Who’s on track: Breaking down the top 12 after Martinsville
By: By Bill Marx, Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
Although there was much movement within the top 12 of the Sprint Cup standings, no driver dropped out after Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. But the standings remain tight: 90 points separate eighth-place Carl Edwards and 16th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. Here’s our weekly breakdown of the top 12.
1. Jeff Gordon, 959 points. Wins remain elusive, but not top-five finishes. He has a series-high four, and his 5.2 average finish is a full three spots better than second-best Clint Bowyer.
2. Clint Bowyer, 870. Bowyer is a surprise of the first six races—but only because he hasn’t missed a beat with an entirely new team (remember, his No. 07 team went to new teammate Casey Mears, who is 26th in the standings). Bowyer has established himself as a top-10 driver, now he needs to start challenging for wins. He has led nine laps this year.
3. Kurt Busch, 827. Busch couldn’t cash in on his great starting position, second, and finished 18th Sunday. Handling was an issue. “It was just tight all day long, and nothing we did made it any better,” he said. “I’m just glad to get out of here and not be any worse off.”
4. Jimmie Johnson, 817. What more can you say about Johnson and Martinsville? Two straight wins and five in the past six races there. It was Johnson’s 41st career win. Next up on the list: 14th-place Bill Elliott with 44.
5. Denny Hamlin, 811. Hamlin lost the race but won fans with the way he handled himself afterward. He has finished second two weeks in a row and is frustrated with all of his close calls since his last win a year ago at Martinsville. He also has eight third-place finishes in that stretch.
6. Kyle Busch, 800. Even the best have bad days. Busch experienced a spin, pit-road speeding penalty and a blown right-front tire and finished 24th, two laps back. Just a blip for Busch. He’ll bounce back just fine.
7. Tony Stewart, 798. Stewart finished third and almost picked up his first win as an owner/driver despite not leading a lap. Stewart was running third when Johnson and Hamlin made contact with 15 laps to go. Only great saves by each kept Stewart from snagging the lead. So far, so good for Stewart.
8. Carl Edwards, 750. Edwards suffered his worst finish of the season Sunday—26th, two laps back. He lost the laps when he cut a tire after making contact with another car just past the halfway point and had to pit under green. He can quickly put that disappointment behind him: Next up is Texas, where Edwards has three wins, including both races last year.
9. Kasey Kahne, 745. Kahne dropped three spots in the standings after finishing 19th Sunday. What’s worse is he again wasn’t a factor. In fact, he was passed more times under green (80) than any other driver. Among drivers in the top 10 in points, Kahne has led the fewest laps (one).
10. Kevin Harvick, 714. Harvick bounced back from a disappointing race at Bristol to finish 11th at Martinsville and move up two spots in the standings. Although he didn’t lead a lap and didn’t challenge for the lead, Harvick joined Hamlin, Stewart, Gordon and Bowyer as the only drivers to run all 500 laps in the top 15.
11. David Reutimann, 710. Reutimann finished 20th, the first car a lap down, as a dropped lug nut on a late pit stop was costly and ruined a day in which the No. 00 spent most of the race in the top 10. Even though the finish was still good enough to keep him in the top 12 for the fifth consecutive race, the No. 00 team cannot afford that kind of mistake if Reutimann is going contend for a spot in the Chase.
12. Matt Kenseth, 704. After Kenseth’s blazing start—opening the season with consecutive wins—he is in jeopardy of falling out of the top 12. He failed to finish on the lead lap for the third time in the past four races, limping home 23rd, one lap down. What happened to this team? At least the No. 17 team has Texas to look forward to and a return to intermediate tracks, a strength of Roush Fenway Racing.