Top 10 Head To Talladega

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The following is a glance at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 in the championship entering Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway (FOX, 1 p.m. ET), Race 9 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 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Team: Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Points: 1167. Previous ranking: 3. Earnhardt Jr. finished third in the Advance Auto Parts 500 at Martinsville Speedway to overtake Kurt Busch for the No. 1 ranking. The finish – his series-leading fifth top-five performance – moved him from No. 3 to No. 1, five points ahead of No. 2 Busch and 12 ahead of No. 3 Matt Kenseth. It marks the third overall week he has been ranked No. 1 as he led the championship following the first two races of the season. He is one of four drivers to be ranked among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for the entire season, and has been ranked outside the top three just once (No. 7 following Las Vegas). Overall, he has been in the top 10 for 40 consecutive race weeks dating to last season, an active streak that ranks second to only Kenseth. Earnhardt Jr. has been outstanding at Talladega as he enters this weekend’s Aaron’s 499 with a run of six consecutive top-10 finishes at the 2.66-mile oval, including the last five among the top five. That tear includes a track-record four consecutive victories, which began in October of 2001 and concluded in April of 2003. The winning streak came to an end with a runner-up finish in the September event last season. He also has led laps in his last seven starts at Talladega.

No. 2 – Kurt Busch (No. 97 Sharpie Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 1162 (-5). Previous ranking: 1. Busch finished 11th at Martinsville, but the performance was not enough to allow him to maintain his No. 1 ranking for a second consecutive race week. He dropped to No. 2, but is only five points behind No. 1 Dale Earnhardt Jr. The finish at Martinsville ended a season run of consecutive top-10 finishes at three. Busch has been strong at Talladega with four top-10 finishes in six career starts, including three out of the last four. Three of those performances have been among the top five, including a best of third achieved in April of 2001 and matched the following year in the same event. He also has led laps in four of his six starts, including the last three in a row.

No. 3 – Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 1155 (-12). Previous ranking: 2. Kenseth finished eighth at Martinsville for his sixth top-10 finish of the season and a share of the series lead in that category. Despite the finish, he slid one position in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 to No. 3. Kenseth is just 12 points behind No. 2 Kurt Busch and 17 in back of No. 1 Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is one of four drivers ranked in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 all season and has been ranked among the top 10 in the championship for 42 consecutive race weeks dating to last season. The streak ranks first among active drivers in the series. Kenseth has three top-10 finishes in eight career starts at Talladega, including a best of fourth in October of 2001. He has finished outside the top 20 just twice in those eight starts and has led at least one lap in every start at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.

No. 4 – Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 1088 (-79). Previous ranking: 6. Johnson, who was situated at No. 6 for the past three race weeks, finished fourth at Martinsville to move into the top five for the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500. Johnson improved two positions to a season-best No. 4 ranking, topping his No. 5 ranking following the 500. He is 67 points behind No. 3 Matt Kenseth. The effort at Martinsville was his fourth top-10 finish in the past five races, including three of those being inside the top five. Johnson had immediate success at Talladega – winning the pole, leading eight laps and finishing seventh in his first career start in April of 2002 – but has endured some struggles in his three starts since. He has finished 34th or worse in two of those and his best finish was 15th in this event last season. Johnson, however, has been strong on the qualifying side with top-10 starts in all four appearances, including a Bud Pole in his first visit. He also has led in three of the four starts.

No. 5 – Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M’s Ford). Team: Robert Yates Racing. Points 1069 (-98). Previous ranking: 5. Sadler finished 12th at Martinsville and remained at No. 5 for the second consecutive race week. He is one of four drivers to be ranked in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 all season, including a high of No. 3 following Las Vegas. He is 19 points behind No. 4 Jimmie Johnson. Sadler has struggled at Talladega with finishes of 30th or worse in five of his eight career starts. However, he has showed some promise in his last two visits. He started and finished third in this event last season and followed with a Bud Pole in the fall race. Although he finished 30th due to a DNF, he led 23 laps, which was 19 more than he had led in his eight previous starts.

No. 6 – Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet). Team Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 1067 (-100). Previous ranking: 4. Stewart finished 14th at Martinsville and slipped two positions to No. 6 in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10. He is one of four drivers to be ranked all season and his current No. 6 ranking marks just the second time this season he has been ranked outside the top five. He also was No. 6 following Rockingham. He is just two points behind No. 5 Elliott Sadler and 21 behind No. 4 Jimmie Johnson. Stewart has been impressive at Talladega with five top-three finishes in 10 career starts, including a best of second three times. He was runner-up in both races in 2001 and added another in October of 2002. Four of those top-three efforts have come in his last six starts, but his two misses came in this event in 2002 (29th) and last season (25th).

No. 7 – Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 1051 (-116). Previous ranking: 9. Gordon finished sixth at Martinsville for his third top-10 finish in a row on the season and sixth overall, which is tied for the series lead. The performance allowed him to improve two positions to No. 7 as he remains in the top 10 for the second consecutive race week and sixth overall. He trails No. 6 Tony Stewart by 16 points and No. 5 Elliott Sadler by 18. Gordon also won his first Bud Pole of the season at Martinsville and has qualified among the top 10 in six of his eight starts this season. Gordon is a two-time winner at Talladega (July 1996, April 2000) and has registered 12 top-10 finishes overall in 22 career starts. He has four of those in his last five starts, including top-10 performances in both events last season (eighth in April, fifth in September). He has started among the top 10 in 12 of his career starts, including the last four in a row, and has led in 17 of them.

No. 8 – Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge). Team: Penske Racing South. Points: 1010 (-157). Previous ranking: 11. Wallace snapped a 105-race winless streak with a stirring victory in Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts 500 at Martinsville Speedway. The win, his seventh at Martinsville, was the 55th of his career but first since winning April 29, 2001 at California Speedway. It also was the first win of the season for Dodge and first for the manufacturer at Martinsville since Dave Marcis was victorious in 1975. The triumph also vaulted Wallace in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 for the first time this season as he improved three positions from his previous No. 11 ranking. Wallace is 41 points behind No. 7 Jeff Gordon. It is his first time in the top 10 since being ranked No. 10 following Indianapolis in August of last season. Throughout his stellar career, Wallace still is seeking his first victory at a restrictor-plate track. At Talladega, he has mustered 12 top-10 finishes in 42 career starts with a best of fifth coming in July of 1988. He has three of those top-10 efforts in his last seven starts at the 2.66-mile oval, his most recent (ninth) coming in the September event last season. He finished 37th in this race a year ago as a result of a DNF (Did Not Finish).

No. 9 – Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge). Team: Evernham Motorsports. Points: 1007 (-160). Previous ranking: 7. Kahne finished 21st at Martinsville and it was just the third time this season he has finished outside of the top 15. He is tied for second in the series with Jimmie Johnson for top-five finishes (4) and leads the six-driver Raybestos rookie of the year standings by a 34-point margin over Scott Wimmer. Kahne will make his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series start at Talladega, but he has made one appearance at the 2.66-mile oval in the NASCAR Busch Series. Last season in the spring event, Kahne qualified on the outside pole, but finished 38th as he was caught up in a multi-car accident.

No. 10 – Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet). Team: Richard Childress Racing. Points: 1003 (-164). Previous ranking: 8. Harvick finished 19th at Martinsville and slipped two positions in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 to No. 10. It marks his third consecutive race week in the top 10 and sixth overall, which includes a season-high ranking of No. 3 following Rockingham. He is just four points behind No. 9 Kasey Kahne and seven in back of No. 8 Rusty Wallace. However, he has four drivers outside the top 10 within 48 points of his position. After recording just one top-20 finish (12th, April 2001) in his first four career starts at Talladega, Harvick enjoyed a breakthrough last season as he posted top-10 finishes in both races. He started and finished second in this event and followed with a seventh-place effort in the fall. He also has led in his last three appearances.



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