NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 At A Glance
A weekly look at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 drivers
The following is a glance at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 in the championship entering Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway (7 p.m. ET, TNT), Race 26 of 36 on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule. This is the final race that will determine which drivers will be part of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup over the course of the final 10 races. The drivers who are in the Top 10 in addition to any within 400 points of the leader at the conclusion of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 will vie for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series crown. In addition to the series championship, there also will be competition for an enhanced 11th-place points finish over the final 10 races. This year 11th place will pay nearly $1 million; the 11th-place finisher will join the Top 10 at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Awards Ceremony in New York City.
No. 1 -- Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 3482. Previous ranking: 2. Johnson finished 14th in Sunday's Pop Secret 500 at California Speedway, but the performance was enough to allow him to regain the No. 1 ranking from Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon. Johnson, who spent the previous two weeks at No. 2, moved from 24 points down to 50 ahead of Gordon, who finished 37th, and was the only driver among the top five in the points to finish among the top 15 in Sunday's race. It marks his ninth week overall at No. 1, tying Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the most weeks at the top position. Johnson, who already has clinched a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, has just one top-10 finish in five career starts at Richmond, but it did come in his most recent appearance earlier this season. It was a strong effort overall as he qualified fifth and led 91 laps en route to a runner-up finish to Earnhardt Jr. Also, he has finished inside the top 20 in his last four visits. He has been solid on the qualifying side with top-10 starts in three of his last four appearances, including a Bud Pole in September of 2002.
No. 2 -- Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 3432 (-50). Previous ranking: 1. Gordon finished 37th at California due to an engine problem and the performance cost him the No. 1 ranking he had held for the past two weeks. He fell to No. 2, 50 points behind Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, as a result of his worst finish in the last 10 races, but already has clinched a berth for the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. Gordon will look to regain the No. 1 ranking at Richmond, where he owns an outstanding record that is buoyed by a pair of wins and 15 top-10 finishes in 23 career starts. His victories came in March of 1996 and again in September of 2000. The last win kicked off a current run in which he has posted top-10 finishes in five of his last eight appearances, including the last two. He led 126 laps and finished 10th in this race last season and followed with a sixth earlier this year. He has led laps in 16 of his 23 starts, including his last three. Gordon has been an exceptional qualifier at Richmond with four Bud Poles and 18 top-10 starts, including six of his last seven.
No. 3 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Team: Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Points: 3366 (-116). Previous ranking: 3. Earnhardt Jr. finished 34th due to an accident, but was able to maintain the No. 3 ranking for the sixth consecutive week and already has clinched a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. He is one of four drivers to be ranked among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 all season and currently trails No. 2 Jeff Gordon by 66 points and No. 1 Jimmie Johnson by 116. Earnhardt Jr. is a two-time winner at Richmond and has registered seven top-10 finishes in 10 career starts. His victories came in May of 2000 and earlier this season in the May race. He has been strong of late with top-five finishes in three of his last four visits and four of his last six, although one of the misses was a 17th in this event last season. He has led laps in his last three appearances, including a personal-best 115 en route to his win earlier this season.
No. 4 -- Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet). Team Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 3304 (-178). Previous ranking: 4. Stewart finished 18th at California, but remains at No. 4 for the fifth consecutive week and has clinched a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. He has closed to 62 points of No. 3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and has been ranked among the top five for the last nine weeks in a row. Stewart is a three-time winner at Richmond and has posted seven top-10 finishes in 11 career starts overall. However, he has struggled of late as he has finished 27th or worse in three of his last four visits. He bounced back in his most recent appearance, finishing fourth in May. He has led laps in seven of his starts, including three of the last five.
No. 5 -- Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 3253 (-229). Previous ranking: 5. Kenseth finished 22nd at California, but remains at No. 5 for the fifth consecutive week and has clinched a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. The performance ended his streak of top-10 finishes at three and marked just the second time in the last eight races he has finished outside the top 15. He trails No. 4 Tony Stewart by 51 points while No. 6 Elliott Sadler, Sunday's race winner, has closed to 49 points of his position. Kenseth has been on a roll at Richmond as he heads into this weekend carrying a streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes at the .75-mile oval. The tear is highlighted by a victory in September of 2002 when he started 25th and led 134 laps en route to the win. Overall, he has six top-10 efforts in nine career starts, including fifth in his most recent appearance in May. Interestingly, he has not benefited from strong qualifying at Richmond as he has started among the top 15 just once (7th, May 2002).
No. 6 -- Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford). Team: Robert Yates Racing. Points: 3204 (-278). Previous ranking: 7. Sadler won Sunday's Pop Secret 500 at California Speedway for his second victory of the season and third of his career. Sadler, whose other win this season came at Texas, needs only to start Saturday night's race at Richmond to lock in a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. The win was his career-best seventh top-five effort of the season and allowed him to improve one position to No. 6 as well as close to 49 points of No. 5 Matt Kenseth. Sadler will look to build off his 12th-place finish at Richmond earlier this season. It was a personal-best effort at the .75-mile oval and ended a three-race skid there where he finished 34th or worse. Overall, he has finished just twice among the top 20 in 11 career starts.
No. 7 -- Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 3186 (-296). Previous ranking: 6. Busch finished 11th at California to narrowly end his streak of consecutive top-10 finishes at four and drop him a position to No. 7. Busch, who spent the last two weeks at No. 6, fell 18 points behind No. 6 Elliott Sadler. He only needs to start Saturday's race at Richmond and finish 42nd or better to clinch a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. Busch, however, has struggled at Richmond, with just one top-10 finish in seven career starts. That effort came in the May event of last season when he started seventh and finished eighth, both personal bests. Busch has started outside the top 20 in six of his seven appearances at Richmond and has finished 24th or worse in four of his last six starts. He started 23rd and finished 31st in his most recent appearance in May.
No. 8 -- Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge). Team: Penske Racing South. Points: 3078 (-404). Previous ranking: 10. Newman finished fifth at California to jump from No. 10 to No. 8 in the rankings. The effort was his second consecutive top-five finish and it allowed him to move 11 points ahead of No. 9 Kasey Kahne and 20 ahead of No. 10 Mark Martin. Although he is at No. 8, he will have to fend off several drivers at Richmond, including as deep as 15th-ranked Kevin Harvick who is just 76 back. The good news for Newman is that he has been outstanding at Richmond. He has three top-two finishes, including a victory in this event last season, and has finished outside the top 10 just once in five career starts. He has led laps in all five starts and has started among the top five on four occasions. In his most recent appearance in May, he qualified second, led nine laps and finished ninth.
No. 9 -- Kasey Kahne (No. 9 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge). Team: Evernham Motorsports. Points: 3067 (-415). Previous ranking: 11. Kahne, the Raybestos Rookie of the Year leader, finished runner-up at California to slide back into the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 following a one-week absence. He improved from No. 11 to No. 9 with his fifth runner-up performance of the season. It also was his fourth top-five finish in the last six races as he charges for a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. He trails No. 8 Ryan Newman by just 11 points, but has No. 10 Mark Martin only nine behind him, No. 11 Jamie McMurray 34 back, and No. 12 Bobby Labonte at 45 back. He struggled in his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup debut at Richmond in May, starting 39th and finishing 28th, and will need to rebound to secure a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.
No. 10 -- Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 3058 (-424). Previous ranking: 12. Martin finished third at California to move into the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 for the first time this season. He improved to No. 10 following two weeks at No. 12 and makes his first appearance in the Top 10 since being ranked No. 4 following Rockingham in February of 2003. The recent run continues his dramatic bid in the final weeks where he has posted four top-three finishes in his last six races to move from No. 15 to his current standing. He finds himself right in the middle of the showdown at Richmond, having the ability to improve his standing with a strong effort or fall quickly out of the Top 10 with a mediocre one. Martin is just 20 points behind No. 8 Ryan Newman and nine in back of No. 9 Kasey Kahne, but has five drivers within 56 points of his position. No. 11 Jamie McMurray is 25 back, No. 12 Bobby Labonte is 36 back, No. 13 Dale Jarrett is 43 behind, No. 14 Jeremy Mayfield is 55 back and No. 15 Kevin Harvick 56 behind with one race left to determine the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup participants. Martin will have experience and history on his side as he has recorded 20 top-10 finishes in 37 career starts at the .75-mile oval. Among those 20 top-10s are 11 top-five performances, including a victory in February in 1990. He has four top-10 finishes in his last five visits, including a seventh in his most recent appearance in May. He also has finished inside the top 20 in his last eight starts at Richmond.
Top 10 following California (Race 25 of 36):
1. Jimmie Johnson 3482 points
2. Jeff Gordon 3432 (-50)
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3366 (-116)
4. Tony Stewart 3304 (-178)
5. Matt Kenseth 3253 (-229)
6. Elliott Sadler 3204 (-278)
7. Kurt Busch 3186 (-296)
8. Ryan Newman 3078 (-404)
9. Kasey Kahne 3067 (-415)
10. Mark Martin 3058 (-424)
Weeks at No. 1: Earnhardt Jr., 9; Johnson, 9; Kenseth, 4; J. Gordon, 2; Busch, 1.
Most weeks in the Top 10: 25 (tie), Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, Sadler.
New arrivals: No. 9 Kahne, No. 10 Martin.
Biggest gain: No. 8 Newman, No. 9 Kahne, No. 10 Martin, two positions.
Dropped out: No. 8 Kevin Harvick; No. 9 Bobby Labonte.
Chasing the "Chase" (drivers nearest the No. 10 ranking): No. 11 Jamie McMurray, 3033 (-25); No. 12 Bobby Labonte, 3022 (-36); No. 13 Dale Jarrett, 3015 (-43); No. 14 Jeremy Mayfield, 3003 (-55); No. 15 Kevin Harvick, 3002 (-56).