Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rusty's Reckons: Power Rankings Part 1

Well, we are now officially six races into the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and as NASCAR takes its annual Easter break, the brain-trust at HHR thought we'd bring you a new feature, Rusty's Power Rankings. Every so often, I'm going to reach back into my bag of tricks and pull out some gems as I ruminate and pontificate on the best and the brightest in NASCAR, and I won't be just discussing drivers in these rankings. As you'll see this week, this ranking is going to include all elements in the sport. So, sit back, relax and enjoy the first installment of Rusty's Power Rankings.

1. Jimmie Johnson & Chad Knaus
- Sigh! Don't these guys ever take a day off? So far this season, the 48 team has won HALF of the races (3 of the 6)! As you might imagine, the 48 team finds itself in a familiar position, atop the points standings. Usually, Knaus and Johnson find their streak towards the end of the season. Just like in individual races, they make adjustments, and get hot coming down the home stretch, leaving the competition in a cloud of dust. This year, they seem to be hitting their stride early. Too early? Time well tell, but it's hard to imagine the dominant force that is the Lowe's team beginning to struggle after such a great start.

2. NASCAR - Rusty's going to tip his hat to some big changes this year from NASCAR, all of them so far working out great. First, they got rid of the restriction against bump drafting, like it did any good. A penalty for bump drafting was about as likely as getting a travel called on Kobe Bryant. It won't gonna happen, folks. Nevertheless, it was a rule that allowed them to wag their fingers at the drivers four times a year. Second, they are going to be getting rid of that ridiculous wing and going back to the more traditional spoiler. That stupid wing looked like something out of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Stock cars were meant to have spoilers, and I'm glad they are coming back. Lastly, the new green-white-checkers rules. In the past, they only allowed one shot at a green flag finish with the green-white-checkers system, which is NASCAR's version of overtime. This year, they are going to give it 3 shots, a much better idea! I mean, just look at Martinsville. Jeff Gordon conspiracy theories aside, what an ending!

3. RCR - What a resurgence from the team who didn't field a single car in the Chase last year. Currently, all three drivers are in the top 12 (the top 12 make the Chase after Richmond in the fall). For Happy Harvick, this could be partially due to the fact that his contract's up at the end of this year with RCR. There's been rumors flying about where he might go, and whether or not he's going to stay with the team who brought him in to finish out the season after Dale Earnhardt's passing. He's cooled off over the past two weeks, but the 29 came out of the gate with four consecutive top 10 finishes, two of which were runner-up. Teammates Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton are also sitting comfortably in the top 12. Bowyer amassed 3 top 10's before struggling with a 23rd and 40th place showing. He righted the ship somewhat this past week with a top 10 in Martinsville. While Burton hasn't had the finishes of his Childress teammates, he has been consistent, which has gotten him to where he is. Being in the top 12 after 5 races is a really good predictor for those who end up in the top 12 at Richmond. If this holds true, RCR would be ecstatic to have all 3 drivers in the Chase, after last year's drought.

4. Paul Menard
- Who? Exactly! Menard pilots the 98 Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports. Prior to this year, his career had him bouncing around teams as a weekly also-ran. His highest career finish was 5th at Talladega in 2008. Last year, he finished 31st in points, his best finish being a 13th place at Texas. This year, driving for a new team, though, has lit a fire under the cheese-head from Eau Claire. Menard's already matched his career best with a 5th at Atlanta, and has consistently finished in the top 20 earning him a standing of 11th in points. While maybe not a serious championship contender, if he keeps this up, Menard could be a force to be reckoned with in the Chase. In the right equipment, he's shown an ability to handle a race car and wrack up consistently good finishes. A bit of a surprise to this point in the season, Menard may continue to fly under the radar and surprise some people.

5. Bump-n-run - One of Earnhardt Sr.'s favorite way around a short track like Bristol or Martinsville was the technique dubbed the bump-n-run. Earnhardt would put a fender on a car, get'em loose, and as he drifted up the track, shoot underneath for the pass. His use of this little move helped earn him the nickname The Intimidator. In fact, it got to the point where he wouldn't have to actually touch a guy. They see that #3 in their mirror, and just move over for him. Well, those who pine for those good old days got a good taste of it this past Monday at Martinsville. Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth showed us just what the bump-n-run was, and more importantly what it looks like after the race is over (read: The Real Housewives of NASCAR city). As noted above, NASCAR's made a real concerted effort to try and bring back some of the lost aspects of the sport. The bump-n-run is certainly one of those that's back in full effect, and kudos to that!

The Rusty Old Jalopy award: Track conditions - It seems like ages ago now, but that race in Daytona felt like it took ages to complete on account of two long stoppages to fix the asphalt. Sure, with all the snow we got here on the East Coast this winter, there's going to be a pot-hole festival in nearly every city, but that's no excuse for Daytona. The Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR. The track, therefore, has a responsibility to the sport and its fans to put on the best possible show it can. Not having a track that's up to snuff is like having a big dead spot in the outfield for the World Series or a loose board on the hardwood at the Final Four. The racing at the 500 this year was great. It's just unfortunate that it was great racing bookended by long periods of sheer boredom watching asphalt dry, literally.

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