After the restrictor-plate madness the week before at Daytona, NASCAR’s annual trek to New Hampshire was supposed to represent a return to the ordinary. Instead all Brian Vickers did was crash the party and became the first part-time driver to win a Sprint Cup event in 89 races.
But was Vickers’ out-of-nowhere victory enough to secure him a place in this week’s power rankings?
1. Jimmie Johnson (Last week: 1) You wonder if this team simply gets bored sometimes and decides to go for degree of difficulty. It would certainly explain Johnson having his qualifying time disallowed and having to start 43rd. Not that it mattered much as he still clawed his way to sixth and with a little bit of luck could have finished higher.
2. Matt Kenseth (LW: 3) Considering New Hampshire has been a track where Kenseth has historically struggled, it was a surprise to the see the No. 20 car up front Sunday. And the 33 laps he led was the first time he’s led double-digit laps since 2002.
3. Kevin Harvick (LW: 2) It wasn’t necessarily easy as Harvick had an early encounter with Marcos Ambrose resulting in front-end damage. But the end result was a seventh, which was his ninth consecutive race with a top 10. Oh, and if you haven’t heard, Harvick made it official and formally announced he’ll be driving the No. 4 car for Stewart-Haas Racing next season.
4. Kyle Busch (LW: 5) If it was cloudy, the No. 18 car was among the fastest on the track. But whenever the sun peaked out Busch lost the handle and slid back. That said he still finished second and recorded his third top five in five races.
5. Clint Bowyer (LW: 4) It’s hard not to view Bowyer’s 13th as a disappointment considering his prowess at New Hampshire. Then again you could say that about a host of guys this past weekend (Gordon, Kahne, and Hamlin) and all three would gladly exchange places with Bowyer, who is still second in points despite being winless on the year.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 8) It was a nondescript weekend for NASCAR’s most popular driver, as he finished a ho-hum 14th. Beginning with Indianapolis there is a cluster of tracks -- Pocono, Michigan, Richmond -- where Earnhardt should be expected to contend.
7. Carl Edwards (LW: 10) An eighth rights the ship for Edwards who had posted finishes of 29th and 21st in the previous two events. The last off week of 2013 comes at a critical time for Roush Fenway Racing, which after a June surge has regressed and hasn’t posted a top five result since Sonoma.
8. Kurt Busch (LW: 6) There are two ways to view Busch’s weekend at New Hampshire. The first is that he led a race-high 102 laps and it’s apparent to all that he will soon be snapping his two-year winless streak. Conversely, once again he had a winning car and couldn’t close. This time due to an avoidable accident that saw him finish 31st, dropping him from ninth in points to 14th.
9. Tony Stewart (LW: 9) Another gallon of gas or two and the owner/driver would have finished somewhere in the top five and would have maintain his position in the top 10 in points. Instead, Stewart limped home Sunday to finish 26th and fell to 13th in the standings. But with Indianapolis, Pocono and Watkins Glen upcoming you get the sense his playoff destiny will be dictated in how he performs the next in three weeks.
10. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 7) A 16th was not at all what Truex want/needed. His saving grace, however, is those around him in points also struggled and he actually closed the distance between himself and 10th-place, just two markers behind Kahne. Anyone else think Truex’s season will hinge on whether he can win Labor Day weekend at Atlanta?
11. Jeff Gordon (LW: 14) You don’t often hear a driver thank another for spinning them out, but that’s exactly what Gordon did Sunday after Paul Menard turned him around on lap 259 of 302. The incident forced Gordon to pit for fresh rubber and allowed him to pass cars he wouldn’t have otherwise and he finished 10th.
12. Greg Biffle (LW: 11) That three-week stretch where Biffle finished second, first and eighth consecutively is beginning to look like the 16 team caught lightning in a bottle. Because in the three races since, Biffle’s best result was a 16th, which came Sunday at New Hampshire. We should know definitively when the Cup circuit makes second stops at Pocono and Michigan.
13. Brad Keselowski (LW: Unranked) A fourth was exactly what the No. 2 needed as it jumped Keselowski four spots in the standings to ninth overall. You get the sense that this team is heating up at an opportune time and is ready to knockout a couple of victories leading into the Chase, much like it did in 2011 when it won at Pocono and Bristol.
14. Kasey Kahne (LW: 15) The changing track conditions threw many teams for a loop including Kahne, who never found the handle on his Chevrolet and placed 11th. Ranked 10th and just two points ahead of Gordon and Truex, you have to wonder if Kahne is lamenting the wins he let slip away at Las Vegas, Kansas and Charlotte. Because if any of those races had turned out differently his Chase prospects would look vastly different right now.
15. Jamie McMurray (LW: Unranked) Is McMurray the wild card in the battle for the Chase wild card? It certainly appears that way as he is now 15th overall and is fully capable of winning a race sometime in the next month. Whether he does or not is a different story, but for a team has floundered the previous two years, 2013 has been quite the turnaround.