Top 10 Head To Sonoma

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The following is a glance at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 in the championship entering Sunday’s Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway (4 p.m. ET, FOX), Race 16 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 – Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 2220. Previous ranking: 2. Johnson finished fourth in Sunday’s DHL 400 at Michigan International Speedway and his series-leading 10th top-five performance allowed him to end Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s seven-week reign at No. 1. Johnson holds a seven-point cushion over Earnhardt Jr. and secures the No. 1 ranking for only the second time in his career. The other occasion came during his 2002 rookie campaign when he led the championship for one week following the Kansas race in September of that season. He also becomes the fourth driver to be ranked No. 1 this season, joining Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch. Johnson, who spent the past six weeks entrenched at No. 2, enters Sonoma this weekend having posted top-five finishes in seven of his last eight races, dating to Martinsville in mid-April. He is seeking his first top-15 finish at Sonoma as he prepares for his third career start at the 1.99-mile road course. His best effort came last season when he finished 17th after starting 37th.

No. 2 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Team: Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Points: 2213 (-7). Previous ranking: 1. Earnhardt Jr. finished 21st at Michigan, marking only his second effort of the season outside of the top 20, and it cost him the No. 1 ranking. Earnhardt Jr., whose other finish outside the top 20 was 35th at Las Vegas, relinquished the No. 1 ranking to Jimmie Johnson and ended a seven-week run atop the standings. Overall, he has held the No. 1 position for a series-leading nine race weeks. Earnhardt Jr., who trails Johnson by seven points, is one of four drivers to be ranked among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 every week this season and owns a streak of 48 consecutive races among that group that dates to last season and ranks second actively only to Matt Kenseth (50). Earnhardt Jr. is chasing his first top-10 finish at Sonoma as he prepares for his fifth career start. He made progress on this 1.99-mile road course last season as he qualified and finished 11th, which were both personal bests. His previous-best qualifying position was 23rd (2002) and previous-best finish was 19th (’01).

No. 3 – Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 2040 (-180). Previous ranking: 3. Kenseth, who had finished outside the top 20 in his last two starts, rebounded at Michigan with an eighth-place finish and maintained his No. 3 ranking. The performance was his 10th top-10 finish of the season, which ranks second in the series to No. 1 Jimmie Johnson and No. 2 Dale Earnhardt Jr., who have 11 each. He remains one of four drivers to be ranked among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Top 10 all season long and has the longest active streak in the series by being ranked among the Top 10 for 50 consecutive races, dating to last season. He trails Earnhardt Jr. by 173 points and Johnson by 180. Kenseth has made four career starts at Sonoma and seeks his first top-10 finish at the 1.99-mile road course. His best finish is 14th, which came last season. He has qualified among the top six in his last two visits, including a best of fourth last season.

No. 4 – Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet). Team: Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 1954 (-266). Previous ranking: 6. Labonte finished eighth at Michigan for his sixth top-10 finish in his last eight races and it resulted in the biggest gain among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 this week. He improved two positions to No. 4, which marks a season-high ranking for him. His previous high was No. 6, which he held as recent as last week. He also moved to 86 points of No. 3 Matt Kenseth heading into Sonoma. Labonte has posted five top-10 finishes in 11 career starts at Sonoma and has been on a tear of late at the 1.99-mile road course. Of those five top-10 efforts, three have come in his last four visits, including ninth last season. His best Sonoma performance is fourth on two occasions (1998, 2000).

No. 5 – Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet). Team Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 1945 (-275). Previous ranking: 5. Stewart finished 24th at Michigan, but maintained the No. 5 ranking for the second consecutive race week and fourth time in the last five weeks. However, No. 6 Jeff Gordon, No. 7 Elliott Sadler and No. 8 Kurt Busch are all just 12 points behind Stewart. He remains one of four drivers to be ranked all season long, including 11 of those 15 race weeks among the top five. Stewart is a former winner at Sonoma (2001) and has not finished outside the top 15 in five career starts. He has three top-10 finishes, including the victory and a runner-up finish in 2002. Last season, he finished 12th. Stewart has been an outstanding qualifier, starting among the top 10 in all five appearances, including a Bud Pole in ’02.

No. 6 – Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 1933 (-287). Previous ranking: 4. Gordon finished 38th at Michigan due to engine woes and fell two positions to No. 6 in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10. Although he led a race-high 81 laps, the finish at Michigan was a season worst and also marked the third time in the past four races he has finished 30th or worse. During that span, he was slipped from No. 3 (following Richmond) to his current ranking. Although he, No. 7 Elliott Sadler and No. 8 Kurt Busch are tied in championship points at 1,933, Gordon takes the highest ranking of the trio based on best season finish (two victories to one each for Sadler and Busch). He is just 12 points behind No. 5 Tony Stewart and 21 behind No. 4 Bobby Labonte heading to Sonoma. Gordon is a three-time winner at Sonoma and one of the premier road racers among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series regulars with a series-best seven wins in 22 career road-course starts. In 11 career starts at Sonoma, he has posted seven top-three finishes, including runner-up last season, and finished outside the top 11 just twice. Gordon has been an outstanding qualifier with three Bud Poles (1998, ’99, ’01) and 10 top-10 starts. He has led at Sonoma on six occasions, including in five of his last six appearances.

No. 7 – Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M’s Ford). Team: Robert Yates Racing. Points: 1933 (-287). Previous ranking: 8. Sadler finished fifth at Michigan for his second top-five finish in the last four races and improved one position to No. 7. Sadler, who was also fifth at Charlotte during that span, remains one of four drivers to be ranked the entire season, including a high of No. 3 following Las Vegas. He, along with No. 6 Jeff Gordon and No. 8 Kurt Busch, has 1,933 championship points and the group trails No. 5 Tony Stewart by just 12 points. Sadler owns one top-10 finish and three among the top 20 in five career starts at Sonoma. His top effort came in 2002 when he finished sixth. Last season, he finished 22nd, his first time outside the top 20 since finishing 38th in 2000.

No. 8 – Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 1933 (-287). Previous ranking: 7. Busch posted his fourth consecutive finish among the top 12 – finishing 11th at Michigan – but it was not enough to keep him from slipping one position to No. 8. He has been among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for the past 14 race weeks in a row, including one week at No. 1. He could see a dramatic move in his ranking with some success at Sonoma since he, No. 7 Elliott Sadler and No. 6 Jeff Gordon all have the same amount of championship points. Busch has netted one top-five finish in three career starts at Sonoma. He finished fourth in 2002 when he led 30 laps, his first at the road course. He has qualified among the top five in his last two starts at Sonoma, including the outside pole in 2002.

No. 9 – Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge). Team: Penske Racing South. Points: 1859 (-361). Previous ranking: 10. Newman, who led the series with eight victories last season, notched his first of this season in Sunday’s DHL 400 at Michigan International Speedway. The win was the 10th of his career and second at Michigan. His last previous win came at Kansas last season, 21 races ago. Newman became the ninth different winner in 15 races this season and improved one position to No. 9 in the Top 10. The victory also ended a drought in which he had finished 24th or worse in the last three races, which dropped him from No. 6 to No. 10 in that three-race span. The win moved him to No. 9 and within 74 points of No. 8 Kurt Busch, No. 7 Elliott Sadler and No. 6 Jeff Gordon, who are tied with the same number of championship points. Newman has adapted quickly to road-course racing with top-10 performances in both of his career starts at Sonoma. He finished ninth in 2002 and topped that effort with a fifth last season.

No. 10 – Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet). Team: Richard Childress Racing. Points: 1847 (-373). Previous ranking: 9. Harvick finished 17th at Michigan and dropped one position to No. 10 in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10. He did extend his streak of running at the finish to 54 consecutive races, which dates to Rockingham in November of 2002. The Michigan effort marked the fourth time in the last five races he has finished outside the top 15, but he remains in the Top 10 for the 10th consecutive race week. He is 12 points behind No. 9 Ryan Newman and 26 ahead of No. 11 Kasey Kahne heading into Sonoma. Harvick made dramatic road-course gains last season in just his third career start at Sonoma as he posted personal bests in qualifying (sixth) and finish (third). Previously, he had qualified no higher than 12th (2001) and finished no better than 14th (’01, ’02).

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