Like Dale Earnhardt Jr., you had to feel a bit sorry for Brad Keselowski last week.
He had the dominant car at Pocono and was en route to his second win of the season when a piece of plastic debris sucked the air out of his engine and cost him the win.
But Keselowski walked away with his head held high after leading 95 laps and finishing second for the second straight week. Just like he did when he won the championship in 2012, Keselowski is starting to peak as the summer heats up.
“We’re hitting that summer stretch with a lot of momentum,” he said after his runnerup finish.
Keselowski is on the move in our Power Rankings as well, making a significant leap with Earnhardt Jr. right behind him.
1. Jimmie Johnson (Last week: 1)
Johnson rocketed to the top of our rankings with back-to-back wins and dominating performances at Charlotte and Dover. He stays there by showing why he has won six Cup championships at Pocono. After a spin on pit road and damage to his car dropped him to 30th, his Hendrick team regrouped, made repairs and Johnson rallied to finish sixth.
Though such comebacks and top-10 finishes don’t mean as much right now under the new Chase rules, they will when it’s crunch time.
2. Brad Keselowski (5)
Keselowski has led 40 or more laps in half the races this season, but has finished all over the board thanks to misfortune or pit strategy. He’s had the speed to win multiple races, but his strategy just hasn’t worked out. The speed will be more important than strategy come Chase time.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8)
Earnhardt won his second race of the season for the first time since 2004, and that is significant for both his struggles over the past 10 years and his resurgence with Hendrick Motorsports. Naysayers may claim that he lucked into it, but he was there, challenging for the lead when Keselowski had his problems, and that is how you win races. The important thing is that Earnhardt and his team are now competitive enough to be in position to win. More may come their way.
In fact, he has a good change to make it two in a row at Michigan.
4. Jeff Gordon (3)
Gordon has fallen off a bit since his win at Kansas and since his recurring back problems at Charlotte. But he keeps clicking off top-10 finishes and that was enough to regain the points lead at Pocono.
5. Kevin Harvick (4)
Harvick is having feelings quite opposite from Earnhardt. While Earnhardt fell into a victory, Harvick once again fell out of one. He had one of the best cars again, but this time a flat tire and vibration felled him. But, like Earnhardt, if Harvick keeps running up front, he’s bound to win again and to continue to be a serious title threat.
6. Matt Kenseth (2)
Pocono is not one of Kenseth’s best tracks and he made a rare mistake there, damaging his car when he ran into the back of Jamie McMurray. It led to a dismal 25th-place finish that cost him the points lead. Kenseth will be looking forward to the more comfortable confines of Michigan this week.
7. Kyle Larson (10)
Larson couldn’t even drive a stick shift until last week, when his team made him drive around in an old Camaro to prepare for Pocono. Boy, that kid sure learns fast. He not only won the ARCA race at the Tricky Triangle, but he finished fifth in the Cup race for his third top-five finish. While rookie rival Austin Dillon fades, Larson is 10th in points and looking like a good bet to make the Chase.
8. Kyle Busch (9)
One day, Busch is going to run into Kasey Kahne one time too many. Apparently, it takes three or four wrecks to make Kahne really, really mad. Busch knocked him into the wall at Pocono, spoiling the day for both of them. Busch survived to finish 12th, but Kahne did not, going home sore both physically and emotionally.
9. Joey Logano (6)
Bad luck is starting to pile up for Logano. His blown engine at Pocono led to his worst finish of the season (40th) and his fourth result of 32nd or worse. He’s got two wins and is safely in the Chase, but his team must solve those problems to be a title contender.
10. Carl Edwards (7)
Edwards has been able to ward off misfortune most of the season, but Lady Luck abandoned him at Pocono, where he got caught up in the Busch-Kahne crash and finished 41st. Like Kenseth and others, Edwards will be glad to move on to the wide-open track at Michigan.
11. Tony Stewart (13)
Give Stewart credit for taking the blame for speeding on pit road after his team has struggled all season. The good news is that Stewart finally looked strong enough to win, leading 24 laps before his penalty left him 13th at the finish. As Stewart gets healthier and the weather gets hotter, he looks poised for a win and possible hot streak.
12. Clint Bowyer (14)
Bowyer finished 11th, but he’s had two straight solid finishes in an up-and-down season. Unlike most drivers, Bowyer might actually be looking two weeks down the road to Sonoma, where he won two years ago.
13. Denny Hamlin (17)
Like Stewart, Hamlin might be on the verge of building some momentum. He won the pole at Pocono and has consecutive top-five finishes for the first time all season. He’s got two wins at Michigan, so the mini-hot streak could continue.
14. Ryan Newman (18)
Newman matched his best finish of the season (seventh) and scored his first top-10 in five races. It’s about time he and his new Richard Childress Racing team turned the corner and stepped things up.
15. Brian Vickers (12)
Vickers had one of the fastest cars in practice but couldn’t maintain track position or the handle on his car. A 19th-place finish was disappointing coming off a blown engine and 43rd-place finish at Dover. Vickers has fallen to 13th in points and is starting to enter the Chase danger zone.
16. Jamie McMurray (20)
McMurray was solid again, finishing 10th at Pocono. His team is improving and starting to find some consistency. But at 23rd in points, he still needs to win.
17. Kasey Kahne (11)
Kahne’s disastrous season just keeps getting worse. His team was out to lunch at a track where they won last year and the wreck with Busch left him with a 42nd-place finish. While his Hendrick teammates have won four straight races, Kahne is reeling. He’s fallen to 21st in the standings and the pressure to win is mounting.
18. Kurt Busch (23)
Busch and his Stewart-Haas team reportedly had a little pow wow before the Pocono race, and it seems to have worked. For the first time in weeks, they put together a solid race and even overcame a bad pit stop to finish third. It was Busch’s third top-five finish of the season and his best since his win at Martinsville. Now the new team must build on it.
19. Greg Biffle (19)
This could be a big week for Biffle. He reportedly is working on putting the finishing touches on a new deal to remain with Roush Fenway Racing. And then he heads to his best track at Michigan, where he has won four times. Winless and 14th in points, Biffle needs something positive to happen.
20. Martin Truex Jr. (25)
After a rough start, Truex may be starting to gel with his new Furniture Row team. His ninth-place finish at Pocono was his second straight top-10. He likely won’t make the Chase on points, but a win is not out of the question.
21. Aric Almirola (15)
Almirola was around the top 10 late in the race, but couldn’t finish it off and faded to 22nd for his worst finish in six weeks. He has a good chance to get back on track at Michigan.
22. Paul Menard (16)
Like Almirola, Menard had an off day after a few solid weeks. Pocono will do that to a team.
23. Austin Dillon (21)
Dillon made a rookie mistake when he got penalized for changing lanes on a restart. He did a nice job overcoming it to finish 17th, but that was his sixth straight finish of 15th or worse.
24. AJ Allmendinger (24)
Allmendinger finished 21st for the second straight week and has been fairly invisible since finishing fifth at Talladega. He’s probably got his eye on that Sonoma road-course race on June 22.
25. Marcos Ambrose (22)
Speaking of road courses … That has to be where Ambrose’s focus is after another disappointing run on a big track. He’s now gone eight straight finishes without a top-10 to fall to 22nd in the standings.