Welcome to the final Power Rankings of the 2017 season. Where has the time gone?
1. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 2): The season’s most dominant driver is the favorite for the title. Truex outperformed his average at Phoenix considerably on Sunday, finishing third.
While he’s the only driver of the final four who hasn’t previously won a title, Truex has experience in the format. In 2015, he was a part of the final four and finished 12th.
Truex was the underdog in that season. He had won one race — the third of his career and first in two seasons — and his team was getting ready to switch from Chevrolet to Toyota in 2016. A title two years ago would have been a surprise. A championship on Sunday is a fitting end to a great season.
“If I’m the favorite, perfect, I like that,” Truex said. “I think it’s a better position to be in. I was the underdog before and I finished fourth, so yeah, bring it on.”
2. Kyle Busch (LW: 5): If we expect Truex to be fast as soon as practice starts on Friday, is Busch the guy with the best chance to match him? We never really saw what Busch could do at Texas after his lap one contact with Brad Keselowski. And his best finish at a 1.5-mile track in the playoffs this season is 10th.
So if we’re using recent history as our guide, Busch may not exactly be the strongest threat to Truex. But we think Joe Gibbs Racing will have cars with comparable speed to its equipment prepared by Truex’s Furniture Row team. It’s up to Busch’s team to have a race free of mistakes.
Busch finished seventh on Sunday and wasn’t exactly thrilled with his car.
“Great to get a top-10 at least, you know?” Busch said. “That was a pretty dismal performance for our fans, so apologize for that, but, you know, better days are ahead next week.”
3. Kevin Harvick (LW: 2): Here’s another guy chasing Truex who’s had success in this format. A year before Busch won the race at Homestead to win the championship in 2015, Harvick did it in 2014 — the first year of NASCAR’s elimination playoff format.
We sure as hell wouldn’t want Busch or Harvick in our rear view mirrors as the laps wind down. The two drivers are some of the best chasers in the series — just look at what Harvick did to Truex two weeks ago at Texas.
“Three of us have won championships, and Martin has won a lot of races this year,” Harvick said. “The pressure is really on [Truex] and [Busch]. Those guys have dominated the year, and I feel like if they don’t win at this point, they would probably feel like they’ve had a letdown. It’s a lot of fun coming from behind and playing catch‑up and kind of playing that underdog role is much easier than being expected to go down there and win. We expect to win.”
4. Brad Keselowski (LW: 3): Keselowski may be fourth on this list, but we have a sneaking suspicion the team will show a burst of speed at Homestead. And if they don’t, well they’ve proven over the season that they are really good at making chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what.
That chicken salad didn’t exactly taste good at Phoenix, where Keselowski finished 16th. But adequate was good enough thanks to Matt Kenseth’s pass of Chase Elliott, the driver that bumped Keselowski out of the lead at Martinsville three weeks ago.
” I’m a big subscriber that it takes speed, execution and luck to win, and I think we probably had some really solid execution last week in Texas, great speed at Martinsville and luck [Sunday],” Keselowski said. “You know, if you put all three of them together on any given day, you can win, and we haven’t done that in this round, but we had one of each in all three races, and that put us in position to be here.”
5. Matt Kenseth (LW: 9): Kenseth gets to vault up four positions in Power Rankings because of his win and late pass of Chase Elliott. With Sunday’s race at Homestead likely being the last of his career, he’ll run a throwback paint scheme that mimics the car he ran as a rookie with Roush Fenway Racing in 2000. It’ll be crazy to see a Kenseth throwback car from the year 2000 on the track with a Dale Earnhardt Jr. throwback car from the same year on the track.
We’re proud to unveil the @DEWALTtough @mattkenseth tribute car that will race this weekend @HomesteadMiami ! It’s a throwback to the car he raced in his rookie Cup Series season. Thank you Matt! #teaMKenseth pic.twitter.com/YxHVQobG6R
— Joe Gibbs Racing (@JoeGibbsRacing) November 14, 2017
6. Denny Hamlin (LW: 4): Hamlin did exactly what he needed to do to get to the playoff final ahead of Brad Keselowski … and then he got knocked into the wall by Chase Elliott.
It’s fair to argue that Hamlin should have let Elliott by easily when the No. 24 first tapped his rear bumper. After all, Elliott was of little consequence to Hamlin at the time because all Hamlin had to do was stay ahead of Keselowski at that point in the race.
It’s also fair to argue against that. Letting Elliott get past him means Elliott is one spot closer to the front of the field. And Elliott steals the spot Hamlin and Keselowski are racing for if he wins the race. As he almost did.
7. Chase Elliott (LW: 7): If this was the NFL or the NBA, bloviators would have taken to the airwaves Monday morning calling Elliott a choker.
Is that a fair description? No. But Elliott’s inability to close out races is quickly becoming a trend and a trend that’s not getting a ton of attention.
That relative lack of attention is understandable in part because of his run-in with Hamlin. Had Elliott not pushed Hamlin into the wall and the final laps play out as they did — where Kenseth passes Elliott for the lead — the finish is a far more significant event. But it’s also worth wondering if discussion about Elliott’s late-race failures are muted because of his standing in the eyes of many fans.
8. Ryan Blaney (LW: 6): Blaney’s car had qualifying speed but it didn’t have race speed. After starting first, Blaney led the first 11 laps of the race. He never led again. Heck, he didn’t even score any stage points. Not a way to get into the final four.
Blaney finished 17th.
9. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 8): We’re probably guilty of having our expectations too high for Johnson throughout the season. Even though it was clear the No. 48 team wasn’t the best in the garage over the summer and fall months, it was incredibly tough to not count the team out until Johnson hit the wall on Sunday.
Hindsight being 20/20, it was clear from the first round of the playoffs that Johnson and company didn’t have what it took to win the championship this season. We’ll see if the team will in 2018 with Chevrolet’s new Camaro body.
10. Erik Jones (LW: NR): Jones’ fourth-place finish on Sunday pushed him ahead of Clint Bowyer for 18th in the points standings. While Jones won’t catch Joey Logano for 17th — and the best driver to not make the playoffs — that’s a solid season.
11. Jamie McMurray (LW: NR): McMurray finished sixth. He’s tied with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for 11th in the points standings with 2,200 points.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: NR): Since it’s the last Power Rankings of Junior’s career, he needs to be included. And why not after his 10th-place finish on Sunday. That came after he lost two laps thanks to a flat tire heading into turn 1 — a moment where Junior did a heckuva job keeping the car off the wall.
Lucky Dog: Aric Almirola’s ninth-place finish was his third top-10 in the last six races. He has six top-10 finishes all season.
The DNF: Kyle Larson’s on a terrible run.
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