Top 10 Head To Darlington
March 16, 2004 | 10:24 P.M. EST
No. 1 - Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 673.Previous ranking: 1. Kenseth finished sixth in Sunday's Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway for his series-leading fourth top-10 finish in as many races. Kenseth, who held the No. 1 ranking last season for a modern-era record 33 consecutive weeks, has been No. 1 this season for the past two race weeks and currently holds an 82-point advantage over No. 2 Tony Stewart. Dating to last season, Kenseth has been ranked among the top 10 in the championship for 39 consecutive race weeks. The streak ranks first among active drivers in the series. Kenseth has three top-10 finishes in nine career starts at Darlington, and all of them have come in this event. He finished sixth in the spring of 2000 and posted consecutive eighth-place performances in the spring races of 2002 and 2003.
No. 2 - Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet). Team Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 591 (-82). Previous ranking: 2. Stewart finished seventh at Atlanta for his third top-10 finish in four starts this season. He remains at No. 2 for the second race week in a row and has maintained the ranking for three of the four weeks overall. Stewart, who gained 10 bonus points at Atlanta (five for leading a lap, 10 for most laps led), gained six points on No. 1 Matt Kenseth and trails by 82. He is one of five drivers who have been ranked among the top 10 each week through the first four races. Stewart has registered six top-10 finishes in 10 career starts at Darlington, including 10th in this event last season. Of those six top-10 efforts, three have come in his last five appearances.
No. 3 - Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Team: Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Points: 583 (-90). Previous ranking: 7. Earnhardt Jr. won Sunday's Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta for his second win of the season and 11th of his career. He joins Kenseth as the only multiple winner of the young season and has posted top-five finishes in three of his four starts. Earnhardt, the Daytona 500 winner who held the No. 1 ranking for the first two races of the season, improved four positions with the win to move to No. 3. He is one of five drivers who has ranked among the top 10 all season and has been in the top 10 for 37 consecutive weeks dating to last season, the second-longest active streak in the series. Earnhardt Jr. has two top-10 finishes in eight career starts at Darlington, but both have come in his last two appearances in the spring race. He finished fourth in this event in 2002 and sixth last season, when he led a personal-best 91 laps.
No. 4 - Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge). Team: Evernham Motorsports. Points: 550 (-123). Previous ranking: 8. Kahne finished third at Atlanta for his third consecutive top-three finish and improved four positions to a season-high No. 4 ranking. He was ranked No. 41 following the season-opening Daytona 500, but is among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for the second consecutive race week following back-to-back runner-up finishes at Rockingham and Las Vegas and his performance at Atlanta. He also extended his lead in the Raybestos Rookie of the Year race as he now holds a 65-42 advantage over Scott Wimmer in the six-driver battle. Kahne is making his first career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series start at Darlington.
No. 5 - Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 543 (-130). Previous ranking: 4. Gordon finished 10th for his third top-10 finish in four starts this season, but fell one position to No. 5. He is one of five drivers who has been ranked among the top-10 through the first four races of the season and has been among the top-10 for 35 consecutive weeks dating to last season. The 2003 performances of Gordon at Darlington were an anomaly. He finished 33rd and 32nd in the spring and fall races, respectively, after recording 14 top-10 finishes in his previous 20 career starts. Among those were six victories, which ranks first among active drivers and third all-time behind David Pearson (10) and Dale Earnhardt (9). Interestingly, only one of those wins has come in the spring race (1996). Gordon has led at least 16 laps in 16 of his last 18 starts at Darlington, and 125 or more in three of his last five.
No. 6 - Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN Industrial Tools Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 527 (-146). Previous ranking: 5. Busch finished 12th at Atlanta - his third consecutive finish among the top 15 - but slipped one position to No. 6. It marks his third consecutive race week among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10, including his season high of No. 5 last week. Busch struggled in his first three career starts at Darlington - finishing no better than 28th - but has rebounded with top-10 finishes in two of his last three starts. Among those was a runner-up finish in this race a year ago, which was a personal best at the 1.366-mile track.
No. 7 - Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge). Team: Evernham Motorsports. Points: 514 (-159). Previous ranking: 14. Mayfield finished runner-up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Atlanta - his best performance since finishing second at Dover in September of last season - to improve seven positions and earn the No. 7 ranking. The move was the second largest of the week and marks the first time Mayfield has been ranked among the top 10 since being No. 8 following the season-opening Daytona 500 last season. Mayfield has six top-10 finishes in 19 career starts at Darlington, and five of those have been among the top five. He enjoyed an impressive run from the spring race of 1998 to the fall of 1999 in which he reeled off four consecutive top-five performances at Darlington. His sixth-place finish in last season’s August event marked his first top-10 effort at Darlington since finishing third in the spring of 2001.
No. 8 - Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford). Team: Robert Yates Racing. Points: 481 (-192). Previous ranking: 3. Sadler finished 29th at Atlanta, which marked the first time this season he has finished outside of the top 20. It cost him five positions in the rankings as he slipped to No. 8. However, he remains one of five drivers who have been ranked among the top 10 every race week thus far. Sadler could not muster a top-10 finish in his first six career starts at Darlington, but has been strong of late with top-10 efforts in three of his last four starts at the 1.366-mile oval. He posted top-10 finishes in both of his starts last season (seventh in the spring, ninth in the fall) and his best finish at Darlington (second) came in this event in 2002. He also led 12 laps in this race a year ago, marking the first time he has led at Darlington.
No. 9 - Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 480 (-193). Previous ranking: 19. Johnson finished fourth at Atlanta to return to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 at No. 9 following a two-race absence. He jumped 10 positions as a result of the season-best performance, which was the biggest gain of the week among the top 10. Johnson has recorded top-10 finishes in three of his four career starts at Darlington. His only miss came in this event last season when he finished 27th. However, he bounced back in the fall with a third-place finish, his first top five at Darlington.
No. 10 - Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet). Team: Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 469 (-204). Previous ranking: 11. Labonte finished 18th at Atlanta and it was enough to move him into the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for the first time this season. He improved one position from No. 11 and moves into the top 10 for the first time since finishing eighth in the 2003 championship. Labonte has nine top-10 finishes, including a victory in the fall of 2000, in 22 career starts at Darlington. He finished 37th in this event last season, but rebounded with a seventh-place effort in his most recent appearance this past fall.
Weeks at No. 1: 2 (tie), Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth.
Most weeks in the Top 10: 4 (tie), Kenseth, Stewart, Sadler, J. Gordon, Earnhardt Jr.
New arrivals in the Top 10: No. 7 Mayfield, No. 9 Johnson, No. 10 B. Labonte.
Biggest gain in the Top 10: No. 9 Johnson, 10 positions.
Dropped out of the Top 10: No. 6 Harvick, No. 9 McMurray, No. 10 Mears.
Closing in on the Top 10: No. 11 Newman, 467 (-2), No. 12 Harvick, 466 (-3), No. 13 Nemechek, 465 (-4), No. 14 W. Burton, 459 (-10), No. 15 Jarrett, 445 (-24).