The current driver standings in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings are indicative of what is true about today’s competitive environment.
To wit, NASCAR’s “super teams,” those multicar operations that manage to acquire the abundant resources needed to succeed, entirely occupy the top 10.
Some have multiple positions. Some, perhaps, have performed above expectations while others have not. But they are all there.
Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Penske Racing all have drivers in the top 10.
Other multicar teams like Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports are absent from the rankings.
But then they have operated at a lower level and their results have shown that – at least to date.
At Kentucky, many of the drivers who rank in the top 10 displayed why they are there.
Roush’s Matt Kenseth again displayed his strategic style, in which he sometimes seems to “prey” rather than charge to the front, was there at the finish and earned seventh place.
It was his 12th top-10 finish in 17 races and it allowed him to keep his grip on No. 1 in the standings – which he has held for five weeks now.
Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin could not run as hard as he would have liked over the final laps in order to save fuel. He did so to finish third at Kentucky and is entrenched in fifth place in the standings. He’s the only Gibbs driver among the top 10.
He thought his Kentucky outing could – should -have been better.
“I ran the least hard as I could all run,” Hamlin said of the closing laps. “I had to save fuel. I could have run harder, really, the whole run and try to give Brad Keselowski a run for his money, but I needed a good finish coming off two straight DNFs.”
In other words, Hamlin did what he had to do and thus held his spot in the standings.
MWR’s Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t won a race this year but his consistency has rewarded him with eighth place in the standings, one spot behind teammate Clint Bowyer.
Truex Jr. finished eighth at Kentucky, his ninth top-10 run of the year. Given that his car did not drive particularly well, he took it.
“It’s tough,” Truex Jr. said. “We weren’t very good all night. We had a good finish – I guess. It pushed like hell all night and they could never fix it.
“But we came out of here still in the top 10 and that’s where we need to be.”
Indeed as one of only two drivers in the top 10 without a win – RCR’s Kevin Harvick, at No. 6, is the other – Truex Jr. has to think points, because he does not have the “wildcard” insurance victory offers.
At Kentucky, these drivers served as examples of what they have often done to help put their teams in the top 10.
Kentucky also offered examples of top-tier drivers who didn’t, or couldn’t, sustain good runs – but slips in one race haven’t booted them from the top 10, yet.
There were two other noteworthy accomplishments at Kentucky, one of which has virtually assured a driver a spot in the Chase.
The other, which involved four drivers, showed why two of them are among the top 10 and the other two may have gained, or maintained, enough momentum to ultimately beat the odds and make the Chase.
When Brad Keselowski won the Quaker State 400, it meant two things: The Penske driver held on to his tenuous No. 10 standing in points.
But, more important, it was his season-leading third victory of the season which, given wins are critical to “wildcard” entry, means he almost certainly will be a championship contender.
There is one other thing: Keselowski’s victory indicated strongly he is ready to move to true NASCAR stardom.
Hendrick Motorsports took four of the top six positions at Kentucky. Kasey Kahne battled back from a loose wheel to finish second, a solid rebound from his previous three weeks during which he could finish no higher than 14
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fourth-place finish was his 13 of what he calls his “best season ever.” He is second in points, has a victory at Michigan that broke a 143-race losing streak and is poised to contend for his first-ever title.
“I’m just proud of the team,” he said. “I hope we can keep it up. I’d like to win another race.”
That he won just two races ago means little to Earnhardt Jr. The time for the next win is now.
“I ain’t going to be as patient this time,” he said.
Jeff Gordon, mired in a season that has seen him suffer team miscues and mechanical maladies, finished fifth. In three races he has now finished fifth and sixth twice.
Jimmie Johnson, the Hendrick driver who won an unprecedented five consecutive championships, finished sixth.
Like Earnhardt Jr., Johnson has 13 top-10 finishes for the season but two victories.
There seems to be little doubt Johnson will be challenging for his sixth title.
Presently, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson are the only Hendrick drivers who should make the Chase without difficulty.
It won’t be the same for Kahne. He’s 14 in points but his one victory – earned at Charlotte – has made him he No. 2 “wildcard” candidate.
“Yeah, a top-five here is good but it’s not going to get us into the Chase,” Kahne said after Kentucky. “We need to win another race or two.”
“But to see how great the Hendrick cars are now and to be a part of that, well, it’s just great.
“All of the guys should be happy. They’ve prepared us some nice cars and great engines.”
Gordon, back in 18 place, has no choice but to win if he’s going to make the Chase. He knows this.
But he also knows his last three outings in his Hendrick cars have helped with confidence and momentum.
“This team has been awesome,” Gordon said of Hendrick. “The cars have definitely shown that. We’re getting the results. We can add some momentum to that.”
Overall in Kentucky we saw some drivers do what they have done all season to be among the top 10.
We saw one driver stake his claim to stardom.
We saw a team, Hendrick Motorsports, illustrate why it is perennially ranked as perhaps NASCAR’s best – and why it clearly should have strong momentum going into Daytona.