Who’s on track: Breaking down the top 12 in NASCAR
By: By Bill Marx, Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
So much for Jimmie Johnson being outside the top 12. The three-time defending champ entered the top 12 for the first time this season after finishing third Sunday at Bristol. Johnson and Denny Hamlin are the new members of the top 12, replacing Brian Vickers and Greg Biffle. Here’s our weekly breakdown of the top 12.
1. Jeff Gordon, 794 points. Gordon finished fourth Sunday; he is the only driver with four top 10s in the first five races. He’s one of the best at the next stop, Martinsville. His first win since 2007 could come this weekend.
2. Kurt Busch, 718. Busch was caught up in a wreck early (Lap 60) and suffered front-end damage yet still finished 11th after restarting 39th. That’s remarkable at Bristol and might be another signal that 2009 is going to be a standout year for Busch. His average finish through five races is 10.0. He was 21.9 for all of last year.
3. Clint Bowyer, 715. Bowyer and Busch swapped spots in the points standings after they spent most of the race within sight of each other. Busch started 32nd and finished 11th; Bowyer started 31st and finished 13th. Busch spent 284 laps in the top 15, Bowyer 293.
4. Kyle Busch, 709. Busch dominated, leading 378 laps en route to winning the spring face for the second straight year. His driver rating, 149.2, was a hair below perfection (150.0). Busch and Gordon are the only two drivers with three top-five finishes this year.
5. Carl Edwards, 665. Another quiet race for Edwards. He spent most of the race 15th. He was there at the midway point and with 50 laps to go, and his average running position was 14.6. Still waiting for the No. 99 to break out.
6. Kasey Kahne, 639. Kahne improved for the fourth straight race. Since finishing 29th at Daytona, Kahne has finishes of 12th, 11th, seventh and fifth. In another sign of improvement, last year his first top five came in his 12th race; the year before his only top five came in the 24th race.
7. Tony Stewart, 633. Stewart fell a lap down midway through the race and couldn’t get the lucky dog the rest of the way. He was the first car a lap down and finished 17th. “Owner” Stewart had a better day with Ryan Newman finishing seventh.
8. Denny Hamlin, 631. The good: Hamlin finished second. The bad: He again came up short at Bristol. The good: He didn’t suffer any fuel pickup problems as he did in years past on late restarts. The bad: It didn’t matter as he lacked the goods to run down teammate Busch on the green-white-checkered restart. But if you look at the big picture, it was a great day for Hamlin, who moved up six spots in the standings and into the top 12 for the first time this season.
9. Jimmie Johnson, 627. Johnson’s outlook after the race was quite the contrast to Hamlin’s. Johnson was thrilled with his third-place finish, his best of the year. He stayed out on all the early cautions to gain track position, which he never gave up. Johnson led 88 laps, which swamped his 43 laps led in his previous 14 races at Bristol. And now he takes that momentum to Martinsville, where he is one of the best.
10. Matt Kenseth, 610. Through five races, Kenseth’s record is 2-2-1. Two wins, two forgettable races and one middling performance. Sunday was one of the forgettable ones. Kenseth started 33rd and finished 33rd, six laps back. Contact with the wall damaged his splitter, and that affected the handling on the No. 17 the rest of the way.
11. David Reutimann, 607. Three drivers spent all 503 laps in the top 15: Gordon, Johnson and Reutimann. His 12th-place finish was his best in three starts at the track, and he also led a lap to pick up five bonus points. An all-around solid day.
12. Kevin Harvick, 584. Harvick’s car suffered major damage on Lap 60 when the No. 29 was collected in an accident, damaging his right front and right rear. The rest of the day was spent making the best of a bad situation. Harvick finished 30th and fell four spots in the standings. It was only his second finish outside the top 25 in 17 starts at Bristol.