Well, another six races have come and gone and we are now officially 1/3 of the way through the season. As I sat down to pen this installment of Rusty's power rankings, I began to think about the good ole days of the sport, when brawn seemed to reign over brains, and TV deals didn't matter as much. Lucky for me and some of the more traditional fans, though, there are a few peeks at some of those old traditions in NASCAR lately, and this power rankings reflects just that.
1. Happy Harvick - Last time out, I highlighted the resurgence of the entire RCR team. Well, ole Happy must be reading HHR, cause he's gotten even better since then. At Talladega last month, he broke his two year winless streak, not having found victory lane since Daytona in 2007. In fact, since a 13th place at Phoenix, Harvick hasn't finished outside the top 10 and has led at every race except Texas and Dover. Harvick's contract at RCR is up at the end of the year, and after Shell/Penzoil announced it was moving to Penske just a few weeks ago it looked like he might be saying goodbye to the only team he's ever known at the Cup level. However, with his recent success on the track, a deal with RCR should be inked in the coming weeks.
2. Hamlin's knee surgery - The joke's always been that NASCAR is a backwards redneck sport, and maybe there's some truth to at least the first part of that. In most other sports, a torn ACL will sideline a player for months if not end a career. Not for Denny Hamlin. After winning at Martinsville, Hamlin had surgery to repair the ACL he tore playing pick-up basketball in January. He was right back in the car two shorts weeks later in Phoenix. That first race back was a struggle, and Hamlin wheeled the car home in 30th. Since then, though, he's been on a tear. The FedEx #11 found victory lane one week later in Texas, and has since rattled off a fourth and 11th place finish before finding completing the sweep at Darlington two weekends ago. It was the first sweep at Darlington in 17 years. Apparently, even with a recovering knee, the 'Lady in Black' is not 'too tough to tame' for the boy from Rusty's neck of the woods (Chesterfield, yee haw!).
3. The #3 back on the track - Well, we've been waiting for almost 10 years. Ever since the horrific tragedy at the Daytona 500 in 2001 where we lost Earnhardt, every fan has speculated about if/when we might see the #3 back on the track. The next week after the tragedy, Earnhardt's team and car were back on track, but with a new number and driver (the #29 piloted by Happy Harvick). Not having the 3 on the track is like college basketball without Dick Vitale. Yeah, it's a little more peaceful and quiet, but it just ain't right. But now, the 3's going to be back, even if for just one short race. Junior's going to get behind the wheel of a car with his daddy's number on the side, and even his old paint scheme on the hood. The Nationwide race at Daytona this summer will feature the legend's son driving the Wrangler #3 in a partnership with JR Motorsports, RCR, and Earnhardt Gnassi racing. And as far as this old purist is concerned, that's pretty dadgum awesome!
4. Talladega spring race - Dubbed "the most competitive race in NASCAR history", the boys in Alabama put on quite a show last month. After the asphalt debacle at Daytona, plate track fans like yours truly were hoping for a better race at Dega, and boy did the Aaron's 499 deliver. By the time the race was over, a series and track record 88 lead changes had been recorded, and those were just measured at the line. All across the track, the total probably approaches 200 over the course of the 499 mile race. To top it off, the race was won with the #29 using one of the most recognized moves in NASCAR, the sling-shot. Harvick kept tucked in behind race leader Jamie McMurray until just at the right moment, before pulling out and passing him for the win. A little shake . . . and bake! How's your mind? Blown!?! Ricky would be proud.
5. Sibling rivalry - The story of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon is made for a Hallmark Channel special. A few years back, a little unknown guy named Jimmie went to one of the most winningest drivers in NASCAR to ask some advice. Instead of advice, he got an offer to come drive the 48 with Hendrick Motorsports. Since then, the 48 team has emerged as one of the most dominant in the history of the sport. During all this time, Gordon and Johnson have maintained one of the best friendships in the garage. However, with the 48 struggling since the re-introduction of the spoiler back to the car, things have gotten heated between these Hendrick brothers. A minor fracas at Texas turned into a downright hullabaloo at Talladega, when the 48 and 24 seemed to be playing bumper cars on the track. With Happy, Smoke, and Kurt Busch on their best behavior, NASCAR is in need of some 'drama' and feuding. Jimmie and Jeff are providing just that, and maybe even more.
The Rusty Old Jalopy award: And finally the award for what's been smelling up NASCAR like my daughter's stinky diapers, Stewart Hass Racing. Last year was the first year for Tony Stewart's newly formed team, and it was quite a success. Both cars made the Chase, and Smoke was able to find victory lane 4 times. While the #39 piloted by Ryan Newman was never the first to take the checkers, it wasn't due to the team's failure but rather a streak of some really rotten luck. Take note Earnhardt Jr. fans, he might not be the only one who needs a rabbit's foot from time to time. In 2010, though, both the #14 and #39 are struggling and currently sit outside the crucial top 12. Stewart has only had 4 top 10 finishes in the 14 car, and has finished 23rd or worse 5 out of the last 7 races. Newman's finishes have fared slightly better, and he's even won a race, but a very slow start has hampered the 39 team, and they are still 13th in points, out of the top 12.