looked incredulously out the window of his Ford after doing burnouts on the Daytona International Speedway tri-oval, not sure of what he was supposed to do next. And he really didn’t; Trevor Bayne didn’t know the way to Daytona 500 Victory Lane.
Having turned 20 years old just one day prior, Bayne was making his second career Sprint Cup start on Sunday, and his first in the Great American Race. But as the sun set over the massive Daytona grandstand, Bayne was about to accept the most coveted hardware in NASCAR: the Harley J. Earle Trophy, having out-dueled a handful of the sport’s veterans in the 53rd running of the Daytona 500.
Bayne’s story is suddenly a meteoric one. Unheralded in comparison to fellow 20-year old Joey Logano, Bayne joined the NASCAR ranks in the K&N Pro East Series, a veritable Single-A division to Cup’s major leagues. Making only 15 starts in the East Series from 2007-09 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Bayne signed with Michael Waltrip Racing in ’09 to run a partial Nationwide Series schedule before losing that ride when sponsorship dried up near the end of the 2010 season.
Team owner Jack Roush knew a good thing when he saw one and snatched up the suddenly-unemployed driver. Running largely unsponsored with Roush in the Nationwide ranks late in the 2010 season, Bayne impressed to the point that the legendary Wood Brothers organization came calling — at Roush’s bequest. This season’s plans were to run a 17-race slate with the Woods in Cup — in the iconic No. 21 Ford, no less — while competing full-time for Roush in the Nationwide Series.
And that brings us to Speedweeks 2011, where Bayne posted the third-fastest lap on pole qualifying day last Sunday. He then served as Jeff Gordon’s unofficial wingman in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel race, being hand-picked by the four-time champ to be his drafting partner. However, a strong run in the Duel ended in heartache, when he was swept up in Gordon’s wreck as the field took the checkered flag.
Starting 31st in the 500, Bayne had a rocketship — one that other drivers trusted in the two-car drafts after the confidence shown by Gordon, his childhood idol, during the Duel.
“I actually owe a lot of this to Jeff Gordon for helping me in those Duel races and showing these others drivers that we belonged here,” Bayne said. “He came to Victory Lane and it’s just so cool to see your childhood hero to come and congratulate you and be a part of it.”
If Gordon was spreading the word that Bayne could be trusted, the other drivers took the message to heart. A record 16 cautions marred the 500, and the youngster was able to keep his Motorcraft Ford — a car that was patched together after Thursday’s Duel wreck — out of trouble.
“That thing was so fast, so we were at the front,” he explained. “It seemed like every time the caution came out we were in front of the (wreck). Anyone I got behind, no matter what manufacturer, no matter who was driving it, it would push them right to the front. It made me look good today.”
At no time did he look better than on the event’s second green-white-checker finish — NASCAR’s equivalent of double-overtime. Bayne led the field to green for a two-lap shootout with Cup veterans Bobby Labonte on his bumper and Tony Stewart alongside. While Labonte stayed glued to Bayne, Stewart faded, giving way to the two-car tandem of Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya. But as the field screamed down the backstretch one final time, Carl Edwards and David Gilliland drafted by Busch and Montoya, catching the lead duo. Getting by Labonte coming out of Turn 4, Edwards made a run at the No. 21, but was denied by blocks thrown right and left by Bayne.
“I couldn’t get there,” Edwards said of the lead. “The only thing I maybe could have done is push Trevor a little harder and move up and try it (another pass).”
Edwards, Gilliland, Labonte and Busch rounded out the top 5. And while Bayne’s two Cup starts was in glaring contrast to that quartet’s combined 46 years of Cup duty, his team’s foundation pre-dates any other at Daytona. The Wood Brothers is one of the most legendary teams in NASCAR, an outfit that dates back to 1953 and boasts 93 wins with drivers such as David Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough and Neil Bonnett.
A changing NASCAR landscape relegated the once-title-contending powerhouse to a partial schedule following the 2006 season. And with a revolving door of drivers manning the wheel, the Woods hit rock bottom three years ago at, ironically enough, Daytona.
"The lowest point was missing this race in '08,” co-owner Eddie Wood said. “Our family had been coming down here since the '50s, and they never missed one until we missed it. The lowest point for me was that day.
"We came back to the track and hung out, because we had a lot of guests coming. But it's almost like when you miss a race, especially the Daytona 500, it's like somebody died. When you walk through the garage, you run into people that you see every week, and they're afraid to look at you. It's like they don't know what to say.”
So how could anyone expect a down-on-its-luck team with a kid with next to no experience to slay the Goliath’s of the Cup Series on the sport’s grandest stage?
"When we kind of started downhill, you begin to think you can never get back,” Wood continued. “But you keep trying. Just the fact that you want one more trophy — one more trophy — you can't quit. And we never quit. We just kept trying."
So with that one trophy Wood referenced, the biggest upset in Daytona 500 history under his belts and 16 more races Cup races panned in 2011, the young driver that didn’t even know the way to Victory Lane has given a seasoned team a new sense of credibility and, more important, a renewed purpose.
Much has been made throughout NASCAR Speedweeks of the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Fitting tributes were the order of the week, with television programs produced and poignant displays of remembrance dutifully honored.
It’s all been well and good. Really, it has. But now it’s time to move on.
The Daytona 500 is right around the corner - and after that little football game that still needs to be played - the Great American Race is the next marquee sporting event on the sports junkie's calendar.
To kickoff our 2011 NASCAR coverage, Athlon Sports is counting down to the start of the 2011 Sprint Cup season with a top-30 driver countdown. Each driver profile offers a driver bio, in-depth 'state of the franchise' analysis, predictions for 2011, quotes from around the garage and past statistics.
Athlon Racing Editor Matt Taliaferro will release two drivers per day until after the Super Bowl, where he will release the top ten drivers for 2011 one per day leading into Speed Weeks.
Keep track of the Athlon Sprint Cup driver countdown here until No. 1 is released on Feb. 18:
No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Team: Hendrick Motorsports Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Years with current team: 10 Under contract through: 2015 Best points finish: 1st (2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10)
Hometown: El Cajon, Calif. Born: September 17, 1975
In 2007, Jimmie Johnson won his second straight championship, and while it raised a few eyebrows, most figured three in a row wasn’t realistic — it hadn’t happened in 30 years, after all. Once it did, a four-peat seemed a virtual impossibility. Nobody had done that in 60 years of NASCAR’s existence — until 2009, when the No. 48 made former record-holder Cale Yarborough seem ordinary. But going for five? Making history again? You’d have a better chance of hitting Lucky 7s for $1 million on the Vegas slots than to see that mix of luck, talent and longevity.
But Johnson, as it turns out, is a one-in-a-million type of guy. Earning a fifth title in spectacular fashion, he’s now third on the all-time list.
As his racing dynasty continues, Johnson has become one of the most polarizing drivers in NASCAR fandom. To those who like him, he’s the best driver to come down the pike since Jeff Gordon took the sport by storm in the 1990s. To those who don’t, Johnson is a little too lucky and has a genius for a crew chief. Either way, his numbers suggest that he’s already earned a place among the elite, and he’s not done yet. Talk of seven titles is legitimate now, and a sixth seems like less of a stretch than the third, fourth or fifth.
Why? For all intents and purposes, the No. 48 actually had an “off” year despite six victories in 2010. Johnson didn’t coast home with the championship last year, he went out and took it, scratching for every point. If it was Denny Hamlin’s title to lose; Johnson needed mental savvy to snatch it, succeeding so smoothly and seemingly effortlessly that, in retrospect, his rival didn’t stand a chance. To see him fight back was devastating for Johnson’s challengers, just as much as it instilled confidence in him. If J.J. can hold the title on a “bad year,” what happens when his team actually ups the ante again?
“We had to really buckle down to get this thing done,” admitted crew chief Chad Knaus just two hours after the title-clinching performance at Homestead. “I’ve got some hard discussions to have with Jimmie about some testing that he’s going to have to take part in (this offseason).”
That makeover begins with the men going over the wall. Hendrick Motorsports held pit crew tryouts over the offseason to replace several members on a team that looked like the Three Stooges on occasion, not reigning champions — so much so that they were swapped out with Jeff Gordon’s team during the seventh race of the Chase. The replacements did an admirable job, but hurt feelings and awkward moments have placed three new crewmen on the squad, joining three holdovers.
That constant push to excel comes from the best crew chief in the garage in Knaus, who possesses a rare combination of technical genius and people skills to know exactly what his driver needs in the racecar and exactly what he needs to hear. And don’t discount car chief Ron Malec, charged with preparing the racecars. Malec has been with Johnson since his ASA days in the mid-1990s and knows what Johnson needs without asking. They’re the perfect 1-2 mechanical punch for a team that overcomes adversity like no other.
Johnson is a bulldog on the track: He fights tirelessly and never, ever loses his hold on victory once it’s in his grasp. But he’s also a thoroughbred, managing risk while making it all look as if he’s not working. That ability to go out and dominate without ruffling feathers is the biggest key to his success, the reason that he can never be overlooked as a title favorite.
Johnson will have a new shopmate in Dale Earnhardt Jr., and believe it or not, the struggling newcomer could actually help him. The two favor fairly similar handling on a car, and Earnhardt could offer some insight on restrictor plate racing, long Johnson’s Achilles heel.
Six titles in a row used to sound ridiculous — like a Days of Thunder-esque theatrical fantasy whose script has no basis in reality. But after what Johnson accomplished in 2010, and after the way he accomplished it, someone should just hand him the pen: He’s writing that script with every race.
What The Competition Is Saying Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
The grandstands aren’t the only place where Jimmie Johnson Fatigue thrives. “I don’t know how you beat the guy,” says another crew chief in the 2010 Chase. “Every single year, Johnson and his team perform better in the Chase than the rest of the year, and it’s all the rest of us can do to just do our best all the time. Just when you think you can beat him, he picks up the pace like he had it in reserve all along.”
Another says, “Oh, there’s always hope. Denny (Hamlin) and Kevin (Harvick) gave him all he could stand.”
A third crew chief adds, “(Crew chief) Chad Knaus is a perfectionist, and ruthless as hell. I don’t think a lot of drivers would last 15 minutes with him.”
Yet another says, “Johnson’s talent is his ability to process things and react. All race drivers have to possess that knack for wide-open, high-speed decision-making, and he’s just, quite literally, a machine.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: With apologies to Martinsville and Dover, JJ’s at his best in Phoenix. Pretty Solid Pick: That said, Martinsville and Dover. Good Sleeper Pick: A team that’s won five consecutive series titles never enters a weekend as a sleeper. Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s won one race at both Daytona and Talladega, but tends to blend in more often than not. Insider Tip: Has averaged nearly six wins per year in his nine full seasons on circuit. Best team, bar none.
2010 Stats Starts: 36 Wins: 6 Top 5s: 17 Top 10s: 23 Poles: 2 Laps Led: 1,315 Laps Completed: 10,418 Lead Lap Finishes: 27 Bonus Points: 155 Races Led: 24 Average Start: 9.4 Average Finish: 12.2 After First 26 Races: 2nd Final Points Standing: 1st Driver Rating: 107.7 (1st)
From the Spotter’s Stand
It takes two, especially on Valentine’s Day. And that was never more true than at last year’s Daytona 500. Two pothole repairs — between Turns 1 and 2 — caused over two hours of frustrating delays before two green-white-checkered finishes resulted in Jamie McMurray beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the line after a grueling 208 laps at the 52nd Daytona 500.
Those pothole problems wont’ be an issue now, as the 2.5-mile track was repaved this offseason. It’ll still take two, though — as in a two-car draft to get to the front. And of course, at a plate track it’s all about timing. So predicting this bad boy is an exercise in futility.
Kevin Harvick won his second straight Bud Shootout last February, before winning the Coke Zero 400 in July — beating runner-up Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr. in a rain-delayed 166-lap race. Kurt Busch took checkers in the Shootout last weekend, and in a car that wasn’t all that great, lending credence to the “right place/right time” theory.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Daytona typically conjures images of speed, and with a repaved surface, that’s what it’s going to take to win — that and a good drafting partner. Although the track won’t lose grip like it did on the old surface, it’s still a relatively narrow track, so drivers and spotter’s must be on their toes, this year more than ever before.
“Turn 2 has always been Calamity Corner, and it will be interesting to see if that remains the case. My guess is it will because of the tight confines off. The January test sessions were big for everyone this year, learning new characteristics that could make a difference.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Whoever gets the push at the end. We’ll say Kevin Harvick. Pretty Solid Pick: Whoever does the pushing at the end. We’ll say Clint Bowyer. Good Sleeper Pick: He doesn’t rank high on the stats sheet, but Martin Truex Jr. looked good last year. Runs on Seven Cylinders: His 500 win in 2008 and last weekend's Shootout showing aside, Ryan Newman hasn’t had much luck here. Insider Tip: Even with the new surface, Daytona should be the typical be-in-the-right-spot-when-it-counts plate race.
Classic Moments at Daytona
In arguably the event’s most compelling storybook ending, Tiny Lund wins the 1963 installment of the Daytona 500 in relief of an injured Marvin Panch.
Days before the 500, Panch is severely burned in an accident while testing a Maserati for the race that today is known as the Rolex 24. Lund, in Daytona looking for a ride, sees the violent crash and rushes to the car, pulling Panch out seconds before the fuel tank explodes.
Lund is given Panch’s seat in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, and by using only one set of tires throughout the 500 — and pitting one time fewer than his competitors — Lund takes the lead when Ned Jarrett runs out of gas with three laps to go. Despite running out of fuel on the final lap, Lund is able to notch his first career win.
Two-car drafts continued to be the story of Speedweeks on Thursday, when the field for the 53rd Daytona 500 was set via the Gatorade Duel races.
Duel No. 1 came down to a green-white-checker finish when Michael McDowell’s engine blew with five laps remaining, setting the stage for frantic two-lap shootout.
Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne took the green lined up on the first row but quickly locked nose-to-tail in the low groove, with Kahne in the lead. However, third-place Kurt Busch and race-long drafting buddy Regan Smith wasted no time in overtaking the Kahne/Montoya duo, shooting to the lead on the backstretch with Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth in tow.
As Busch and Smith took the white flag, a gaggle of cars mixed it up for second behind them, allowing Busch, last Saturday’s Shootout winner, to pull away with Smith locked to his bumper. With the field well behind them, Smith faked high, then dipped low on the tri-oval in an attempt to pass, but Busch threw a block, halting his unofficial teammate’s momentum and scoring his second win in six days at Daytona.
“To be in those positions, you have to have a good drafting partner,” Busch explained. “I had that with Regan Smith today, had it with McMurray on Saturday night. You can't be in those positions if you don't build a great racecar.
So I'm really excited. Again, I can't get too far ahead of myself because this is Daytona and this place can jump up and bite you pretty quick. But we are going to ride this wave. We've made the right decisions so far with all of our adjustments on our car, adapting to the rule changes with restrictor plate sizes, grill-opening sizes. This is a new era at Daytona in my mind.”
Smith held on for second in the final rundown, followed by Harvick, Kenseth and Kahne. Bill Elliott and J.J. Yeley claimed the two transfer spots into the 500. Busch will line up in the first starting position on Sunday due to pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. going to a backup car because of a wreck in practice.
The second Duel was thriller, with multiple accidents, underdog stories and a scrum for the win highlighting the 150-miler.
Jeff Burton by ASP, Inc.
Jeff Gordon and rookie Trevor Bayne started on the front row and worked in-tandem throughout the event, leading laps only to fall mid-pack on restarts, then rebound towards the front. The Gordon/Bayne duo, along with Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, as well as Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, comprised the lead pack through the majority of the race.
Much like the first Duel, the second came down to a shootout. A wreck involving Todd Bodine and Steve Wallace with five laps remaining bunched up the field, setting the table for a three-lap sprint to the checkers.
Burton and Bowyer brought the pack to green and, as in the first Duel, quickly lock-stepped into formation in an attempt to draft away from the field. After a quick battle for positions, though, Michael Waltrip, Kyle Busch and brothers Brian and Brad Keselowski lined up single file and ran down Burton and Bowyer.
The six cars remained nose-to-tail until they hit the tri-oval with the checkered flag in the air. Bowyer shot high to get by his teammate, but came up just shy, losing by .005 seconds. All the while, Gordon, Bayne and David Ragan swept one another up in an accident in the back of the pack. Bayne and Ragan will go to backup cars for the 500, Gordon will not, thus keeping his front-row starting spot for Sunday’s race.
“We have to keep in perspective that this is not the Daytona 500,” Burton said. “It's great to be in Victory Lane, (we’re) real proud of that. Last year, obviously, was very influencing toward the end of the year. Kept ourselves in position to win races but never made it happen. Put ourselves in position, I thought we were in great shape to win the other night (bud Shootout), but to win tonight means a great deal. That's what drove us nuts last year. It's good to get that off our back and prove to ourselves we can do it.
“I think, obviously, the Daytona 500 is the first hurdle. There's the Daytona 500, a championship, (the) two biggest things on my list I want to get done. Hopefully we're just one step closer to that.”
Bowyer was second in the final showing, followed by Waltrip, Busch and Brian Keselowski in fifth. Waltrip and Keselowski were not already qualified for the 500, but raced their way in with top-5 showings.
Keselowski was the media darling of event. An independent entry, Keselowski’s No. 92 “team” employs himself, his father and an uncle. The 29-year old Keselowski reckoned the car he drove to the fifth-place finish was five years old, a machine that once was part of the now-defunct Evernham Motorsports’ fleet. A part-time Nationwide Series driver, he’ll line up 12th in his first Cup Series start in Sunday’s Daytona 500.