The next eight weeks will have a big say in who makes the Chase
As NASCAR heads to Phoenix, the season begins in earnest
Drivers in the top 10 in points by Talladega usually make the Chase
Jimmie Johnson will contend at Phoenix, but Ryan Newman should win
The hype, the pageantry -- and yes, the blazing fire -- that are the Daytona 500 are now behind us, and with all due respect to the Great American Race, now it's time to ditch the restrictor plates and get the Sprint Cup season underway.
Drivers simply prepare for the 500 differently: the win and a place in history are all that matters. They spend a winter spent fixating on one race that rarely has a bearing on the rest of the schedule. But as they head to Phoenix, the focus turns to building a resume for the Chase.
"Once we get out [of Daytona] then I think a quick start means a lot," said Jimmie Johnson, who is eyeing one of his own after his streak of five consecutive titles was snapped last year. "It reflects on the offseason and what the teams have done there.... Nobody likes to go to [the regular-season finale at] Richmond stressing about that race, and that mindset begins in Phoenix."
If Daytona and restrictor-plate racing are, by nature, a crapshoot, then the next eight weeks are about separation. A run of the intermediate and short tracks make up the schedule -- Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol, Fontana, Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and Richmond -- until the return to restrictor-plate racing May 6 in Talladega.
No one's season is over after this run. You only need to look at Brad Keselowski's summer swoon last year for proof of that, but in the history of the Chase, drivers' performances before Talladega have been telling of who is going to reach the postseason.
In the eight seasons under the Chase format, 74.4 percent of drivers who have been above the points cutoff line have qualified for the Chase. Last season, the first with the two wild card entries, saw nine of the 10 spots that are determined by points filled by drivers who were in the top 10 by Talladega.
So yeah, it's kind of a pivotal stretch.
Aside from Johnson, who has his work cut out for him after a 25-point penalty from Speedweeks, here are five other drivers looking to make a statement before Talladega.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. He's riding the good vibes of a second-place finish at Daytona, keeping Junior Nation on the edge of its collective seat in hopes that his winless skid will soon be over. We've been hearing it for 130 races and counting now, but it could be soon. No, really. Bristol (11.7), Martinsville (13), Texas (14.1) and Richmond (14.4) rank among Earnhardt's top five tracks in career average finish. He's won 12 times on the next nine stops, including five victories at Talladega. If he and crew chief Steve Letarte can put the No. 88 in Victory Lane in the coming weeks, it's not crazy to think we may be talking multiple wins by the time the series leaves 'Dega in May.
Carl Edwards. Daytona didn't give us any real indication of a Denny Hamlin-like hangover -- meaning a poor season after narrowly missing out on the title the previous year. Edwards was on the Daytona pole, finished ninth in the Shootout, fifth in his Duel and wound up eighth in the 500. Traditionally, he's also performed well on the tracks that comprise this next stretch, ranking in the top 10 in career average finish in all but Richmond and Martinsville.
It's consistency from a guy who has always been consistent. But wins, not consistency, won the championship last season for Tony Stewart, who barely edged out Edwards. Will Edwards get more aggressive early on circuits that have been his strong suit to prove he's ready to make up for that 2011 runner-up finish? It could offer a strong glimpse into his mindset.
Denny Hamlin. He made the Chase last season but was never a factor a year after losing out on the title, limping to an average finish of 16, which was his worst as a Cup-regular. But so far, so good for his partnership with Cup-winning crew chief Darian Grubb. Hamlin started 31st in Daytona and led a race-high 57 laps en route to finishing fourth. Was it a sign of things to come? Hamlin has eight combined wins on the next eight tracks (four at Martinsville and two each at Texas and Richmond), but he has struggled at Fontana, with one top 10 in the last four stops, and Phoenix, where his last top 10 was three years ago. Can Grubb help him break out?
Matt Kenseth. The guy who just won the sport's biggest race is looking to make a statement, too? Yep. A 500 winner hasn't qualified for the Chase since Kevin Harvick in 2007. And in the playoff era, only one Daytona winner has won the title, Johnson in '06. Kenseth is a part of that troubled group; he won Daytona and Phoenix in 2009, only to finish 14th in the points. The way Kenseth looked in Speedweeks, winning a Duel and the Great American Race, and the fact that Roush Fenway has largely dominated the series over the past year, leaves little concern with Kenseth. But recent history dictates we'll have to keep close watch on the No. 17.
Brad Keselowski. Was '11 a fluke or is everybody's favorite Twitter fiend ready to join the series' upper echelon? The next two months could be telling. While two of his three wins last season came at Bristol and Kansas, and he's cracked the top 10 at Martinsville, he hasn't been as impressive at Phoenix, where he has a career-high 15th, Las Vegas (26th), Fontana (21st), Texas (14th) and Richmond (12th). He's started out slowly in each of his full-time seasons, and considering the degree of difficulty in duplicating last year's surge -- he rose from 23rd to eighth in the standings behind two wins and eight combined finishes of ninth or better -- Keselowski needs to show progress on those trouble tracks to keep himself in the Chase mix all season.
Ryan Newman. He has rattled off four straight top-five finishes at Phoenix, which includes a win in the spring race in 2010 and a fifth on the repaved and reconfigured surface in November. It would be no surprise to see Johnson, who leads the series in wins (four) and average finish (5.4) at PIR, contend, especially with the added motivation following NASCAR's sanctions, but it's Rocket Man who should be in Victory Lane come Sunday.