2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Power Rankings Week 6: Top 10 Drivers:cWith just five races in the books for the 2012 Sprint Cup season, drivers have already faced a variety of tracks. From the pack racing at Daytona to the flat corners in Phoenix and high speeds at Las Vegas, engines, aerodynamics and ability have all been put to the test. While a lot can change during the course of the year, the wide range of challenges that the schedule brings early in the season allows the best-prepared drivers and team to rise quickly to the top.
NASCAR Power Rankings – Top 10 Playoff Drivers
1. Tony Stewart: The defending champ has picked up right where he left off last year, winning two of the first five races. Dating back to the playoffs last season, “Smoke” has now won seven of the past 15 races. The scary thing more the competition is that Stewart is normally a slow starter. In fact, he had just a single victory in his career before the month of April, prior to winning twice in March in 2012. The three-time series champ could be heading for one of the best years of his impressive career.
2. Greg Biffle: It is safe to say that Biffle has bounced back from his disappointing 2011 campaign. He opened the year with three straight third-place finishes and has four top-10s in the first five races. Biffle currently leads the series in both categories and has a series-leading 5.6 average finish and 4.6 average starting position. The bottom line is that he is starting up front and finishing, and he is looking like a surprise title contender in 2012.
3. Kevin Harvick: Harvick isn’t the flashiest driver in the series, but no driver has been more consistent during the past two seasons. He is continuing the trend in 2012, finishing 11th or better in all five races this season. His 7.0 average finish is the second best in the series, and Harvick never seems to have a bad week. More importantly, he currently owns a 9.0 average starting position after being one of the worst qualifiers in the series throughout his career.
4. Jimmie Johnson: Since wrecking early in the Daytona 500, Johnson has looked every bit the driver that won five straight championships from 2006 to 2010. He has four straight top-10 finishes, including a pair of top-five efforts. He has put up the strong numbers despite dealing with the distraction of the potential suspension of his crew chief Chad Knaus. Now that the penalty has been overturned, the No. 48 team should be even more focused going forward.
5. Matt Kenseth: He won the season opener at Daytona and nearly won a few weeks later at Bristol before settling for second. Kenseth is sixth in the standing and is averaging a top 10 finish in 2012. He would be even higher in points had a cut tire in the closing laps at Las Vegas not cost him another top-five finish. After finishing fourth in the standings last season, Kenseth looks more than capable of contending for the title once again this year.
6. Denny Hamlin: With his win at Phoenix, Hamlin has already equaled his win total from a year ago. He has also led the most laps in two of the first five races. Hamlin has two top-five finishes in 2012, and he would have had three had rain not shortened the race at Auto Club Speedway. After struggling all of last season in the wake of his runner-up finish in the standings in 2010, Hamlin looks refreshed, refocused and dangerous this year.
7. Carl Edwards: Although he hasn’t had a car capable of winning yet, Edwards has been quietly plodding along. He has three top-10 finishes in the first five races, including fifth-place finishes in two of his last three starts. Edwards is managing the expectations of being the preseason favorite to win the title, and while he hasn’t been dominant, he hasn’t exactly been struggling either.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Yes, the winless drought continues to grow, but Junior has been rock solid out of the gate in 2012. He has top-15 finishes in all five races this season, including three top-10 efforts. Junior’s 8.8 average finish is the third best in the series, and with two top-five finishes to his credit, he is already halfway to his total from all of 2011. He looks as strong as he has since joining Hendrick Motorsports.
9. Martin Truex Jr.: He has been a source of frustration since joining the Cup Series, running hot and cold and never stringing together consistent finishes. However, it appears Truex may have turned a corner. After finishing the 2011 season with four top-10s in the final five races, he has opened 2012 with three top-10s in the first five races. Truex has yet to finish worse than 17th this season, and he is sitting in the top five in points thanks to a 9.4 average finish.
10. Kyle Busch: Busch is used to being at or near the top of the rankings, but a slow start to the season has him 14th in points after five races. That being said, he did lead the most laps at finish second in last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway. A cut tire at Las Vegas and a wreck at Bristol were out of his control, and Busch does have two finishes of sixth or better in the races where he hasn’t had something go wrong. The bottom line is that Busch has been fast, and it is only a matter of time before he goes on a tear.
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