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 firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to have some fun.
1. Kyle Busch (LW: 3): What do you give the guy who has won everything at Bristol? The top spot in Power Rankings. Because let’s be real, Kyle Busch can easily afford whatever gift we would give him if we were in the business of giving gifts to NASCAR drivers.
Busch’s wins in the Camping World Truck Series, Xfinity Series and Cup Series over the wekeend gave him 20 total wins at Bristol across the three series. Busch has won 180 career races across those series, meaning Bristol has accounted for a ninth of his overall win total. That’s pretty insane, don’t you think?
What makes Busch’s Bristol success even more impressive is that he’s been good at the track in any of its configurations. He’s won at the “old” Bristol, won on the progressive banking installed in 2007, won after the top groove was ground down to make the track more like “old” Bristol and has won with the track featuring the sticky stuff in the corners to make the lower groove more appealing.
The 2015 champion is perhaps the most adaptable driver in NASCAR. And one of its best too. He said he was pushing as hard as he could to hold off Erik Jones after he passed Jones with 55 laps to go.
“Tonight I’ve never driven so hard in my life the last 60 laps,” Busch said after Saturday night’s win. “Literally I got out of the car and felt like I didn’t want to. It was really, really hard to maintain that pace up top and to feel everything you’re feeling and to trust yourself that I’m feeling the car loose getting into the corner sliding the rear tires, but I’m tight in the center. Got to go up on the rear track bar, keep the thing free rolling. Any little moment, any little slip, you can be right in the fence, especially running that high that fast, knowing that Erik Jones was catching me. I couldn’t just sit there and pace myself.”
2. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 1): Truex’s race was ruined when he had to come back down pit road because of a tire problem as the race was restarting. Truex lost two laps and ended up getting one of them back before he finished 21st.
Before the pit stop, Truex had a top five car, though he wasn’t in the same stratosphere as his rookie teammate. He only drops a spot in Power Rankings because he still has a 100+ point lead over Busch in the points standings and can clinch the regular season title at Darlington.
3. Kyle Larson (LW: 2): Before qualifying on Friday, Larson said he wasn’t a very good qualifier at Bristol and joked that he’d qualify 25th. He ended up starting Saturday night’s race in second and led 70 laps, the most of anyone not named Kyle Busch or Erik Jones.
He didn’t finish third, however. He finished ninth because of a pit stop problem on his final stop of the race.
4. Denny Hamlin (LW: 4): This is the guy who finished third. Hamlin kept slowing on pit road to get the preferred outside line on restarts. It didn’t work out for him, though it did raise the possibility that NASCAR will “look” at giving drivers the option of choosing lanes on restarts at tracks where one groove has a decided advantage.
The easiest way to prevent gamesmanship on pit road among drivers playing for a preferred groove is to go back to single-file restarts. That’s not happening. So could a choose cone be next?
5. Matt Kenseth (LW: 6): Kenseth finished fourth. It’s a good result for him as he stays afloat in the playoffs as one of the three drivers provisionally in the field without a win.
But perhaps better for Kenseth was the fact that Erik Jones didn’t win. A Jones win would have dropped the number of available playoff spots via points to two. While Jamie McMurray would be outside the playoffs if Jones would have won, Kenseth is just three points ahead of McMurray.
6. Kevin Harvick (LW: 5): Harvick is fourth in the points standings thanks to an ability to avoid poor finishes in 2017. He moved through the field Saturday night, finishing eighth after starting 29th.
But he hasn’t had the outright speed he’s shown previously. That’s to be expected; transitioning manufacturers isn’t always a smooth transition. But it’s still stark. He’s on pace for 818 laps led this season. He led nearly 1,400 a year ago.
7. Erik Jones (LW: 10): Jones’ car was fantastic on the bottom lane throughout the entire race. But as Busch caught him over the last part of the race, Jones moved up to try to hold him off. It didn’t work.
Despite falling short of his first career win, Jones said Saturday night was the most fun he’s had in a race car. And his explanation for why is pretty damn good.
“It’s just the most‑‑ these cars are so hard to drive on mile‑and‑a‑half’s and two‑mile tracks that it’s hard to race,” Jones said. “It’s hard to race side‑by‑side, it’s hard to race front‑to‑back, it’s really hard to run side‑by‑side. You don’t really see the action like you see here with people, you know, right nose‑to‑tail, throwing slide jobs, everything like that.
“Yeah, I mean, it takes you back to, you know, late model racing really more than anything. You’re just on the gas. You’re not saving tires. You’re just hammer down and getting everything you can, which is a lot of fun. It’s hard on you as a driver, it wears you out, but you definitely have a lot of fun. If I had to rank it, this is probably the most fun I’ve had in a Cup race, for sure.”
8. Jamie McMurray (LW: 9): McMurray finished 12th. Through 24 races he has two top-five finishes and 12 top 10s in 2017. He’s also finished in the top 20 in 20 of 24 races. That’s why he’s ninth in the points standings and could be a surprise driver in the third round of the playoffs.
9. Brad Keselowski (LW: 6): Bright side: Keselowski is getting his bad luck out of the way before the playoffs begin and will be a force to be reckoned with over the final 10 races of the season
Dark side: Keselowski’s summer struggles are a sign of things to come and he’ll be a surprise early elimination from the playoffs.
Keselowski’s race was ruined a handful of laps into the event with a cut tire. He finished 29th, seven laps down. He had nine top-10 finishes (and two wins) in the first 12 races of the season. In the next 12 he’s had five top-10 finishes and has finished outside the top 25 four times.
10. Chase Elliott (LW: 8): Elliott rebounded nicely from his lap 397 crash and finished 18th. He’s getting precipitously close to being on the playoff bubble, however. If he can finish in the top 15 at both Darlington and Richmond he should be OK.
11. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 11): Johnson won the spring race at Bristol and finished 11th on Saturday night. There are just two more races until Johnson leads half the laps at Chicago to no one’s surprise.
12. Kurt Busch (LW: NR): Busch finished fifth on Saturday night and had a few interesting tweets on Tuesday. He seems to be enjoying his off week.
Lucky Dog: Trevor Bayne hit the wall because of a flat tire and still ended up finishing seventh.
The DNF: Austin Dillon finished 39th after a crash with Jeffrey Earnhardt.
Dropped out: Kasey Kahne
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