NASCAR power rankings: Earnhardt boots Johnson from top spot

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Move over Jimmie Johnson, there’s a new No. 1 in this week’s NASCAR power rankings.

Two weeks into a 36-race season is not enough time to make any definitive conclusions. There are, however, a few things to take away from Daytona and Phoenix.

Foremost, the myriad rule changes pertaining to the Generation 6 car over the offseason have done nothing to slow down Hendrick Motorsports, as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have a combined average finish of 3.8.

Secondly, Kevin Harvick has quickly acclimated himself to his new surroundings. Perhaps he doesn't replicate what Matt Kenseth did in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, winning seven races and finishing second in the championship, but as of now it may be unwise to expect much less.

1. Dale Earnhardt (Last week: 3)

Want to soundly silence those who think your performance will decline because your crew chief is leaving? That last year was a mirage and not the foundation for something bigger? Win the Daytona 500 and follow that with a strong runner-up finish. And thusly the reasons Earnhardt finds himself in the very deserving No. 1 position in this week's rankings.

2. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 1)

Johnson explained post-race his team has been a little off because they were focused solely on winning the championship last season rather than preparing for 2014. And this came after he had just finished sixth in the footsteps of a fifth-place run in the Daytona 500. Just further proof the 48 team is operating on a different plane than the competition.

3. Kevin Harvick (LW: 7)

It's not a surprise Harvick won as soon as he did; he and crew chief Rodney Childers were expected to breakthrough sooner rather than later. But just how pervasive was Harvick's superiority? Despite winning four times in 2013, he led all of 269 laps. Yet on Sunday, Harvick led 224 laps to steamroll his way to Victory Lane.

4. Jeff Gordon (LW: 6)

It's remarkable Gordon for the first time has posted consecutive top-five finishes to start a season since 1997. That was the year when he rolled off victories at Daytona and Rockingham en route to his second series championship. And to make Gordon's week all the better he successfully disguised himself as an ex-con cabbie to pull off a pretty sweet prank.

5. Brad Keselowski (LW: 5)

Consecutive third-place finishes are well and good, but as Keselowski pointed out afterwards, winning is the name of the game now in NASCAR with accumulating points secondary. That said, as was written in this space last week the No. 2 team needs a win to truly reassert itself as contenders.

6. Joey Logano (LW: 11)

Who was Harvick most concerned about during the final few restarts? It wasn't Earnhardt, who was clocking faster lap times than Harvick. It was actually Logano, who had the advantage of restarting third, and has a well deserved reputation for being aggressive on restarts. But it was all for naught, as the Penske driver couldn't muscle his way around Harvick and finished fourth.

7. Matt Kenseth (LW: 4)

A nondescript 12th for Kenseth at Phoenix, although this is still far better than his fall performance which was so bad it essentially derailed his championship hopes. Las Vegas could be good for the No. 20 team where it won a year ago and overall, had four wins on 1.5-mile speedways.

8. Kyle Busch (LW: 10)

The dominance Busch flexes in a Nationwide car at Phoenix -- he's won three straight and seven overall -- again didn't transfer to Sunday. As he was a nonfactor again, placing ninth and failing to lead a single lap for the third consecutive race.

9. Denny Hamlin (LW: 2)

As strong as Hamlin looked through Speedweeks, he looked equally ordinary at Phoenix. His average running position was 12th, his driver rating was 79.9 and he finished a ho-hum 19th.

10. Carl Edwards (LW: 8)

After years of ruling intermediate sized tracks Edwards' dominance, and really Roush Fenway Racing as a whole, has recently subsided. Which is why, after an offseason spent reshaping the nose of its cars to make them more aerodynamic, Las Vegas presents a key weekend for all involved.

11. Greg Biffle (LW: 9)

See: Edwards, Carl.

12. Jamie McMurray (LW: Unranked)

It hasn't been pronounced, but there does seem to be promise in the pairing of McMurray with crew chief Keith Rodden, formerly an engineer at Hendrick Motorsports. As McMurray finished 14th at Daytona then followed that by qualifying third and finishing 10th at Phoenix. For a team seemingly forever mired in inconsistency, this is a good start to the year.

13. Tony Stewart (LW: 13)

The cavalcade of late cautions did Stewart no favors, as he consequently got shuffled down the running order. No matter, he still left Phoenix a happy man with Harvick winning and ensuring Stewart-Haas Racing at least one Chase for the Sprint Cup entry.

Tony Stewart: Channels Burt Reynolds

14. Ryan Newman (LW: Unranked)

Here's what Newman learned at Phoenix: Finishing in the top 10 (seventh) is a lot easier to do when you're rookie teammate isn't spinning you out.

15. Kurt Busch (LW: 12)

He was in the top 10 at Phoenix when his motor decided it had enough. But really the story this week is Busch's decision to run the Indianapolis 500. And in an era when too often drivers refuse to step outside their comfort zones, Busch is taking a huge leap and should be applauded no matter how it unfolds.

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