Top 10 Head To California
August 31, 2004 | 12:00 A.M. EST
No. 1 – Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 3380. Previous ranking: 1. Gordon finished 14th in Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, marking just the second time over the last nine races he has been unable to register a top-10 finish. He remained at No. 1 for the second consecutive week, but his lead over second-ranked Jimmie Johnson was shaved from 68 points to 24 heading to California. Gordon is a three-time winner at California Speedway, with his most recent triumph coming in May when he led 81 laps after starting 16th. He has posted five top-five finishes in eight career starts and has finished outside the top 15 just once (16th in 2002). Gordon also has led laps in five of his appearances, including a high of 151 en route to his win in 1999. His other victory came in the inaugural race at California in 1997.
No. 2 – Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet). Team: Hendrick Motorsports. Points: 3356 (-24). Previous ranking: 2. Johnson finished third at Bristol to snap a drought of three consecutive finishes of 36th or worse due to engine problems and inch closer to top-ranked Jeff Gordon. With his series-leading 15th top-five finish, Johnson cut the deficit by 44 points to 24. He remains at No. 2 for the second week in a row and has been ranked among the top two for 16 consecutive weeks. Johnson, a native Californian from El Cajon, has been strong in his three career visits to California Speedway with a pair of top-two finishes, including his first career series victory in 2002. He stumbled slightly last season finishing 16th, but rebounded earlier this year with a runner-up finish to Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon. He has led laps in two of his three visits, including 37 in May.
No. 3 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Team: Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Points: 3305 (-75). Previous ranking: 3. Earnhardt Jr. recorded his fourth victory of the season – and 13th of his career – at Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was his second top-five finish in the last three races and may have punctuated an end to his recent slide where he had finished outside the top 20 in five of the previous six races. The win allowed him to close to 51 points of No. 2 Jimmie Johnson and 75 of No. 1 Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt Jr. has a pair of top-10 finishes in five career appearances at California Speedway. His most recent came last season when he finished third, and his best performance was a third in 2001. He led one lap in that event, marking the only time he has led at the 2-mile oval. In his most recent visit in May, he finished 19th.
No. 4 – Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet). Team Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 3195 (-185). Previous ranking: 4. Stewart saw his streak of top-10 finishes end at three as he finished 19th at Bristol. It marked just the second time in the last eight races he has finished outside the top 10 and just the third outside of the top five during that span. He remains at No. 4 for the fourth consecutive week and trails No. 3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 110 points. Fifth-ranked Matt Kenseth has closed to 39 points of his ranking. Stewart notched top-10 finishes in his first three starts at California Speedway, but has been shut out of the top 15 in his three visits since. His best effort during that period came in his most recent appearance in May when he finished 16th. His top effort is fourth, which he recorded in the inaugural 1999 event and matched in 2001.
No. 5 – Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 3156 (-224). Previous ranking: 5. Kenseth finished ninth at Bristol for his third consecutive top-10 finish and fifth in his last six starts. Kenseth, who ranks third in the series with 15 top-10 finishes, remains at No. 5 for the fourth week in a row but closed to 39 points of No. 4 Tony Stewart. Overall, he has been ranked among the top five for 23 consecutive weeks. Kenseth has recorded top-10 finishes in three of his five career starts at California Speedway, including his last two. He finished ninth last season and followed with a fourth earlier this season in May. His best performance came in his first visit to the 2-mile oval, finishing third in 2000. Kenseth, who has not finished outside the top 20 in any of his five starts here, has led laps at California Speedway in four of his five appearances, including a high of 120 in 2000.
No. 6 – Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN Ford). Team: Roush Racing. Points: 3051 (-329). Previous ranking: 6. Busch finished eighth at Bristol for his fourth consecutive top-10 finish and fifth in the last six weeks. It was his 12th top-10 finish of the season and the effort kept him at No. 6 for the second week in a row. He was able to stave off No. 7 Elliott Sadler another week as he clings to a 32-point spread heading into California. Busch has finished among the top two in two of his four career starts at California Speedway. Those performances came consecutively as he finished runner-up in 2002 and followed with a victory in 2003. In his most recent appearance in May, he finished 23rd.
No. 7 – Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford). Team: Robert Yates Racing. Points: 3019 (-361). Previous ranking: 7. Sadler finished fifth at Bristol, allowing him to close on No. 6 Kurt Busch as well as provide some cushion between him and No. 8 Kevin Harvick and No. 9 Bobby Labonte with two races remaining to determine which drivers will earn berths in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. Sadler is 32 points behind Busch and leads Harvick by 96 and Labonte by 100. The performance at Bristol was his sixth top-five finish of the season, which equals his career total from his previous five full seasons. He also has 10 top-10 finishes on the season, which is a new career best as the total surpassed last year's previous high of nine. Sadler has struggled at California Speedway as he has failed to register a top-20 finish in six career starts. His best effort was 21st in his first visit to the speedway in 1999. He finished 22nd in his most recent appearance in May.
No. 8 – Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet). Team: Richard Childress Racing. Points: 2923 (-457). Previous ranking: 8. Harvick finished 24th at Bristol and the finish opened the door for a host of drivers attempting to earn a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. He remains at No. 8 for the third week in a row and has been among the Top 10 for 19 consecutive weeks, but he now has a tenuous hold on the ranking. Harvick has seven drivers within 50 points or less of his position, which includes drivers ranked 11 through 15. No. 9 Bobby Labonte is the closest at four back and No. 14 Dale Jarrett and No. 15 Jamie McMurray are just 50 points behind. Harvick, a native Californian from Bakersfield, had not finished better than 25th in his first three career appearances at California Speedway, but rebounded in his most recent visit in May. He finished ninth and led three laps, the first laps he led at the 2-mile oval since leading two in his first appearance in 2001.
No. 9 – Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet). Team: Joe Gibbs Racing. Points: 2919 (-461). Previous ranking: 9. Labonte finished 16th at Bristol and he also is trying to cling to a berth in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Top 10 with two races left to determine the participants in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. The Bristol finish marked the seventh consecutive race he has not posted a top-10 finish and the gap between him and those outside the Top 10 has closed considerably. Although he trails No. 8 Kevin Harvick by just four points, No. 10 Ryan Newman is just one back, No. 11 Kasey Kahne is 27 back, No. 12 Mark Martin and No. 13 Jeremy Mayfield are 36 behind, and No. 14 Dale Jarrett and No. 15 Jamie McMurray are 46 out. Labonte, however, has been strong at California Speedway with four top-five finishes in his last six starts. That run includes runner-up finishes in 2000 and again in 2003. He also posted a fifth-place finish in his most recent appearance in May. He has three top-10 starts, including a Bud Pole in 2001, but that pole is the only time he has started better than 19th in his last four visits.
No. 10 – Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge). Team: Penske Racing South. Points: 2918 (-462). Previous ranking: 13. Newman finished runner-up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Bristol and it allowed him to make a major move in his quest for a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. The performance, which was only his second top-10 finish over the last nine races, vaulted him three positions to No. 10. He returns to the Top 10 after a two-race absence and this marks his 17th week among the group overall. The good news for Newman is that he trails No. 8 Kevin Harvick by just five points and No. 9 Bobby Labonte by one. The bad news: Five drivers are on his rear bumper for his position with two races remaining to determine the Chase participants. No. 11 Kasey Kahne is just 26 points back, No. 12 Mark Martin and No. 13 Jeremy Mayfield are 35 behind, and No. 14 Dale Jarrett and No. 15 Jamie McMurray are 45 back. Newman will need a strong performance at California to further secure his ranking and he enjoyed his best effort at the 2-mile oval earlier this season. Newman qualified seventh and finished a personal best of third. His previous finishes at California were 14th in 2002 and 42nd (DNF) last season. He has qualified well there with three top-10 starts, including a track-record Bud Pole in 2002.