Welcome to the 2018 edition of our weekly NASCAR Power Rankings. Our continuing feature will attempt to rank and assess the moment’s top 12 drivers in the Cup Series. You’ll probably disagree with our rankings. And that’s fine. Give us your feedback either in the comments below or on Twitter.
1. Kevin Harvick (LW: 1): We might as well just skip to No. 2 and get on with the real rankings. There’s no surprise that Harvick is in this spot nor is there any explanation needed. Harvick can finish 35th on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway and probably end up being No. 1 in this rankings set next week.
But at the rate he’s going, the odds of finishing first at ACS are better than the odds of him finishing below 30th. Harvick is racking up the playoff points at an alarming rate and it’s probably going to take until race No. 10 (at least) for someone to match Harvick’s playoff point total even without the points he earned at Las Vegas.
“Racing in your home state, a racetrack that I really enjoy racing at, I got so amped up that I wrecked it on lap zero last year, knocked the grille out of it, knocked the hood off of it, never got a chance to race,” Harvick said of his 2017 race at ACS.
“Yeah, I’m excited about it.”
2. Kyle Busch (LW: 2): Busch has finished second to Harvick in each of the past two races. So putting him at No. 2 is a very obvious choice.
Busch won two-straight races at Auto Club Speedway in 2013 and 2014, so he’s one of the top drivers not named Harvick who have a chance to win on Sunday. Busch’s 2013 win is also the last time a race at ACS has finished at the prescribed 400-mile distance. The last four races have all gone to overtime.
It is fair to wonder if Busch’s strategy play was the best way to attack Harvick and the rest of the field at Phoenix. While Busch had the fastest car for long stretches, should he have pitted as early as possible to extend his last fuel run as long as possible? That would have meant more laps at the end of the race on old tires to catch Harvick.
Would it have worked? Who knows. Probably not. But it’s easy for us to wonder about from the comfort of hindsight. And it’s also worth noting that Busch had a slow pit stop on his final stop. If the stop is faster, is Busch the winner?
“I think if roles were reversed there on that final pit stop, I don’t think he would have got to us,” Busch said. “I think our cars were evenly matched and I thought we were right there with him. His car definitely turned the center a little bit better all throughout the day and I know when he was racing with the 11 there, he was getting his stuff burned up pretty bad and he was getting held up.
3. Denny Hamlin (LW: 4): Hamlin was up at the front of the field with Busch and Harvick but didn’t have the speed that either of them did. Harvick had the best overall speed of anyone in the field and Busch had the best long run speed. Hamlin was there with Chase Elliott fighting for third place and he ended up finishing … fourth, right behind Elliott.
“Our balance is perfect and we could run with the 4, but his balance stayed better longer than I was able to,” Hamlin said. “Proud of the comeback we had, obviously I made a mistake there coming to pit road and got too close to the wall and we dropped the car off the jack, but still was able to come back through. We had a fast car, we finished about where we should have.”
4. Martin Truex Jr. (LW: 9): Truex is putting up a very solid start to the 2018 season that’s getting overlooked with Harvick’s dominance. Truex has finished in the top-five in three-straight races as Harvick has won all three of those races.
Truex’s fifth-place finish at Phoenix moves him to an effective third in the points standings. He’s tied with Busch, but Busch has the better finishes so he wins the tiebreaker.
5. Chase Elliott (LW: NR): Elliott emerged from the final round of pit stops in first place but anyone watching the race with a pulse knew that he didn’t have a chance of holding off Harvick for the win. Sure enough, Elliott was passed by Harvick with fewer than 40 laps to go and ended up finishing third behind Harvick and Busch.
6. Ryan Blaney (LW: 2): It wasn’t a great run for the Penske guys on Sunday. Blaney was 16th, the first car a lap down.
7. Brad Keselowski (LW: 5): Keselowski qualified poorly and ended up finishing 15th, the best driver among the three Team Penske cars.
8. Joey Logano (LW: 6): Logano qualified the best of any of the Penske cars in fifth, but finished the worst in 19th. Yeah, we said it wasn’t a great run for the Penske guys on Sunday.
9. Kyle Larson (LW: 8): Larson didn’t have speed or grip in his car on Sunday. He was 18th and even brought out a caution on lap 123 when his car spun out off the exit of turn 2.
“We’ve had, all weekend, like a wheel hop, tire chatter, some issue like that,” Larson said. “It’s hard to kind of tell what it is. I feel like it just starts as soon as I get to the brakes and turn the wheel and then I just start wheel hopping. I fought it all day yesterday and was hoping that we could fix it. We still had the issue in the race.”
10. Clint Bowyer (LW: NR): Bowyer finished sixth at Phoenix, the second of four Stewart-Haas Racing cars in the top 10. It’s the first time the organization has had all four of their cars in the top 10 in a single race. It’s a staggering statistic at first when you consider the caliber of drivers that the team has employed. And then you realize that while Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have been solidly above average (at worst) with the team, Tony Stewart was on the downside of his career when the team expanded to four cars and Danica Patrick’s only top-10 finish of the 2017 season came at Dover in June.
“I admit, I thought we were going to get rained out at Atlanta, so I went home, was sitting there,” Stewart said. “I took a picture of the screen when we had all four cars in the top seven. I took a screen shot of it as a fan. Just kept looking at it, going, This is really cool, never happened for our organization.”
11. Aric Almirola (LW: 11): The driver who replaced Patrick in the No. 10 car would be the early story of SHR’s 2018 if it wasn’t for Harvick destroying the competition. Almirola and the team are suddenly far better than they were a year ago. Almirola is boosted by a change of team. The team is probably boosted by a change of driver.
12. Erik Jones (LW: 12): Jones finished ninth, the lowest of the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers. Man, how must it feel to get a solid top-10 finish and still be the worst driver on your team for that race? And yes, use this stat as a reminder that Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing teams occupied eight of the 10 top positions at Phoenix and it’s nine of 10 if you include Truex as a JGRish car.
Lucky Dog: Daniel Suarez finished eighth, a spot ahead of Jones.
The DNF: Paul Menard crashed after completing 189 laps thanks to an apparent mechanical failure.
Dropped Out: Menard, Austin Dillon
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.