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 Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway...
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 Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway (5 p.m. ET, FOX), Race 12 of 36 on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule. The first 26 races of the season will determine which drivers will be part of the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup" in the final 10 races. The drivers who are in the NASCAR Top 10 or within 400 points of the leader after those 26 races will vie for the series title in the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup."
No. 1 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Team: Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Points: 1643. Previous ranking: 1. Earnhardt Jr., who owns a series-leading three victories after his most recent at Richmond, has maintained the No. 1 ranking for the last four consecutive race weeks and a series-leading six overall. He is tied for the series lead in top-five finishes (7) with No. 2 Jimmie Johnson and the consistency has allowed him to build a 40-point lead over Johnson and 62 over No. 3 Jeff Gordon heading into Charlotte. Earnhardt Jr., one of four drivers ranked among the Top 10 all season and for 44 consecutive race weeks dating to last season, has four top-10 finishes in nine career starts at the 1.5-mile oval. However, only one of those has come in the Coca-Cola 600, a fourth in 2000 when he won the Bud Pole and led 175 laps. He has posted DNFs in his last two 600 starts, including 41st last season. He did rebound in the October event last season with a ninth-place finish.
No. 2 -- Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 1603 (-40). Previous ranking: 2. Johnson has been outstanding in recent weeks and arrives at Charlotte having recorded top-five finishes in his last four races, including back-to-back runner-up performances at California and Richmond. Johnson, tied for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series lead in top-five finishes with seven, has been ranked a season-high No. 2 for the last three race weeks and currently trails No. 1 Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 40 points. Johnson finished 39th in his first visit to Charlotte in October of 2001, but has been consistently strong ever since. He enters this weekend with a run of four consecutive top-10 finishes, including a victory in last season's Coca-Cola 600, and has led 467 laps in that span. He also has started third or better in three of his last four appearances, including a Bud Pole for the 2002 Coca-Cola 600.
No. 3 -- Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 1581 (-62). Previous ranking: 3. Gordon, who has been ranked No. 3 for the past three race weeks, arrives at Charlotte on a tear of six consecutive top-10 finishes that has vaulted him from No. 13 in the rankings to his current position. He currently leads the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series in top-10 finishes with nine in 11 starts. Gordon, among the Top 10 the last five race weeks in a row, trails second-ranked teammate Jimmie Johnson by 22 points and No. 1 Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 62 heading into Charlotte, where he is a four-time winner. Three of those victories have come in the Coca-Cola 600, with the most recent coming in 1998. In 22 career starts at Charlotte, he has posted 14 top-10 finishes, including in his last four visits. He finished eighth in last season's 600. He has led laps in 16 of his appearances, but none since May of 2001.
No. 4 -- Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 1517 (-126). Previous ranking: 4. Kenseth, the defending series champion who is currently ranked No. 4, has been positioned among the top five in the title chase for 10 of the 11 race weeks and is one of four drivers to be ranked all season long. He has been among the top 10 since Rockingham in February of last season and his current streak of 46 consecutive races among the Top 10 makes him the active leader in that category. Kenseth, ranked No. 1 for four race weeks this season, has five top-10 finishes in nine career starts at Charlotte, including in three of his last four appearances. He has a win in the Coca-Cola 600 (2000) and has just one finish worse than second (18th in 2001) in four career starts in that event. He also carries the momentum of Saturday night's $1 million victory in the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge.
No. 5 -- Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet). Team Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 1449 (-194). Previous ranking: 8. Stewart enters this weekend's Coca-Cola 600 ranked among the top five for the seventh race week of the season, and remains one of four drivers to be ranked among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for all 11 race weeks. Stewart finished 40th in last season's Coca-Cola 600, which was an aberration for him at Charlotte. It marked just the third time in 10 career appearances he did not record a top-10 finish and the first time it occurred since May of 2000. He bounced back in the fall race however as he led a personal-best 149 laps en route to his first win at the 1.5-mile oval. He also was solid in Saturday night's NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, winning a segment and finishing third in the final round. He has started among the top 10 in his last five appearances and has led 22 or more laps in four of his last five starts.
No. 6 -- Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge). Team: Penske Racing South. Points: 1442 (-201). Previous ranking: 7. Newman has posted top-10 finishes in three of his last four starts to move to No. 7 as he prepares for the Coca-Cola 600. He is one position shy of his season-best ranking of No. 5 following Bristol and could be primed to make his move this weekend. Newman, who trails No. 5 Tony Stewart by just seven points, has a three-race streak of top-10 finishes at Charlotte and has never started worse than fourth in six career appearances. He owns three Bud Poles -- his first coming in his first appearance at the 1.5-mile oval in May of 2001 and the other two in a season sweep last year -- and started fourth the other three times. He finished fifth in last season's Coca-Cola 600 and followed with a personal-best finish of second in the fall race at Charlotte. He also was strong in Saturday night's NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, winning a segment and finishing runner-up to Matt Kenseth in the final segment.
No. 7 -- Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet). Team: Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 1430 (-213). Previous ranking: 9. Labonte enters the Coca-Cola 600 riding a wave of momentum from his success in recent weeks. He has recorded top-10 finishes in his last four starts, including three of those among the top five, and the run has pushed him to a season-best No. 7 ranking. He is just 12 points behind No. 6 Ryan Newman and 19 behind No. 5 Tony Stewart. Labonte, whose previous best ranking this season was No. 8 following Darlington in late March, could make another jump in the rankings this week considering his success at Charlotte. He is a two-time winner at the 1.5-mile oval, including the Coca-Cola 600 in 1995, and has posted 15 top-10 finishes in 22 career starts. Of those 15, 10 have been among the top five. He enters this weekend with top-10 finishes in his last three starts at Charlotte, including third in last season's 600, and nine of his last 10.
No. 8 -- Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet). Team: Richard Childress Racing. Points: 1404 (-239). Previous ranking: 6. Harvick, ranked No. 6 for the third consecutive race week, has been among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for the last six races in a row and nine weeks overall heading into the Coca-Cola 600. He has posted three top-10 finishes in six career starts at Charlotte, including a runner-up finish in the 600 in 2001. His most recent top 10 came in the October race of last season, when he finished 10th. He was 13th in last season's Coca-Cola 600, where he led a lap at the speedway for the first time since his first appearance in 2001.
No. 9 -- Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 1391 (-252). Previous ranking: 5. Busch, who had spent the previous five race weeks ranked among the top five, fell to No. 9 following a disappointing finish at Richmond. Despite the fall, he has been among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for the last 10 race weeks in a row. The finish at Richmond was his third race in a row outside of the top 20 and Busch will look to get untracked at Charlotte. He has not recorded a top-10 finish in seven career starts, but has managed four among the top 15, including 15th in last year's Coca-Cola 600.
No. 10 -- Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford). Team: Robert Yates Racing. Points 1377 (-266). Previous ranking: 10. Sadler, ranked No. 10 for the second consecutive race week, remains one of four drivers to be among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 all season long heading into the Coca-Cola 600. With No. 11 Kasey Kahne (89 points behind) and No. 12 Mark Martin (-96) looming, Sadler is hopeful of a change of luck at Charlotte. He has yet to post a top-15 finish in 11 career starts, his best effort being 16th in October of 2000. He started on the outside pole for the Coca-Cola 600 last season, but was victimized by an accident and finished 36th.
Top 10 following Richmond (Race 11 of 36):
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 1643 points
2. Jimmie Johnson 1603 (-40)
3. Jeff Gordon 1581 (-62)
4. Matt Kenseth 1517 (-126)
5. Tony Stewart 1449 (-194)
6. Ryan Newman 1442 (-201)
7. Bobby Labonte 1430 (-213)
8. Kevin Harvick 1404 (-239)
9. Kurt Busch 1391 (-252)
10. Elliott Sadler 1377 (-266)
Weeks at No. 1: Earnhardt Jr., 6; Kenseth, 4; Busch, 1.
Most weeks in the Top 10: 11 (tie), Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, Sadler.
New arrivals: None.
Biggest gain: No. 5 Stewart, three positions.
Dropped out: None.
Additional "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup" qualifiers (within 400 points of the leader): No. 11 Kasey Kahne (-355); No. 12 Mark Martin (-362); No. 13 Jamie McMurray (-394); No. 14 Rusty Wallace (-396).