No lame-duck winner. No free falling team finding a fleeting moment of success. What the Quaker State 400 represented was a return to the normalcy which has encapsulated the 2014 season. The most familiar of sights Saturday at Kentucky Speedway: Team Penske celebrating victory for the third time this season on a 1.5-mile track.
But even in spite of the dominance exhibited by Penske, specifically Brad keselowski, a Hendrick Motorsports driver continues to sit atop the NASCAR power rankings. It is not, however, Jimmie Johnson, who has maintained the No. 1 position for each of the past four weeks.
Unseating Johnson is teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the strength of another workmanlike effort at Kentucky; a characteristic that has become the trademark of the 88 team ever since crew chief Steve Letarte announced his resignation in January effective at the end of the year.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Last week: 2)
Struggling in practice, slow in qualifying and frustrated with Kentucky's many bumps the Quaker State 400 had all the appearance of a race Earnhardt would want to quickly forget. But earning his paycheck Letarte went to work. He first found a setup to make his driver comfortable, and then utilized pit strategy to gain valuable track position. That Earnhardt finished fifth is a testament to the resolve of all involved.
2. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 1)
Not often does one see the 48 team have to play from behind, but that was the case at Kentucky following a lackluster effort in qualifying (28th). And without a favorable stall, Johnson was at a disadvantage every time he hit pit road Saturday night. Yet, the defending champ still finished 10th, a result that wasn't indicative of the speed within the 48 car.
3. Brad Keselowski (LW: 5)
Since the beginning of last season, wins have been hard to come by for Keselowski, who won just once in 2013 and had a lone win this year before Kentucky. What's kept him out of Victory Lane had more to do with bad luck than execution, with several near-misses along the way. Now, though, with multiple wins and a higher level of consistency, Keselowski looks every bit the formidable challenger he was in his 2012 championship season.
4. Jeff Gordon (LW: 3)
A Kentucky win would have made Gordon the only driver in NASCAR history to win at all active tracks on the schedule. But that will have to wait another year, as the optimism the current points leader expressed pre-race never materialized, though he did finish seventh.
5. Kevin Harvick (LW: 4)
More mistakes on pit road for the 4 crew. This time in the form of a dropped lug nuts, which cost their driver 14 positions as he fell from second to 16th. Because of the litany of errors this season, Harvick's frustration, understandably, is starting to boil over. If more gaffes continue, his reaction will be a fascinating subplot to watch unfold.
6. Matt Kenseth (LW: 7)
When a flat tire forced the No. 20 car to pit road under the green flag it seemed a promising night was prematurely over. Nope. Some timely cautions accompanied with a fast Toyota and Kenseth eventually was back near the front. His fourth-place finish kept him in the top five in points -- the highest ranked among those who have yet to win.
7. Joey Logano (LW: 10)
Logano ran second for much of the night and had the only car strong enough to challenge Keselowski, especially on short runs where he was faster. But any chance of toppling his teammate for the win vanished when Logano's engine lost power in the closing laps, and he was lucky to finish ninth.
8. Carl Edwards (LW: 6)
Geez, what a dramatic difference a week makes. Returning to the intermediate-style tracks that recently have been Roush Fenway Racing's weakness, Kentucky was nothing short of ugly for Edwards and company. Terribly off the pace all weekend he finished a dreary 17th. And with it any misgivings about leaving Roush for Joe Gibbs Racing likely subsided.
9. Kyle Busch (LW: 15)
As rumors buzz about the job security of crew chief Dave Rogers and with Busch in a bit of a tailspin, his second-place finish was much needed for the 18 team. Whether just honest praise or subtle defense of his pit boss, Busch heaped an inordinate amount of credit on Rogers numerous times post-race.
10. Jamie McMurray (LW: 8)
McMurray was running very well, but his night went south when Alex Bowman spun and Aric Almirola decided to reenact "Days of Thunder." With smoke everywhere Almirola decided against slowing and instead accelerated. The outcome was as expected: Not seeing McMurray, Almirola drilled him, and just like that his night ended.
11. Paul Menard (LW: 9)
Fourth at Michigan followed by a fifth at Sonoma gave Menard back-to-back top-fives for the first time in his career. A 15th Saturday, however, ended that streak. Yet 11th in points Menard is well positioned to make a run for a Chase berth and more so, a win is very much a possibility at Daytona, where in February he led 29 laps before being entangled in a wreck.
12. Tony Stewart (LW: 14)
Kentucky was another solid (11th), though unspectacular, race for Stewart, who has finished 13th or better in five of the past six races. If there is a plus it's that he avoided speeding on pit road like he did at Sonoma. And Pocono. And Dover. You get the point.
13. Kyle Larson (LW: 12)
With finishes of 28th and 40th the past two weeks has the much heralded rookie hit a wall? Ah, no. Mechanical troubles befuddled Larson at Sonoma, while a blown right-front tire ended his day early at Kentucky. The 21-year-old is not to blame in either instance and he should be up near the front again at Daytona.
14. Clint Bowyer (LW: 11)
A recent uptick in performance gave Bowyer hope that Kentucky might be his breakthrough and return him to Victory Lane after a 58-race absence. Never happened. Uncompetitive, he limped to 23rd, a lap down.
15. Kurt Busch (LW: 13)
A toss-up between who was more deserving between Busch and Ryan Newman. Whereas Busch finished 12th, Newman was third and was a fixture in the top five Saturday night. The difference: Busch owns a victory in 2014 (Martinsville) while Kentucky was the first time Newman finished better than seventh. Thus Busch gets the nod.