NASCAR power rankings: Dale Earnhardt Jr. regains No. 1 spot

Matt Sullivan

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back atop the NASCAR power rankings on the heels of a third-place finish at Martinsville Speedway.

There are a few things you can expect whenever NASCAR makes it annual pilgrimage to Martinsville Speedway, and this year was no different. The list includes frayed tempers (check), Jimmie Johnson dominating (check), drivers swearing revenge (check and check), and no shortage of excitement (a big check with a track-record 33 lead changes occurring in the STP 500).

And when the checkered flag waved it wasn't Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin or Tony Stewart in Victory Lane celebrating, as they had done in 18 of the previous 22 Martinsville races. Instead, Kurt Busch was the unlikely winner, capping off a comeback, two-plus years in the making.

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Last week: 2)

The quest for a Martinsville grandfather clock continues, as Earnhardt had neither the car nor the tires to contend with Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson for the win. But in a testament to the kind of season he has had thus far, Earnhardt's third-place effort Sunday was the fourth time he's finished third or better this year. That's impressive.

2. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 6)

Unlike at Fontana where his tire went kaboom, there wasn't much Johnson could do at Martinsville. As the laps wound down Busch simply had a better Chevrolet when it mattered the most and he drove away for the win. You do get the sense that the once 48 team starts closing out races, Johnson is going to roll off two, three victories in a row.

3. Carl Edwards (LW: 1)

Spun out and still finished 13th, but that's not enough to keep Edwards atop the rankings for another week. Texas is a critical race for Roush Fenway Racing and will show whether it's closed the gap on the intermediate tracks, an area where the team has noticeably struggled the last few seasons.

4. Matt Kenseth (LW: 4)

Through the early portions, the No. 20 car was one of the few that could hang with the 48, especially over long runs. Then a spin on pit road, followed later by the curious decision not to pit under caution, cost Kenseth valuable track position. Despite the setbacks, as well as falling a lap down, Kenseth rallied back to finish to sixth.

5. Kyle Busch (LW: 3)

Busch's 14th-place finish Sunday moves him to 0-19 in his career at the Virginia half-mile. Which considering what a noted short track racer he is with multitude of victories at Bristol (five) and Richmond (four), is beyond confounding. Post-race Busch's crew chief explained that because of its win the week before the team elected to be aggressive with its setup, which he admitted in hindsight was a mistake.

6. Jeff Gordon (LW: 5)

Gordon had a fast car, but the decision by Alan Gustafson to call his driver to pit road and get off-sync proved costly. On the subsequent restart Gordon mashed the frontend and the damage proved to be too much. From there No. 24 team had to scramble just to come home 12th.

7. Kevin Harvick (LW: 12)

Another week means yet another parts failure for Harvick, who again had a good run sidetracked for the fourth consecutive race. At least this time, however, the damage wasn't too detrimental with Harvick able to fight back to record just his second top-10 of the season (seventh).

8. Brad Keselowski (LW: 7)

When you've got a win and your place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup is virtually secure, you have the luxury of choosing whether you want to instigate fights. Then again, if last season taught Keselowski any lessons it's that he's a far better driver when he doesn't engage himself in activities that might be distracting.

9. Joey Logano (LW: 13)

As his teammate threw verbal barbs and middle fingers, Logano kept his nose clean and stayed above the fray. He was rewarded with a fourth, the third time this season Logano's finished in that particular spot. The No. 22 team seems poised for a breakthrough and could easily come at Texas, a style track Logano has performed well on since joining Team Penske.

10. Kurt Busch (LW: Unranked)

Under the revised Chase for the Sprint Cup format the importance of week-to-week consistency while still holding a role, no longer has the same importance. Busch's win is just the latest example. Although he's struggled to string together strong finishes this season, as evident by his 20.8 average finish, and despite residing in 20th in points, Busch is all but assured of qualifying for the playoffs. And just like that a year filled with ambiguity all of sudden becomes filled with great possibilities.

11. Austin Dillon (LW: 10)

Much as he has throughout the year, Dillon quietly produced another solid result. His 15th at Martinsville was the fourth time in six starts he's finished in the top-15, and sitting ninth overall the rookie is just ahead of his two teammates, Ryan Newman (10th) and Paul Menard (11th), in points.

12. Tony Stewart (LW: 11)

Stewart the driver had a rather ordinary 17th at Martinsville. And because he failed to lead a lap, it marks the first time since 2000 that he hasn't led a single lap through the opening six races. Meanwhile, Stewart the car owner notched his second victory of the season, which is tops in the series.

13. Kyle Larson (LW: 8)

Running as high as fourth, Larson again flashed his vast talent Sunday. But in the end Martinsville proved too much for the rookie, who spun out himself out and fell to 27th in the final order. No matter, the 21-year-old will be somebody to watch this weekend. With its multiple grooves and high speeds, the 1.5-mile Texas oval plays right into Larson's wheelhouse. Another top-five finish isn't out of the question.

14. Jamie McMurray (LW: 9)

Gets the benefit of the doubt for the final spot because McMurray was in the midst of another strong outing when contact with Earnhardt put him hard into the wall. It was the second time in two short track races that McMurray, through no fault of his own, crashed while running in the top-10. You can say it about a lot of teams, but the No. 1 group has performed a lot better than the results indicate.

15. Denny Hamlin (LW: 14)

Oof, that was ugly. Hamlin predicted Friday he was going to win at Martinsville. However, when it came to backing up his boisterous talk the driver of the No. 11 car failed. On unquestionably his best track (Hamlin owns four career wins at his home state track) he failed to lead a single lap for the first time in nearly six years and wobbled to a 19th-place finish.

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