At a Glance A weekly look at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 drivers DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 8, 2004) -- The following is a glance at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 in the championship entering Sunday's Golden Corral 500...
At a Glance
A weekly look at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 drivers
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 8, 2004) -- The following is a glance at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 in the championship entering Sunday's Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (FOX, 1 p.m. ET), Race 4 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 -- Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DeWalt Power Tools Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 523. Previous ranking: 2. Kenseth, unfairly criticized for recording just a single victory en route to his series crown last season, won Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 before an estimated 148,000 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his second consecutive victory in this young season. The win, the ninth of his career, followed his triumph at Rockingham and marked the first time that he has registered back-to-back victories in his 151-race career. The performance was his series-leading third top-10 finish in as many races this season and he unseated Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the No. 1 ranking. Kenseth came into Las Vegas trailing then-No. 1 Earnhardt Jr. by seven points but departed with an 88-point advantage over No. 2 Tony Stewart. Kenseth, who held the No. 1 ranking last season for a modern-era record 33 consecutive weeks, has now been situated among the top 10 in the championship for 38 weeks in a row dating to last season. The streak ranks first among active drivers in the series. Kenseth has registered four top-10 finishes in eight career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Of those four, three have come in his last four visits, including a best of fourth which he recorded in this event in 2002 as well as last season.
No. 2 -- Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet). Team Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 435 (-88). Previous ranking: 6. Stewart finished third at Las Vegas for his second top-three performance in three starts this season, improving him four positions to No. 2. Stewart's primary sponsor Home Depot is headquartered in Atlanta and he has rose to the occasion to give them plenty to cheer about when he visits twice a year. He has reeled off five consecutive top-10 finishes, including the last four being among the top five. He won this event in 2002 and has led 33 or more laps in each of his last five appearances, including a best of 143 en route to that victory.
No. 3 -- Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford). Team: Robert Yates Racing. Points: 405 (-118). Previous ranking: 8. Sadler, who was ranked No. 8 for the first two race weeks of the season, stepped up at Las Vegas with a sixth-place finish, his best in five career starts at the 1.5-mile oval and a current season best as well. The performance, his second top-10 finish in three starts this season, improved his ranking five positions to No. 3. That ranking is the second highest of his career, trailing only the No. 2 ranking he had following the season-opening Daytona 500 in 2002. Sadler has one top-10 finish in 10 career starts at Atlanta, but that sixth-place effort came in this event last season. He has qualified among the top six in his last two starts at Atlanta, including a best of third in this event last season, and has led a lap in both.
No. 4 -- Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 404 (-119). Previous ranking: 5. Gordon finished 15th at Las Vegas -- his first time out of the top 10 this season -- but the performance still was strong enough to improve him one position to No. 4. He has been among the top 10 for 34 consecutive weeks dating to last season. Gordon has an outstanding opportunity to move into the top three considering his success at Atlanta. He is a four-time winner and has 14 top-10 finishes in 23 career starts. That success has been buoyed by his latest tear, which consists of nine top-10 performances in his last 11 appearances, including three of those being wins. His most recent victory came in the October race last season. He has led laps in 15 of his Atlanta starts, including seven of the last eight.
No. 5 -- Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN Industrial Tools Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 400 (-123). Previous ranking: 7. Busch, who made his first appearance in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 following Rockingham at No. 7, improved two positions to No. 5 following a ninth-place finish at Las Vegas. It was his second consecutive top-10 finish, following an eighth-place effort at Rockingham. Busch arrives at Atlanta with three top-10 finishes in six career starts, including a win in the fall race of 2002. He finished 40th in this event a year ago -- his first DNF at Atlanta -- but bounced back in the fall with an eighth-place effort. He also has led laps in three of his last four starts at the 1.54-mile oval.
No. 6 -- Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet). Team: Richard Childress Racing. Points: 399 (-124). Previous ranking: 3. Harvick finished 21st at Las Vegas -- his first performance outside of the top 15 in his first three starts -- and slipped three positions to No. 6. Despite the drop, he has been among the top 10 in the championship for 24 consecutive race weeks dating to last season. Harvick heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway, the site of one of the most dramatic moments of his career. In 2001, stepping in as the replacement for Dale Earnhardt following his death in the season-opening Daytona 500, Harvick won this event by edging Jeff Gordon by .006 of a second in only his third career start. He followed with a third-place effort in the fall of that season, but has not managed a finish better than 19th (March, 2003) in his four appearances since.
No. 7 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Team: Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Points: 398 (-125). Previous ranking: 1. Earnhardt Jr., who entered Las Vegas as the only driver in the series with top-five finishes in the first two events, finished 35th at Las Vegas due to handling problems and lost his hold on the No. 1 ranking. Earnhardt Jr. held the No. 1 ranking for the first two races of the season -- marking the first time in his career he had been No. 1 -- but the finish at Las Vegas cost him six positions as he slid to No. 7. It marks the first time Earnhardt Jr. has been outside the top five in the championship since being ranked No. 10 following this event a year ago. He has been in the top 10 for 36 consecutive weeks dating to last season, the second-longest active streak in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. Earnhardt Jr. will look to rebound at Atlanta, where he has recorded top-10 finishes and led laps in his last five visits. Three of those performances have been among the top five, including a best of second in this event in 2002. Last season, he finished third in this race and followed with a sixth in the fall.
No. 8 -- Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge). Team: Evernham Motorsports. Points: 385 (-138). Previous ranking: 21. Kahne finished runner-up to Matt Kenseth at Las Vegas -- his second consecutive second-place finish to the defending series champion in as many races -- and the effort allowed him to move into the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for the first time in his career as well as take the lead in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings. Kahne improved 13 positions -- the most of any driver in this week's top 10 -- to secure the No. 8 ranking and take a 46-34 lead over Scott Wimmer in the six-driver rookie race. Kahne has not competed at Atlanta in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, but has made two starts as a NASCAR Busch Series competitor at the 1.54-mile track. He finished 21st in 2002, but rebounded with a seventh-place finish last season.
No. 9 -- Jamie McMurray (No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge). Team: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Points: 385 (-138). Previous ranking: 11. McMurray finished a season-best fourth at Las Vegas for his second top-five finish in three starts this season. The performance moved him up two positions to No. 9, marking his first time in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 since he made his career debut in the series in October of 2002. His previous-best ranking was No. 13, which he reached following last year's season finale at Homestead. McMurray has made three career starts at Atlanta and he achieved personal bests in his first appearance in October of 2002. He started fourth and finished seventh, his only top-10 finish in the three starts.
No. 10 -- Casey Mears (No. 41 Target Dodge). Team: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Points: 367 (-156). Previous ranking: 15. Mears finished seventh at Las Vegas for his first career top-10 effort in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. His previous career-best finish was 14th, which he earned at this year's season-opening Daytona 500. The two top-15 finishes in his first three starts moved him into the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for the first time as he is in the midst of his second full season. He gained five positions with the top-10 finish to check in at No. 10. Last season, his best ranking was No. 25, which came after this event as well. Mears competed in both races at Atlanta during his rookie campaign in 2003, finishing 23rd in this event and 28th in the fall.
Top 10 following Las Vegas (Race 3 of 36):
1. Matt Kenseth 523 pts
2. Tony Stewart 435 (-88)
3. Elliott Sadler 405 (-118)
4. Jeff Gordon 404 (-119)
5. Kurt Busch 400 (-123)
6. Kevin Harvick 399 (-124)
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 398 (-125)
8. Kasey Kahne 385 (-138)
9. Jamie McMurray 385 (-138)
10. Casey Mears 367(-156)
Weeks at No. 1: Earnhardt Jr., 2; Kenseth, 1.
Most weeks in the Top 10: 3, Kenseth, Stewart, Sadler, J. Gordon Harvick, Earnhardt Jr.
New arrivals in the Top 10: No. 8 Kahne, No. 9 McMurray, No. 10 Mears.
Biggest gain in the Top 10: No. 8 Kahne, 13 positions.
Dropped out of the Top 10: No. 4 Wimmer, No. 9 W. Burton, No. 10 Nemechek.
Closing in on the Top 10: No. 11 B. Labonte (-7); No. 12 R. Wallace (-11); No. 13 Nemechek (-20); No. 14 Mayfield (-28); No. 15 W. Burton (-32).