NASCAR power rankings: Jeff Gordon remains No. 1; Dale Earnhardt Jr. lurking

Jared Wickerham

It’s a Hendrick Motorsports 1-2 in this week’s NASCAR power rankings.

The Lady in Black has a deserved reputation for being a cruel mistress and she didn't disappoint on Saturday night. There were 11 cautions and an infinite number of drivers earning Darlington stripes. While the Southern 500 was by no means a classic, there was plenty of excellent racing throughout and a deserved winner celebrating in Victory Lane.

1. Jeff Gordon (Last week: 1)

Strong early, Gordon's car just wasn't the same once the sun set and he finished seventh. Regardless, it's hard to knock a guy off the No. 1 perch who records a top-10 on the most demanding track on the schedule. Keep in mind though, Gordon's season is starting to take on the same complexion of the last few; promising runs early didn't materialize into wins, which made it a mad scramble to reach Victory Lane later in the year.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 4)

Without that last caution it would have likely been Earnhardt and not Harvick being the first two-time winner of the year. Nevertheless, Earnhardt has finished third or better in five of eight races this year, and has firmly cemented himself as a bona fide championship contender.

3. Kyle Busch (LW: 3)

Twice Busch hit the wall and each time he radioed that he "absolutely killed" the car, yet still finished sixth. But that's the norm at Darlington, where every lap is an adventure and no one escapes unscathed.

4. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 5)

Hit the panic button and cue the hysteria, the defending series champ has gone 0-for-8 to begin the year. Okay, not really. Johnson could have easily had three or four wins were it not for misfortune or happenstance. And it would surprise no one if he rolls off a couple victories in a row sometime in the very near future.

5. Matt Kenseth (LW: 6)

While he has to yet find his 2013 form, last year's championship runner-up quietly keeps finishing well. Kenseth's fourth-place effort at Darlington was his sixth top-10 of the season and is ranked second in points.

6. Joey Logano ((LW: 2)

Logano led the initial 37 circuits, then due to an ill-handling car slid to the back-half of the top-10. Not that it mattered any, as a broken front hub with eight laps remaining put him in the garage prematurely. And the argument that Logano deserved the top ranking falls apart.

7. Kevin Harvick (LW: 14)

Harvick joins Gordon, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to win all four NASCAR majors (Daytona 500, Southern 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400). Of course the key difference is the aforementioned trio has a combined 17 championships, while Harvick is still in pursuit of his first.

8. Kyle Larson (LW: 9)

Rookies aren't supposed to leave Darlington with a top-10 (eighth) in their first start. But if the first eight races have taught us anything, it's that Larson is no ordinary rookie. It seems a given at this point that the 21-year-old will win at least one if not multiple races this season.

9. Brad Keselowski (LW: 8)

Keselowski has had strong cars the past two weeks, but committed a speeding penalty at Fontana and faded at Darlington. Is that a byproduct of chasing wins too aggressively? Perhaps, but that's the strategy one can enact when they already have a victory and with it, a spot in the Chase all but secured.

10. Carl Edwards (LW: 7)

As teammate Greg Biffle stated he was close to signing an extension with Roush Fenway Racing, Edwards, also a pending free-agent, said he wouldn't discuss his contract publically and gave zero indication that he would re-up. How should that be interpreted? It shouldn't be, that's just Edwards' policy when it comes to his contract, an approach he similarly used in 2011 before re-signing.

11. Tony Stewart (LW: 12)

Struggled throughout the night at Darlington (his average running position was 23rd), yet Stewart snaked his way back on the lead lap to finish 9th. And that is the NASCAR definition of how one turns lemons into lemonade.

12. Greg Biffle (LW: Unranked)

Although back-to-back top-10s has given Biffle's once-sagging season a jolt, the performance gap between the Ford teams of Roush and Team Penske is becoming more apparent. Penske has two victories and nearly several others, while Edwards is the lone Roush driver to win but Biffle and, more notably, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., have underwhelmed for the most part.

13. Austin Dillon (LW: Unranked)

Hit the wall a few times and incensed a veteran -- you know, the typical outing for a rookie at Darlington. And when it appeared A.J. Allmendinger was going to seek retribution against Dillon, who finished 11th, Richard Childress quickly interjected, reminding Allmendinger exactly which team supplies them their engines.

14. Denny Hamlin (LW: Unranked)

Hamlin is turning in a very good season according to the advanced data. He leads all drivers in laps spent in the top-15, is ranked second in average running position (9.9), has spent 99 percent of the time on the lead lap and has made the third-most quality passes. The problem, however, is that self-induced mistakes are killing him almost weekly. Case-in-point, Hamlin for the second week in a row had a strong run vanish because of a speeding penalty, which was compounded earlier at Darlington when he missed pit road altogether.

15. Kurt Busch (LW: 15)

Save for Martinsville, Darlington was a microcosm of Busch's season thus far, as yet another solid run went by the wayside. This time due to contact with Clint Bowyer, which sent him slamming head-on into the front stretch wall. Busch, naturally, made to sure to make his displeasure known, but unfortunately didn't do his patented backside salute that he once gave Jimmy Spencer.

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